Integration and Restructuring of the Food Industry. the Case of Frozen Vegetables in Mexico

Article excerpt


Agriculture is being restructured around the world: the types of commodities produced, the way in which production is organized, and the livelihoods which it engenders are all changing (Raynolds 1997:119). This restructuring has been influenced by big transnational corporations trough international agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and The World Bank which imposed structural adjustment policies on Third World debtor countries since the 1980's (Raynolds 1997:122; Haubert 1997:14; McMichael 1988:125,152; Teubal 1998:35; Llambi 1994a:193, 1994b:184).

Within the framework of those policies, agro-exports of nontraditional products were promoted, particularly horticultural products. In Mexico, the frozen vegetables production oriented toward the United States market has been very dynamic since the mid 1980's, related to the growing globalization and consumption of fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen and processed). In 1988, these products represented the fourth most important commodity group in world agricultural trade (Islam 1990), found on a year-around basis on the tables of consumers in the industrialized countries. As Watts (1994:3) points out; "sitting down to supper in a North American home - whether the fare is a TV dinner, a homemade salad, or nouvelle cuisine embellished with "designer vegetables" - is to engage in an act of global consumption. Fresh, frozen, and processed fruit and vegetables circulate in worldwide commodity systems".

Per capita consumption of frozen vegetables in the United States expanded by 21 percent between 1985 and 2000 (USDA 2000), where Mexico provides two-thirds of the import value of those commodities. Consumers are demanding easy-to-prepare ("convenience") food, greater quality, product diversity and more value-added product forms (Cook 1998:2). This has been stimulated by numerous demographic and lifestyle trends including changing income distribution, entry of women into the work force in record numbers, and consequently, more eating outside the home, aging of population, decreasing household size, increase in ethnic expression, and the growth of public knowledge about health and fitness (Cook 1990:67; Friedland 1994:220). On the supply side, the expansion in consumption has been possible owing to major advances in post-harvest handling technology which have improved control over the cold chain: the development of biotechnology (new varieties more resistant to storage and transport), trade liberalization, improvements in marketing structures, availability of produce from sources all over the world on a year-around basis, and the existence of a certain infrastructure at home (refrigeration, microwave ovens) (Cook 1998:2; Aguiar et al. 1998:5).

In this article, I study the structure and changes in the Mexican industry of frozen vegetables since the mid-1980. This necessarily implies an analysis of the deep relation that exists between this productive sector and the economy of the United States, whose consumption tendencies as well as the development of the retail food sector are determinant elements of this commodity chain in both countries.

According to some authors (Burch & Goss 1999), there are few studies about the role of the retail sector in the restructuring of the agrofood processing system. However, there are many cases that prove how that sector controls not only the industrial activity but also the agricultural process, as it happens in the case examined in this paper.

The general approach of the case study presented here included participant observation and semi-structured interviews conducted in the eleven agro-industries located in the central part of Mexico (the state of Guanajuato). Most of the data I present is based on a field study in this region where many growers, laborers and technicians were interviewed.

The paper begins with a brief overview of the world market of frozen vegetables and the specific situation of Mexico. …