Adventures in Ethics and Science

I want a spinach salad.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Lab Cat
    September 27, 2006

    Food choices and industry attutides to consumers is one of my pet peeves. I don’t write about it on my blog as, in some ways, I feel professionally comprised as I work with the food industry.

    I always get frustrated when food industry professionals talk about “consumers” as is if they were a different breed of person. You, I, we are the consumers; that includes food industry professionals.

    The whole reason the GMO situation got out of control in Britain is because Monsanto went in with a “we’re scientists, trust us” without any data. This was after the Mad Cow disease fiasco, when we had, on the News, the Minister of Agriculture feeding his daughter hamburger to prove that beef was safe.

    In Europe, the country of origin is meant to be shown. If not actually on the package, it should at least be on the price label for the food. The latter covers markets and unpackaged food. However, there is a catchall phrase “produce of more than one country”. It wouldn’t take much effort or lose any business if food was labelled with the country of origin in the US.

    Ok rant over for now.

  2. #2 Janne
    September 28, 2006

    Dice a little bacon (just a little; it’s for flavour only), and fry up in a pan. Rinse a bunch of fairly small whole spinach (perhaps 30-35cm long), cut in thirds or thereabouts (keep the leafy end whole and cut the stems in half, more or less). Add into the pan with the bacon. After less than a minute, when the spinach is starting to shrink seriously, add some soy sauce and stir. Take it off the heat, portion it up into small plates and crush sesame seeds between your finger and sprinkle over it. Serve as a side dish.

    Just so you know what you’re missing 🙂

    And yes, place-of-origin and place-of-processing is an excellent idea, as is labeling GMO and use of growth hormones and antibiotics.

  3. #3 Jude
    September 28, 2006

    I have the same spinach craving, in part because I’d already planned a week’s menus with two spinach dishes right before they told us to stop eating spinach.

    I am grateful to see how you are using the word jones as in a severe jones for a spinach salad. I offered an old slide projector to my brother because I thought he might like the lenses (he built two hand-held telescopes for my sons and always seems to find creative uses for lenses). He responded, “I always have a jones for lenses.” I had no idea what that meant, and it is difficult enough to get one email out of him, so I asked various people. No one I knew had any idea what it meant. I decided that it must mean that he has too many lenses, just like the Joneses. Now I realize it means that of course he would like the lens from the old slide projector. Thanks!

  4. #4 Lab Cat
    September 28, 2006

    Can’t we still eat cooked spinach? The heat should destroy the bacteria.

  5. #5 Calladus
    September 28, 2006

    Lab Cat – cooked spinach is why I grew up hating spinach. Our family (and everyone else I knew in Texas) either bought spinach in a can or cooked it into a mush. I never even realized that spinach had leaves until I lived in Asia.

    When I finally had real, fresh spinach I was upset that I’d been cheated all those years, forced to eat that boiled crud. Worse yet, the fresh stuff was better for me too.

    I won’t eat it cooked. I’d rather wait.

  6. #6 William the Coroner
    September 29, 2006

    Oh Piffle. Go ahead and eat the spinach. As long as you’re not immunocompromized or sick in some other way, and wash the darn stuff. Florentine baby!

  7. #7 Kim
    October 2, 2006

    I’m also jonesing big time for a spinach salad! Out here in upstate NY, even the farmers’ markets don’t have autumn spinach, as we got drowned for most of the year and no one’s gardens were intended to be hydroponic in any way, shape, or form! Closest I could get – kale or chard – NOT the same thing at all. My dear geologist spouse picked up some bagged spinach from down South at our local market today, so we’ll have sauted spinach with lots of garlic and pine nuts with dinner tomorrow night (or spinach omelets with the eggs that I buy from my neighbor).

    Sometimes it is GREAT to be living out in the country where I can meet and greet all the local farm animals before I buy them for my freezer! Ooops, to increase Janet’s comfort with the non-vegetarian nature of this post – we also buy all our produce locally (farmers market, orchards, or neighbor’s farm stands).

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