So there I was sitting on the living room couch watching some TV after the big Thanksgiving meal with my some of my wife’s family, and of course I was eating again – this time some “premium butter cookies” from a big, brightly colored tin container. Why should that be remotely blog-worthy?
Here’s why. If you’re a cookie aficionado like me, when you read terms like “butter cookies” and “big, brightly colored tin container” chances are you think the product comes from Denmark. And in fact, you’d be even more likely to come to that conclusion upon seeing that the brand is “Danisa” and that the cookies come from an “original recipe of Danish Specialty Foods APS.” The cover is topped by a European-type monarch’s crown, too.
Imagine my wife’s surprise, then, when she found out (after she came home with them from the supermarket thinking that they’d be a terrific gift for the relatives of Danish descent we saw today) that they’re a “Product of Indonesia.” And despite my decades of work studying the globalization of production (including food manufacturing) and other economic activity, the cookies’ origins threw me for a loop, too – for two reasons. First, I wasn’t aware that Indonesia was such a center of cookie production excellence. And second, Indonesia (as opposed to other very low-cost countries) might have made some sense had this enormous Asian archipelago country ever been controlled by Denmark. But it wasn’t. Its former colonial masters were the Dutch – who are known for some pretty terrific cookies themselves (but unfortunately were notably cruel imperialists).
Upon further investigation, however, I discovered that Indonesia has formidable cookie-making capabilities. Indeed, although Danish Specialty Foods APS is indeed a Copenhagen-based business whose website says it “specializes in Danish butter cookies and owns the right to the brand, Danisa, worldwide,” it also operates an Indonesian facility owned by PT Mayora Indah Tbk.
That Indonesian food conglomerate says its founder “started baking its first biscuits out of a home kitchen in 1948” and has since “grown to become a recognized global company in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods Industry.” And it’s big into the “biscuit, candy, wafer, chocolate, coffee, instant food, beverage and cereal” spaces.
More surprising still: Indonesia has quite the reputation, at least in Asia, for butter cookies in particular. And I’ve got to tell you – these cookies taste just as good as any I’ve had (most of which I assume have come from Denmark, but now I can’t really be sure).
So maybe the doctrine of comparative advantage – the principal economic theory supposedly explaining the superiority of the freest possible global trade over all other trade alternatives – is at work here after all? I suppose. At the same time, the same discipline of mainstream economics that lauds free trade also holds that economies at all levels work best when consumers have the most information available about the products and services they’re examining.
To be clear, American law requires no country-of-origin labels for processed food products like cookies. So the two above companies deserve some credit for offering any “Product of Indonesia” identification at all. At the same time, this label is found on the bottom of the butter cookie tin in type tinier than I’ve ever seen aside from some jewelry inscriptions.
Would my wife have bought the cookies had the brand been “Mayora” rather than “Danisa”? Had the tin cover pictured, say, a Sumatran rhino? Had “Product of Indonesia” been displayed prominently on the lid? Probably not, since she was looking for a gift from Denmark. Might she have picked some up if she just had a hankering for butter cookies, or thought I might? Maybe.
I’m still left
>wondering whether and if so why Denmark itself has lost its butter cookie-making chops – or at least its ability to make the products competitively;
>and thinking that if a company is willing to make a product associated with a country in a country that’s not associated with that country, it shouldn’t make that product’s real origin as inconspicuous as the law allows.
And let’s not forget a final twist to the story: Danish Specialty Foods announced on its website that it was planning to open a factory in China. Of course, it turns out there’s a long butter cookie-making tradition there, too.