Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Need Time to Process This?

It's been a while since I had a really good ponder on this page (perhaps not long enough ago for some of you!), but over the past week or so I've been mulling some recent tidbits from the world of food news.

First, the recent news about the potential in meat and dairy products from cloned animals set off a firestorm as well as a campaign to stop this technology from reaching grocery shelves. While the USDA has determined that food products from cloned animals cannot be considered "organic" under current guidelines, the FDA is still studying the safety of "cloned" food, and the question of labeling remains. Senator Barbara Mikulski has introduced a bill to require specific labeling on such products, and Kate over at The Accidental Hedonist has a good update on the topic.

For my own part, I find this as troubling as genetically modified organisms, and I've talked with friends with varying views. So first I would say that, no matter what your opinion on "cloned" food (or GMOs, for that matter), labeling is the key element to both consumer choice and corporate responsibility. Not that labeling laws are perfect -- items such as "natural flavors" need not be explained further to reveal what synthetic chemicals were used to create or derive such "natural" flavors in the lab, for example -- but without any attempt at labeling, the public cannot be reasonably informed as to what they choose to ingest. (Some people may choose not to know. I prefer knowing to not knowing. To each his/her own, but at least offer us the choice.)

But to be honest, I personally do not want to see these technologies in our food supply. I see no pressing need for animals to be cloned to augment what food is produced. When's the last time you saw shortages of meat or milk in the supermarket? As far as I can see (and I readily admit I probably don't have all the facts, though I have more than you might think), this is another example of scientists and corporations pursuing technological dreams because we can, without thinking of the long-term consequences.

Like with GMOs, there is an altruistic element to the PR for cloning: "this will help feed the hungry here and across the world!" And, by implication, if you question that, what kind of a cruel, unfeeling person are you? I have a few problems with that tack:

1. If we truly want to help feed the poor in our own country, why don't we provide them with access to better food at a reasonable cost? Why is it that people in inner cities and other economically depressed areas so often have more access to fast food chains and high-priced convenience stores full of processed, nutrient-deprived food products than to decent groceries or farmers' markets where they can purchase fresh fruit and vegetables without going broke? (Do I have statistics on that? No, just my own firsthand observations from nearby cities.)

2. If we truly want to help feed starving people around the world, why aren't we helping them to develop crops and food production techniques better suited to their own bioregions? What good does it do to flood a country with imports of American wheat and corn if it drives the local farmers out of business and into poverty, where they can't afford the food we sell? Why aren't we addressing the question of poverty and the need for self-sufficiency instead? For five or six decades now, we have sent subsidized food relief to a large number of countries and, in many cases, made those people dependent on our largesse -- and yet we grip about other countries "always having their hands out" for more? How much damage has our food policy done over time to cause the starvation we seek to "remedy"?

3. If the corporations' motives are truly pure and altruistic, why patent life? (I'm guessing that since agribusinesses patent GM seeds, they'll probably want to patent cloned animals used for food.) If you want to save lives, wouldn't you want to make the technology as widely available as possible?

Altruism doesn't ring true in regard to these businesses, in my opinion. I can only see one reason for agribusinesses and other corporations to hop on this life-tech bandwagon: the hope of cornering a big market share in order to make a big profit. And while that may be standard operating procedure in capitalism, it doesn't reassure me one bit that these businesses have my -- or your -- health and welfare at heart.

Which brings me to another topic running rampant in recent food news: the number of recalled processed foods due to bacterial contamination. Once again, The Accidental Hedonist, the Ethicurean, and other food bloggers have covered this in more depth than I have or can. In brief, the two most recent recalls involve Peter Pan peanut butter and Oscar Mayer cooked chicken breast strips, but Kate details a longer list of food safety problems with ConAgra (the corporation that holds the Peter Pan brand), and I'm sure she could do the same with the other food processing giants.

That got me to thinking: who are the big food conglomerates, and what brands do they hold? In short, how much of the food market is in the hands of how few? Here's a handful of those giants and their brands, easily found in a Google search:

--Altria (Jell-O, Kraft, Maxwell House, Nabisco, Planters, Ritz, and multiple cigarette brands)
--Cargill (Smuckers, Jif, Crisco, and the patents on several synthesized ingredients)
--ConAgra (Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hunt's, La Choy, Libby's, Peter Pan)
--General Mills (Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Cascadian Farm, Gold Medal, Green Giant, Hamburger Helper, Muir Glen, Pillsbury, Progresso, and several cereal brands)
--Unilever (Bertolli, Hellmann's, Knorr, Lipton, Slim-Fast, Wish Bone)

Despite my listing only a handful of brand names, that's still a vast quantity of food products coming from a small number of conglomerates, and that means that almost every one of us has something from at least one of these corporations in our cupboards, pantries, refrigerators, and/or freezers. Even though I try to cook from scratch as much as possible or use as little processed food as possible, I know that goods from several of these brands are in my home now or have been recently.

So when I read about more food product recalls, I start to wonder just how safe our food supply is overall. So many brands and choices are available to us that if one brand of peanut butter is recalled, we can always switch to another -- but is that one any safer? When these food processing giants are designed to make profits, can we wholly trust them with our health? And when these agribusinesses and conglomerates have such strong influence over national food policy, can we trust that even the government has our best interests in mind?

I don't mean to be an alarmist in this way-too-lengthy post. But I've read an awful lot lately that has raised a number of disturbing questions for me, and I'm not satisfied with the answers I've found thus far.

Does this mean I'll never eat processed food again? I wish not, but I don't think that's realistic given the world I live in.

Will this make me a more cautious and educated consumer? I sure hope so, and I hope it inspires you to educate yourself before you go grocery shopping, too.

Does this mean I'm even more committed to supporting those who produce sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food (SOLE food, according to the Ethicurean)?

Absolutely!

UPDATE: And if all this doesn't have you looking at the labels in the supermarket, Tom Philpott has a good piece on the Gristmill blog about Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the so-called "supermarket to the world," and all the ingredients they provide to all these other conglomerates. Sigh.

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