Make Way for Public Markets?

Make Way for Public Markets?

While farmers’ markets are become more common attractions, public markets like Pike Place or the Pittsburgh Public Market are still fairly hard to come by in urban areas.

At a gathering I attended a few years ago in downtown Austin, the breakfast fare said it all. Organic yogurt, locally produced honey, and fresh breakfast tacos broke from the usual offerings of croissants and Danish pastries. This crowd was invested in their food — emotionally and economically — as farmers, chefs, city planners, food activists, non-profits and individuals gathered to learn about the possibility of bringing a public food market to Austin. Like many urban areas across the country, Austin has farmers markets but no public market — yet. Why is that?

The answer requires a brief tour of public market history and our relationship with food. The relationship has always been contentious, as cities all over the world have historically been defined by their food markets and yet have moved their markets farther and farther away. Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back. 

“Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back.”

Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.

Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.

Great, you say. In a digital, industrialized world, we all need more humanity.  

But today’s desire to bring food back to our urban landscape runs counter to the ejection of large public food markets that began in earnest during the mid-19th century when cities began to modernize. City dwellers wanted to leave behind their rough, tough rural lives. What’s more, food production was viewed as a threat to sanitation, a serious problem in the 19th century, when diseases like cholera rolled through urban landscapes. By the 20th century many cities saw their public markets as occupiers of space that could be developed to create more revenue, provide more sanitation and improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

A few of these public markets refused to budge, but now they seem to be on their way out, too. Smithfield meat market in London and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo are both big historic markets that are in the crosshairs of developers and urban improvement programs. Both define their neighborhoods, have historic roots and contribute to the social and economic fabric of their host cities.

London’s Smithfield meat market opened in 1868, and Tsukiji, began its evolution as the world’s largest fish market in 1935. In Smithfield’s case, the City of London owns the land occupied by the market, and the market has come under attack several times during the past few decades because of increasing congestion around the market and the anomaly of the occupation of prime, centrally located space as a place for a wholesale meat market. The history of London’s meat market has been contentious for most of its 800-year history, so this battle for its place in London’s landscape is familiar.

Smithfield Market

Smithfield Market, in London…for now.

Some of Smithfield’s buildings have been deteriorating while the neighborhood has been modernizing and becoming a trendy area for new restaurants and businesses. Plans for a real estate company to redevelop the market were accepted and then scrapped, and now it looks as though the western buildings are to be renovated and become home to the Museum of London.

In Tokyo, the fish market, Tsukiji, has become a tourist attraction, a trend fed by the announcement of its removal nearly two decades ago. The announcement met opposition at first but then gradually gained support, even of the union associated with the market in spite of those who objected the loss of the neighborhood’s culture and history. Costs for the removal have risen but the decision to build a new market outside of the center of Tokyo will most likely stick. The arrival of the Olympic games and the need for the world’s largest fish market to conform to global sanitation requirements are important to Japan’s overall economic and diplomatic status.

In Austin, though, it looks like we’re ready to bring our food back to the city. The St. Elmo Public Market is slated to open in South Austin within a matter of months. This new experiment sits within changing tides of urban development as food markets come and go and attitudes change about how we view food, the countryside, and our public spaces. Are the battles over Smithfield and Tsukiji relevant to cities such as Austin? Or is Austin exceptional in some way that could allow it to break new ground for those who want a closer relationship with their food?

The Meat Business, Inside and Outside Ft. Worth

The Meat Business, Inside and Outside Ft. Worth

The Kimball Art Museum portrays a side of the meat business many visitors to Forth Worth, Texas, don’t see. If you only toured the Stockyards outside the museum, you’d miss the preceding centuries of carnivorous history.

In the late 1580s, Annibale Carracci painted two canvases that give us an idea of how meat fit into urban landscapes during Italy’s colorful Renaissance. By the late 16th century, Renaissance art entered the period of Mannerist painting, which led to the Baroque period, when the ideal proportions of High Renaissance art became exaggerated and even distorted. In the early 1580s painting, The Butcher’s Shop, Carracci’s two butchers and their gory background are examples of less-than-idealistic settings and out-of-proportion humans. The animal bodies outweigh the human bodies, and heads become dwarfed by torsos.

Called genre paintings, these images of everyday life stand in sharp contrast to the mythic portrayals of religious figures that hung in the Italian churches. Carracci, in one of his two paintings of butchers (the other, larger butcher scene is in the Christ Church Collection, Oxford, England), shows us one day — any day — in the life of a 16th-century butcher. He knew their lives because several of his family members were butchers in Bologna. 

