I can’t remember a time I have had a more severe jones for a spinach salad than the last few days. The perfect balance of crisp and earthy and creamy, whose eating would be not merely a mechanical refueling of my body, but a transcendant experience — is that too much to ask?
Well, during a spinach-borne outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 it is. But, while I dream of spinach (and grade papers), I’m thinking of how information (or lack of information) about our foods plays a role in our ability to make choices about what to eat.
I was already hungry for spinach when I caught an update on the spinach story on All Things Considered during my drive home yesterday. As the FDA detectives are trying to pinpoint the source of the current E. coli contamination, some people are suggesting that stores ought to label spinach and other produce with information about where it was grown (and where it was processed, because they don’t grow the salad greens in those handy plastic bags). It wasn’t clear whether there would be a lot of enthusiasm for this labeling from supermarkets. I’m guessing they’d resist unless it was the only way to sell spinach again, or they could figure out a way to charge a premium price for produce grown in certain growing regions. As a consumer, I’d be really happy to know just where the produce was grown and processed, but for reasons that have more to do with reducing transportation-related impacts of my food choices.
Besides, given the multiple scenarios the experts have imagined for how the spinach in this outbreak could have been contaminated, there’s nothing like a guarantee that spinach grown somewhere else couldn’t be vulnerable to contamination, too. Geography isn’t what mucks up your produce. So maybe you’d want, along with information about the produce’s source, information about the practices at the farm and the processing plant — what’s the sanitation like, can livestock and wildlife wander onto the fields of greens to relieve themselves, is there regular inspection of the water used for irrigation, etc.
You’re not going to fit all that on the spinach bag. But these are questions you might just want answered. Can the produce clerk give you the answers? Do you have to do research before you even go to the supermarket? Could the government actually impose some sensible regulations here and set up a reliable inspection system? (“We’re from the government and we’re here to help …”)
Meanwhile, over in the dairy case, there was another story on All Things Considered about a decision by some big New England dairies to stop buying milk from dairy farmers who use artificial growth hormones. Out here on the left coast, a number of producers and stores have known for a while that there are consumers who will opt for dairy products made from milk that was not coaxed out of the cow with artificial growth hormones, and indeed will pay a little more for them (but not the premium you’d pay for full-on organic milk or cheese). But some of the New England dairy farmers are pissed. Basically, they say, the FDA has approved use of these artificial growth hormones, and using them doesn’t make any detectable difference to the quality of the milk. Plus, using them gets you the additional gallons of output a struggling farmer needs just to break even. So, those stupid consumers are going to hurt small family farmers.
And here, I need to ask, aren’t consumer preferences somehow an important component of these “free markets” I keep hearing so much about? If the consumers prefer milk produced without X — for whatever reason — does that not create a market incentive to produce milk without X? (And, by the way, doesn’t the cost of doing business change when you don’t have to keep buying X to produce that milk?) If producing milk without X is more expensive per gallon than producing milk with X, but the consumers still prefer the milk without X, is this not a place where passing the increased cost on to the consumer is appropriate?
I buy my dairy products in a store where all the dairy products are produced without rBST, and I fully believe the prominent labeling on all these products that there is absolutely no demonstrable difference for human health between these and dairy products produced with rBST. But, as I’ve noted before, my purchasing decisions are not one dimensional. I avoid the rBST dairy because I don’t want to support a crazy system where dairy farmers feel they have to use it to produce enough milk to pay the bills … but there’s so much milk produced that a significant amount of it expires on the shelves or otherwise goes to waste. Producing less and selling it for what it’s worth might be more humane for the small producer.
And this is where I get a little irate about people who want to limit the information available to the consumer “for the consumer’s own good”. Those silly consumers don’t realize that milk is milk! Those silly consumers have been tricked into thinking GMOs are “Frankenfoods”!
Those consumers, my friends, make their own choices for all sorts of good reasons. If you aren’t OK with that, maybe selling things to them is not a good career choice.
Obviously there’s a limit to how much information you can cram on the sticker on the apple. But taking active steps to hide information from consumers, or to limit consumer choice because it’s inconvenient for the people who have something to sell (and that includes the people selling the rBST) strikes me as anti-competitive paternalistic crap, and I’d prefer that you keep it off my spinach.