Once You Label Me, You Negate Me

Whole Foods announced this week that it would label all genetically modified food in its stores by 2018.  This is a good start–but it’s just that: a start.  I hope it encourages continued discussion about the food industry and our right to know what we’re eating.  I doubt we’ll ever get total transparency from the food and biotechnology industries, but it’s a good goal.  I’ve decided not to wait, though–I’ve made my own food labels!  You can print them on sticker paper if you’d like and join me in my labeling adventures.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

The food industry has been capitalizing on labels for a long time and I think we should call them out on it.  You can’t just go into the grocery store and buy eggs–there’s free-range, cage free, organic, natural, Omega 3, fresh. . .

They’ve also capitalized on America’s obsession with “nutrition.”

By encouraging Americans to buy food because it’s “low-fat” or “organic” as opposed to delicious, in-season and fresh or because we trust the person who made it, the food industry, whether intentionally or not, is on its way to making real food obsolete.

Once you put a label like “organic” or even “GMO free” on something–you’re only going to see the label.  You miss the list of 20 ingredients you can’t pronounce on the back of the box.  You don’t see the excess packaging, you don’t see the money and political sway that the company has wielded to get that label.  Not only does the quality of the food become meaningless, so does the label.

Labels should not tell us that a food is as it should be—organic, natural, fresh or grass fed.  We should be able to take this for granted.  Labels should be used to warn us of adulterants and protect us from ingredients and practices we wish to avoid.

In an ideal United States, we could assume our food was made with care, skill and humane animal husbandry by people who take pride in their work and want to make quality food for their community.

Food labels tell us what our food is–and if we need to know what our food is, we might need to rethink how we shop and eat.  Made with Whole Grains, Natural,  Heart Healthy–these labels are proof that we take for granted that most of our food is processed and unhealthy–do we really need a package to tell us what’s natural and healthy (hint: if it’s in the package, it’s not)?

Labeling has legitimized artificial food and allowed the food industry to capitalize on nutritionism and people’s resulting confusion about diet and health.  Real food has been pushed to the sidelines of every major grocery store in the country, replaced by aisle upon aisle of packaged food with labels like “natural” and “wholesome.”  We’ve negated the truly natural and wholesome by believing the food industry’s lie that things with colorful labels and pictures of cartoon characters on the box are real foods.

The illusion of choice in the supermarket has blinded us to the fact that our food choices are more limited now than they’ve ever been.  Most of what’s in our supermarkets is made of corn.  Most of this corn (often genetically modified) is one of very few varieties mass produced in this country.  And most of this seed is produced by a handful of mega corporations who also sell the potentially dangerous chemicals we must treat the corn with in order for the plants to survive.

Our choices have gotten fewer every decade for the last century.

Instead of hundreds of varieties of apples–we get three.  Instead of beautiful, colorful, misshapen tomatoes, we get one of two varieties bred (at the expense of all flavor) to travel long distances and be perfectly red and uniform.

Labeling perpetuates this myth of choice.  We walk down the aisles and see “sugar-free,”  “low-sodium,” “gluten free”  and we think, “Wow, isn’t it great that we have so many healthy choices now.”  In reality, nearly all of this food, to varying degrees, is bad for us.

We should challenge the paradigm maintained by the food industry.  Our food shouldn’t need packages or labels–and packaged food should be labeled for what it is–bad for your health.

We shouldn’t just accept that our food has unrecognizable ingredients and ingredients never before considered edible.  We should demand a food system that encourages health and well-being for all Americans instead of huge profits for the food and biotechnology industries.  We’ve done this for most of human history and it’s worked out okay (at least for people who have enough food in the first place).  It’s only since the advent of industrialized food that we’ve had to put any effort into figuring out what’s in our food.

To fix our food system, the first thing we need to do is stop eating things that need labels.  Stop buying packaged food.  Stop buying meat and eggs from the grocery store.  Buy your food from people you know, from farmers’ markets, neighbors.  Grow your own food.

We may have to give up cheap hamburger and chicken.  We may have to give up some conveniences.  But these “sacrifices” will improve all our lives.  We’ll be healthier and we’ll be able to give our children a future less compromised by global warming, super bugs or chronic disease.