“One looks directly at you in defiant confrontation, as if he’s daring you to accept the reality of his profession with all its gore.”

There are two butchers in the Kimball Museum painting. One looks directly at you in defiant confrontation, as if he’s daring you to accept the reality of his profession with all its gore as he holds out a cut of meat for consideration. The other, eyes cast downward toward his knife, is preoccupied with the work of the day. Carracci studied with Titian in Venice, and the latter’s iconic red spills onto the canvas. There’s no blood on the floor — it’s not that messy — but the hanging carcasses are almost like stage backdrops surrounding the two men as they display their art and prepare for the next animal to slay. Nothing glorified here, but everything to see.

Beef Cuts

The carcasses suspended from sturdy meat hooks above the two figures appear to be from sheep. One sheep’s head lies at the feet of one of the butchers, one of its eyes cast in the direction of another sheep hanging above, eviscerated and waiting to be skinned.

A beef carcass dominates the left-hand side of the painting, cut in half as is still the custom for wholesale cuts of meat, which today would include all eight primal cuts. (Those are chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, short plate, brisket and shank.)

We can’t tell from the painting if these are retail or wholesale butchers, but both existed throughout Europe at the time.

Outside the Kimball

Outside the museum are the Fort Worth Stockyards, whose story is more familiar for Americans who know about the role that Forth Worth played in the history and development of the U.S. meat industry. The names of Armour and Swift, written in the embankment that surrounds the Stockyards, tell visitors who made Forth Worth the largest feeder of cattle from the Western ranges.

The entrance to the Fort Worth Stockyards, from

In their new incarnation as a tourist site, the Stockyards entertain visitors with twice-daily reenactments of cattle droving. Texas Longhorns plod silently down the street attended by cowboys located in the traditional positions of a droving team.

Inside the surrounding buildings, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, packing houses practiced the art of butchering in much the same way as those Italian butchers in Carracci’s paintings. Now, in Brooklyn and other foodie destinations, shops like those in the paintings are few but gaining more appeal as consumers demand more transparency between their food (meat in this case) and their plates. Perhaps it’s time for a contemporary painter to record those new Brooklyn butchers — pristine white aprons and all.

Market System: The Case of Early New York

Market System: The Case of Early New York

Petitioned in 1786 by prominent residents of New York City’s far-flung Catharine Street neighborhood, the city’s legislative body, known then as the Common Council, approved the building of Catharine Market.

As was customary, the interested parties furnished the grounds and construction costs. In subsequent decades, local and municipal funds were used to expand the facilities. This blend of local initiative and government response created a successful public market to serve as a community anchor and supply the provisioning needs of a working-class district.

By the late 1810s, Catharine Market — located in lower Manhattan, east of where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands — became one of New York’s most abundant fresh food emporia. Its 47 butchers, 25-plus fishmongers, more than 61 regular farmers and dozens of hucksters and informal vendors, as well as the many grocers who settled nearby, supplied an estimated 25,000 people. Depending on the season and day of the week, 2,000 to 5,000 shoppers visited each day.

Catharine Market was part of a tightly regulated system, which mandated that fresh food — meat in particular — could be sold only at municipally managed and owned marketplaces. As the population exploded from 30,000 to 160,000 between 1790 and 1825, the city responded by expanding the system from six to 11 neighborhood markets.

The market infrastructure of New York in the Early Republic was a smart system in spatial terms: Its facilities reached all areas, ensuring access to supplies for all residents. No matter where one lived a market could be found within a 10-minute walk. This was a critical factor in managing an effective food distribution system when New Yorkers, lacking refrigeration, had to shop as often as twice per week in the winter and up to six times per week in the abundant summer months.

Negotiations between vendors, customers and municipal officials ensured that the markets’ capacity and volume of trade closely corresponded with their neighborhoods’ population size, indicating a match between supply and demand. Overall, the Early Republican model of public markets responded to local demands about opening new markets or upgrading existing ones, and it cost little. Through its collection of fees — excise taxes at the beginning and rents later — the system largely paid for itself.


Between 1790 and 1825, as the population of Lower Manhattan grew, the public markets expanded — both in size and location — to meet the needs of New York residents. No matter where one lived a market could be found within a 10-minute walk, a critical factor in managing an effective food distribution system in the burgeoning urban center.

