5 Things You Didn't Know About...

Supermarkets

From Beijing to Brighton, billions of people now can't imagine life without supermarkets. But what forces push us, as we push our carts? 

1. Supermarkets rule the food chain.

A century ago, the companies that dominated the global food trade -- Cargill, Louis Dreyfus, Continental Grain, and Bunge -- were wholesalers. Today, these giants are dwarfed by the supermarkets that govern the global food system from farm to fork. Walmart, the world's largest retailer, has sales greater than 2 percent of U.S. GDP and, with 2.1 million greeters, stock clerks, and logistics officers working at its 8,416 stores from Shenzhen to Shreveport, ranks among the largest employers worldwide -- only China's army has more people on its payroll. Supermarkets first jumped to the developing world in the 1990s; now they account for more than half of food retail sales in Latin America and China.

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2. But this doesn't mean we're all eating the same stuff.

The success in Asia of Carrefour, the French giant superstore chain, didn't come because the famously lactose-intolerant East suddenly developed a hankering for brie. Unlike, say, McDonald's, supermarkets don't simply impose the cultural prejudices of their home countries on others -- Walmarts in Beijing stock live tortoises for turtle soup and proudly tout moisturizer made with sheep placenta (a fabled wrinkle reducer). But supermarkets are big factors in what epidemiologists call the nutrition transition: Local, fresh food is losing out to processed goods that tend to be higher in salt, fats, and sugar -- and far more profitable for retailers. The result? Dramatically rising rates of obesity everywhere.

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3. When it comes to surveillance, the CIA has nothing on supermarkets.

The first supermarket, King Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, guided the shoppers of 1916 through a maze of chicken-wire aisles until they had passed every available item and reached the checkout. Today's supermarket Big Brothers are much more sophisticated: Modern technologies such as radio-frequency identification tagging and data-mining -- Walmart's database is second only in capacity to the Pentagon's -- are used to monitor consumer habits and maximize impulse purchases. So, it's a good bet that the Walton family knows more about the average Chinese person than CIA director Leon Panetta does. It works the other way, too: Wall Street uses spy satellites to check whether Walmart parking lots are full, a measure of the strength of U.S. retail.

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4. Supermarkets don't like poor people.

When the first Carrefours and Tescos landed in Southeast Asia and Latin America, they picked locations in the toniest parts of Bangkok and Buenos Aires. Supermarkets have high costs -- an average store stocks tens of thousands of items -- and low margins: Profit is driven by high-volume purchasing. So, these "big box" stores look for consumers with cars, a significant indicator of wealth in developing countries. The irony is that supermarkets are generally cheaper than other local retailers -- a box of Cheerios can be 40 percent more expensive at the bodega or the dokkan than at the megastore.

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5. Variety is an illusion.

The real, evil genius of supermarkets isn't frozen lasagna -- it's the logistical empire required to move bananas from a plantation in Honduras to your local Whole Foods. Seasonal variety has been sacrificed for ease of transport, and the farms best able to provide a monotony of fruits and vegetables with bruise-resistant flesh and waxy skins have won out. Thankfully, there's a backlash: Urban farmers' markets from New York's Union Square to Tokyo's Shibuya district have mushroomed, and farmers and consumer groups are experimenting with new technologies to distribute local agriculture. These new "super-farmers'-markets" might just be the future of food.

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5 Things You Didn't Know About...

The Flu

The world has virtually wiped out polio, eradicated smallpox, and slowed the spread of HIV/AIDS. But when it comes to the deadly influenza virus, all governments seem to do is panic.  

1. We dodged a bullet last year.

Look at official statistics, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that so-called influenza pandemics are no worse than garden-variety flu. After all, the seasonal influenza virus kills hundreds of thousands of people around the globe each year, while the World Health Organization's official death toll from 2009's H1N1 ("swine flu") stands at just 18,366. But that tally counts only laboratory-confirmed cases, thus vastly understating the threat. In Africa and Asia, millions of transmitted cases and thousands of deaths weren't picked up by developing-world health-care systems; whether the true number of dead is five or 100 times greater is impossible to know. What's more, many people born before 1960, when a virus similar to swine flu disappeared, had significant immunity against it.

2. Prior outbreaks tell us little.

Influenza pandemics are nothing new. Even Hippocrates noted the occurrence of the disease as far back as 412 B.C., and there have been at least 11 documented pandemics in the last 300 years. The nature of the influenza virus, one of the fastest-changing organisms in existence, makes its spread inevitable: Not only can the virus jump species directly, but when two different influenza strains infect the same cell, they can create a new hybrid by reassorting their genes. The H5N1 ("bird flu") virus first jumped directly from birds to humans in 1997. Since then, it has killed 60 percent of the more than 500 people it has infected and shows no signs of disappearing. A more severe influenza pandemic could strike tomorrow, or not for another 50 years.

3. We're still not ready for the big one.

After years of planning and billions of dollars spent preparing for a severe outbreak, we're better off than a decade ago but still a long way from home. Western investment in vaccine manufacturing technology will pay off soon -- but making enough vaccines for the developing world will remain a problem. In February, 95 countries told the World Health Organization that they had no vaccine at all. In June, the U.S. government trashed 40 million expired flu vaccine doses worth an estimated $260 million. Moving vast quantities of stockpiled medicine from countries where flu seems to be waning to those where incidence is on the rise is still difficult. And cuts in public-health spending are reducing governments' ability to handle a surge of patients, while millions of dollars are being wasted on ineffective measures such as airport screening of arriving passengers.

4. Panicky governments make things worse.

Swine flu was a serious threat, but many countries overreacted to the point of irrationality. Egypt, for example, slaughtered its entire pig population; Singapore warned citizens that violating a quarantine order would result in jail time. Mexico, where the 2009 outbreak began, was punished harshly for its transparency: France demanded that the European Union cancel flights to the country, and some U.S. commentators wanted the border shut. In total, the Mexican economy lost nearly $3 billion. This kind of overreaction only encourages governments to keep quiet the next time a virulent flu strain hits.

5. Tech geeks don't have all the answers.

Because flu travels so fast, early detection is a priority. But forget about containment. For all the hype over Google's discovery that rising numbers of search terms like "flu remedy" predict spiking sickness rates weeks ahead of government reports, in a pandemic they actually measure alarm, not disease. At best, this information is of little value: Once individuals show symptoms, they're already contagious. A new "micro-needle" bandage being developed at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology might be more helpful; if it catches on, governments could simply mail citizens their annual shot. Until then, wash your hands and stock up on tissues.