What Michael Pollan dubbed “The Dinner Party” is still in its infancy.  Our voices are being heard, though.  Outspent by 3 to one, the backers of Prop 37 last fall took on the biotech Goliaths and posed a real threat.

The verdict is still out on whether GMOs are a danger to our health.  That’s not the issue, though.  The issue is that corporations like Monsanto who control the patents on these GMOs also control the “scientific” studies.  This is an issue about our right to know what’s in our food and about who gets to decide if something is safe or not.  This also applies to nutrition labels and health claims on packaged foods.

Let’s use the food industry’s tactics against them.  If we label processed food for what it really is, people will begin to see it that way.  Consumer’s will see it’s all the same.  It’s not really food–just different configurations of corn, soy and artificial ingredients.

I keep thinking about my favorite scene in Wayne’s World when Wayne asks Priscilla (in perfect Cantonese), “Was is Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, “Once you label me, you negate me?”  I think Kierkegaard and Wayne were talking about the individual, but maybe we can apply it to food, too.  If we put honest labels on packages, we can negate the idea that packaged food is healthy food.  Once this illusion is destroyed, we’ll all be able to make better choices for our families.

A Godzillian articles I really want you to read:

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This one goes out to the food conspiracists I love:

As I was researching the evils of the National Dairy Council and the USDA (blog forthcoming), I stumbled upon this great New York Times article from late last year.  In “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” Lucy Komisar exposes the unholy alliance between food industry giants and the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.

The National School Lunch Program uses agricultural surplus (most of which is turned into processed food) to feed our children.  With increasing privatization of school lunch programs, the abuses abound.

According to Komisar, this privatization has led not only to local producers being cut out of the equation, but also to outright corruption. For example, food service management companies like Sodexo have been sued for pocketing “rebates” from food processors.

The private management companies work with large producers like Tyson and Pilgrim’s (two of the most egregious agribusiness corporations on the planet) to take the government’s free food and process it, making it into tasteless, unhealthy junk food.

Privatization is also associated with lower wages for food service workers and lower test scores for children.

Government agricultural subsidies like those that supply the school lunch program hurt children in other ways, too.

Recently, a study by CALPRIG (California Public Interest Research Group) found that (you’d better sit down for this one) the U.S. government subsidizes junk food far more than healthy food.  I love the tongue in cheek (but accurate) statistics in the report.  My favorite is concerning the lack of subsidies for fruit and vegetables (apples are the only fruit that is significantly subsidized):

If subsidies for junk food ingredients went directly to taxpayers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 141 million taxpayers would receive $7.58 to spend on junk food and 27 cents to spend on apples each year—enough to buy 21 Twinkies but just half of one Red Delicious apple.

I don’t know if the government should subsidize produce and tax junk food (a step that recent studies show is working), but I do know we should stop subsidizing commodities and processed food.  Most importantly, we need to get the food industry giants out of our schools.  The conflict of interest the USDA creates in working with big agribusiness and the processed food industry is a serious danger to our health and our democracy.  When it involves children, it is even more insidious.

On a brighter note, in many ways, things are getting better.  The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (the Child Nutrition Act), signed into law by President Obama in December of 2010, made several improvements to the federal school lunch program.  It sets aside money for farm to school programs and school gardens and it provides more money for fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains.

There were quite a few disappointing consessions to the food industry, however.  Companies like Sodexo and ConAgra lobbied against reductions in processed food and, according to Mark Bittman in the NYT:

Lobbyists for the potato industry made a fuss and the Senate stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen, and that concession is integrated into the new rules: Potatoes will still be unlimited[1]. Similarly, you might remember that Congress and industry worked together to make sure that the tomato paste on pizza would continue to qualify it as a vegetable.

The law comes up for financing every five years, so we need to prepare for another fight against the food industry.  Until then, some states are taking matters into their own hands.

Many California districts, for example, have forged ahead with their own local school nutrition initiatives like salad bars, scratch cooking and using local food.

These plans have proven lucrative too, demonstrating that healthy eating in schools doesn’t have to cost more.  And I’d much rather our schools profit than the food industry.

It is up to individual school districts to fight for reform on their own.  We can’t wait for the federal government to do it for us.  While we are not waiting for them, however, we can ask our representatives to make sure that schools’ access to fresh, local food is addressed in the Farm Bill Reauthorization Act this September.