Critically, the market system provided the city’s main line of defense for food quality. It safeguarded the wholesomeness of supplies by penalizing those who sold decaying and spoiled provisions, while also instituting standards of cleanliness in the daily conditions and practice of food sales. For example, market clerks appointed by the city government enforced quality standards and fair trade practices at each location. Given their large assembly of independent vendors, public markets enabled customers to comparison-shop for price and quality. The vendors also exerted peer pressure, working with market clerks to punish violators of market laws and to uphold their market’s reputation. Moreover, the market butchers, the city’s most elite food purveyors, were artisan tradesmen who handled their vital, perishable goods with skill and care, ensuring high-quality products. Finally, given strict licensing policies and customers’ frequent purchases, neighborhood markets fostered repeated transactions and nurtured trust between buyers and sellers.

Beyond protecting public health, the system also set a baseline of equal access to food. Whether living in wealthier central districts or poorer outlying ones, New Yorkers provisioned their households under similar institutional settings. This continued even as the city grew. Developing a new neighborhood depended on extending this municipal service, funded in part from revenues earned at larger, centrally located markets.

The system was also efficient in not wasting supplies. Markets worked six days a week, from sunrise until early afternoon, except for Saturdays when they stayed open until late evening. On Sundays, only the fish stalls were open. Before refrigeration, the main constraint was perishability, so vendors — including butchers, hucksters and fishmongers who attended the markets daily, and regional farmers from rural New York and New Jersey who came less regularly — brought only as much merchandise as they expected to sell the same day.

Choice sales occurred early in the morning. By 10 a.m., the main business of the market was done. Then poor customers came to purchase cheaper, less desirable goods. At noon, secondary traders were allowed to join in, picking up market leftovers and peddling them at discounted prices after market hours and across the neighboring streets. Waste and byproducts from the key trade of butchering were recycled by an urban economy of noxious trades plied by tanneries and makers of soap, tallow and glue.

As with smart systems today, the success of the market system of early New York depended on the flow of information between key groups. The crux of the matter was the democratic process of petitioning and negotiation. All participants — residents, vendors, city officials — had to continuously (re)negotiate the location, size, layout, building material, basic rules and daily practice of the public markets. The process facilitated communication and coordination between neighborhood-based interests and citywide policies. Despite the messy politics (thanks to fragmented and competing interests), the system worked, because it was participatory, decentralized and coordinated to deliver workable compromises for everyone concerned.

For the model to continue to work, the Common Council had to adhere to its basic principles: that access to food was a public good, that fresh provisions should be sold at publicly managed markets instead of unregulated private shops, and that market facilities should be opened and expanded in response to local needs. Delays in infrastructural investments could undermine the welfare of customers and vendors, potentially jeopardizing the model’s integrity.

Indeed, from the 1830s, the system showed signs of malfunction. Demographic growth, a rising free-market ideology and weakened municipal commitment resulted in inadequate infrastructural expansion. First, unlicensed food sales outside of the municipal markets by street vendors and in private shops increased, chipping away from public market trade. As municipal spending priorities shifted, market construction came to a halt by 1837, leaving urbanizing northern districts without market facilities. In 1843, the city deregulated the food economy, allowing retailers to set up shops anywhere and without much regulatory oversight.

By mid-century, New York’s once-famous public markets were in tatters. Urbanization posed an enormous challenge — the population had skyrocketed to 500,000 by 1850. Yet instead of modernizing the market system, city officials turned to private enterprise to organize food access. Existing markets survived, but the earlier model of public market provisioning disintegrated.

In our own age of heightened debate about the role of government and private enterprise, it is worth recalling that American cities, New York especially, once depended on public market systems to feed their populations. By bringing the trade of life’s necessities under tight municipal regulation and oversight, and balancing the interests of customers and vendors, early New York managed a smart and successful market system that sustained the common good of access to food to all residents.

The Manhattan Refrigeration Company towers over the Gansevoort Market. The company, incorporated in 1894, operated nine cold storage warehouses. By 1906, a network of underground pipes connected the chilled warehouses, providing storage for shipments of perishable food that arrived on the steamers docked at the Chelsea and Gansevoort Piers nearby. “Mechanical refrigeration” was a new invention then. It situated the market as an area for food distribution–related businesses.

Now known as the Gansevoort Market Historic District, this space in today’s Meatpacking District was a food market throughout the 19th century. Near the Hudson River commercial waterfront, Gansevoort Market was ideally situated to transfer meat, dairy and produce from ships to the market and beyond. After the Civil War, the market space expanded and included Skelly & Fogarty’s Centennial Brewery on West 14th Street.

Buyers and sellers of regional produce and dairy also transacted their business there. In 1893, the New York Biscuit Company, which became Nabisco, added to the food-related business that crowded around the market space. You can imagine the combined aromas of manure and biscuits filling the streets.

The Gansevoort Market (1880 to 1928) has always been a mixed-use space, as you can see from this photograph taken in 1900. Low Italianate structures exist next to tall warehouses. Some of the metal canopies built for the transfer of meat into those warehouses still exist, as does some Belgian block paving. The Hudson River Railroad freight yards nearby provided transit for meat and other food items uptown and beyond Manhattan. Beginning in 1869, Cornelius Vanderbilt owned the rail line, along with the New York Central, and expanded the rail network to reach meatpackers in Chicago.

By 1880, other food markets in New York had fallen into disrepair, and vendors filling the streets had become a nuisance to pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. The city decided to create a new market space in the Gansevoort neighborhood to aggregate the commerce of farmers, buyers and sellers into one space. Originally developed for the sale of fruits and vegetables, Gansevoort eventually became the center of the meat market.

Horses transported most of the food from the piers and through the market. Buyers brought their wagons into the market, bringing filth and congestion with them. By 1900, almost 170,000 horses filled Manhattan’s streets. Over 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking companies filled the Gansevoort Market neighborhood, adding to the stench and manure.

How to Make Do in Wartime

How to Make Do in Wartime

Rations. The word itself conjures up images of shortages, insufficiency and want. No fruit. Limited amounts of sugar and flour. Small bits of tough meat. As World War II interrupted agricultural production and food distribution in the United Kingdom, simple staples — nevermind specialty or exotic items — became scarce.

Food rations in England during World War II were hardly luxurious. But helpful hints, recipes and positive, patriotic messaging from the Ministry of Food encouraged citizens and families to feel that their sacrifices were a valuable contribution to the war effort. This painting by Leonora K. Green illustrates the weekly rations for two people.

To keep a healthy population that could contribute to the war effort, the British government, like many other governments before it during tough times, instituted a system of controls that limited, but aimed to equalize, what people could buy — regardless of their socioeconomic status. Along with the rations, the Ministry of Food enlisted home economists to help families effectively manage their food budgets. These experts also offered ideas and recipes for making the most of what was available, both in terms of flavor and satisfaction, but also for national morale. Books and pamphlets from the era encouraged home cooks with reassuring language, inviting a patriotic perspective of the hardships.

While long lines were a daily reality at markets, and meats and treats were in short supply, everyone was entitled to the basics. Each citizen had his or her own ration book. Adults were apportioned a certain quantity of meats, fats, sugars, tea, cheese, eggs and milk (either liquid or powdered). Children were allotted their share and enjoyed the occasional orange or portion of whole milk for their growing bodies. Staying healthy was an important part of the war effort.

Other scarce items were distributed through a points system, which allowed consumers some choice and the ability to splurge on fruits, sweets or finer cuts of meat from time to time.

One of the biggest changes during the war for home cooks was the introduction of “National flour.” Before the war, England imported up to 70 percent of its grains (or cereals, as they were known), but the waterways around the island nation were dangerous and not easily passable. German U-boats regularly attacked ships bound for the U.K. in an effort to starve the Brits into submission.

In 1942, the Ministry of Food introduced National flour, a coarser grind that included 15 percent more whole grain wheat than the refined white flour available before the war. It also contained “diluent” grains — including barley, oats and rye — and powdered milk for additional calcium. The government’s goal was twofold: reduce import losses and improve the health of Britons, “even under the handicap of war.”

Food-related messaging from the Ministry of Food reminded consumers why they were sacrificing and encouraged good eating habits, despite the hardships.

For a population that loves its baked goods, National flour and the tough, grayish “National loaf” — the only bread available in bakeries — took some getting used to. The Ministry’s home economists published leaflets and newspaper columns with handy hints:

Cooking Hints for National Flour

National flour can be used just as well as white flour in cakes, puddings, pastry, for thickening soups and stews, but remember the following points: —
1. Use a little more liquid for mixing, i.e. mix to a softer consistency.
2. Bake, boil or steam a little longer.
3. Add a little more seasoning to savoury dishes.
4. Add more salt and water when making bread.
5. Use a little extra flour for thickening sauces.
6. Use a little less sugar for sweet dishes.

In fact, the Ministry more actively encouraged the use of an alternative and much more readily available ingredient for its population’s pastry needs: potatoes.

Song of Potato Pete

Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato (in a salad) cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships!

English food bloggers have shared their experiences cooking with wartime rations. And watch a charming newsreel-style film about rations in Britain during WWII.

The lowly potato was elevated to a key ingredient during the war years. It grew in abundance on the British Isles and was filling during lean years. “Potatoes help to protect you from illness,” says a leaflet from the Ministry of Food. “Potatoes give you warmth and energy. Potatoes are cheap and home-produced. So why stop at serving them once a day? Have them twice, or even three times — for breakfast, dinner and supper.”

P’s for Protection Potatoes afford;
O’s for the Ounces of Energy stored;
T’s for the Tasty, and Vitamins rich in;
A’s for the Art to be learnt in the Kitchen.
T’s for Transport we need not demand;
O’s for old England’s Own Food from the Land;
E’s for the Energy eaten by you;
S’s for the Spuds which will carry us through!

Potatoes were among many edible plants that could be found in British “Victory Gardens.” The government commandeered sports fields and golf courses for planting and encouraged people to use every bit of soil they had access to — from decorative gardens to small edge plots and even containers on apartment rooftops — to cultivate household vegetable and herb gardens. Leeks, turnips and swedes (rutabagas) were popular choices that grew well in the chilly British climate.

In addition to managing ingredients, home cooks also had to worry about conserving fuel. Using the oven for multiple items at once (the casserole AND the pudding) was crucial. Alternative methods for conserving fuel included starting a braise on the stove, then finishing in a cooling oven once the baked goods were done. Or using a hay box, a box with room for a cooking pot, lined with hay and covered; the insulation preserved the heat in the pot for several hours, until the stew or soup was done.

Schoolgirls helped farmers in Buckinghamshire to harvest potatoes. (1943) Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS. Click image to enlarge.

“More or less, this simple but surprisingly little-practiced rule is true in using an oven: try to fill every inch of space in it,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher in “How to Cook a Wolf,” her handbook of sorts for living happily during trying times. “Even if you do not want baked apples for supper, put a pan of them with whatever is baking at from 240 to 400 degrees. They will be all the better for going slowly, but as long as their skins do not scorch they can cook fast. They make a good meal in themselves, with cream if you have any, or milk heated with some cinnamon and nutmeg in it, and buttered toast and tea.”

No ingredient was wasted. The water used to boil vegetables was saved for soup base. Leafy stems from root vegetables were neither tossed nor composted but valued as a vegetable in their own right. The Ministry of Food emphasized the nutritional importance of green veggies and encouraged families to eat one raw vegetable per day.

Creative substitutions were common a way to adapt. “You can make many a good tricked dish, with a few mushrooms, some leftover rice, and a dash of wine, if you have one of those frightening, efficient cans of ‘rich brown meat gravy’ on hand,” Fisher writes, inspiring readers to use what they have to its best effect. “It is spurious, maybe. It is chicanery. But it is economical and useful psychologically, especially if you are three miles from a market and the siren blows just as you are pumping up your bike-tire.”

The British system of rations lasted well beyond the end of World War II, ending in 1954. But the effects of rationing were largely positive. “The rich got less to eat, which did them no harm and the poor, so far as the supply would allow, got a diet adequate for health, with free orange juice, cod liver oil, extra milk and other things for mothers and children,” wrote Lord Boyd Orr, post-war head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in his memoirs.

The nutritional playing field had been leveled across the classes, and Brits had no choice but to eat their vegetables.

Heap on the Cranberry Sauce this Thanksgiving: The Bogs are Booming

Heap on the Cranberry Sauce this Thanksgiving: The Bogs are Booming

In recent years, the fruit’s popularity has drawn more and more growers into the market, and the supply chain has become glutted. Don’t be surprised if you see cranberries showing up in unusual places at unusual times of year.

Cranberries are as American as hot dogs and apple pie. More so, in fact, when you consider that apples are native to Central Asia and hot dogs originated in Germany, while cranberries come from the bogs of North America. Unlike pumpkin pie and turkey, Native Americans had been munching the acidic berries since long before the colonists arrived. But in recent years, the fruit’s popularity has drawn more and more growers into the market, and the supply chain has become glutted.
Photo by Licensed under Creative Commons.

American growers have long been cultivating cranberries, primarily in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon and Rhode Island, and in many parts of Canada. Until about 1930 the market was almost entirely geared toward the fresh fruit, but it’s now a year-round market driven primarily by preserved cranberries, like dried cranberries and canned cranberry sauce. Prices and demand grew steadily, even as improvements to cultivation practices increased supply.

But eventually the market became saturated. Prices peaked at $65 a barrel (or 15 cents a pound) in 1996, luring still more growers into the market before the inevitable crash in 2001, when cranberry prices dropped to $18 a barrel. In 2008, the USDA began purchasing surplus cranberries, primarily in the form of sauce, dried sweetened cranberries and cranberry juice concentrate (a byproduct of the other two), in order to support prices. The agency bought more cranberries in 2016, following a nearly $100 million purchase in 2015. The purchased cranberry products go to school lunches and other institutional kitchens, including food pantries. In 2014, nearly 68 million pounds were routed this way.

Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, represents the heart of cranberry country in a state that produces more than half the world’s crop. Kind has been outspoken about his opinion that the USDA purchases are vitally important to the industry at this sensitive time, but has also cautioned that the industry should not become too used to these purchases, because they will hopefully be phased out. “I keep warning the growers not to become too dependent on the USDA purchasing program,” Kind told Food + City in a phone interview.

While cutting the surplus supply is a tricky political proposition, growing the market, Kind says, is the best way out of the situation. And he sees increased international demand as the best chance of doing so. Currently, 25-30 percent of the crop is being sold overseas, and international demand is growing by 6 percent a year. Kind’s ambitions to grow the market are a big reason why he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) trade deal. Export tariffs will go to zero, he says, and Canada, the world’s second largest cranberry producer, will have a tougher time flooding the U.S. market with cranberries, as import tariffs like the ones Canada uses to keep out American cranberries will be banned. “This will give us greater ability to export to Canada.”

Photo by Keith Weller, USDA-ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Western Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Germany, are the biggest customers. Mexico is a major user too, Kind says. Cranberries are also making their way into Asia, where markets are small but growing.

Kind is also a member of the House Cranberry Caucus, which helped secure $1.6 million in 2015 to be used in growing the cranberry market, including the funding of research into the health benefits of cranberries.

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers’ Association, agrees that there is a lot of potential in the health benefits of cranberry products. But taking advantage of this is problematic in two particular ways, Lochner tells Food + City. For one, the cranberry’s reputation as a treatment for urinary tract infections is not the kind of sexy benefit you want to hang your marketing campaign upon in perpetuity. Lochner is very excited about recent research on proanthocyanidins, which are believed to be responsible for the cranberry’s legendary UTI-fighting ability. Proanthocyanidins act by preventing the bacteria from adhering to tissue, thus preventing an infection from getting established.

“Antibiotic resistance is spreading. Cranberries may hold a partial answer to helping address that issue,” Lochner says. “When the proanthocyanidins are in there the bacteria can’t adhere, so it gets flushed out of the system.” He says there are potential opportunities for cranberries in pharmacological applications, like cranberry powder as a dietary supplement.

But despite the high levels of vitamin C, antioxidants, proanthocyanidins and other beneficial compounds, another health-related challenge that cranberries face is the fact that they are so tart that, for most palates, they must be sweetened in order to be edible. Meanwhile, the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will likely place caps on added sugars for the upcoming rounds of guidelines, which will be in effect for five years.

A prohibition against added sugars, or limits in how many added sugars a person should consume in a day, would send shockwaves down the cranberry supply chain — in particular the USDA purchasing program, which is bound by the dietary guidelines and would be limited in how many cranberry products it could purchase and legally feed to the public.

Lochner bristles at this possibility, which he calls “one of the largest issues we face in the marketplace.”  The labeling of added sugars “has no basis in science,” he says. “Physiologically there is no difference between how sugars are digested.”

“Cranberry products are not empty calories,” he says.

But if the USDA does, in fact, put limits on added sugars, the cranberry industry will find other ways to move their cranberries. Juice blends, for example, where the other juices contribute their sweetness without being considered added sugars.
Whatever the final solution, cranberry farmers and their representatives will be working hard to ensure that it won’t come in the form of production cuts.

“You can’t just turn off the spigot, as it’s a perennial crop,” Lochner says. “Canada-grown fruit makes US efforts to limit production irrelevant, so supply management is off the table. Growing demand is what we’re trying to do.”

So, don’t be surprised to see cranberries showing up in unexpected places, in unusual times of the year. Cranberry popsicles, anyone?