Gonna Spread My Word Standing On This Box

I was reminded of the food industry recently while reading New Yorker on my ride into work on BART. The New Yorker’s financial writer, James Surowiecki, described the consumer finance industry as “an industry which keeping customers confused often seems to be a business strategy”  — and it’s just as fitting a description of our food system.

There’s talk of a new consumer financial protection agency, but to my knowledge, there are no plans for an agency focused on consumer food protection — despite the seemingly endless recalls (yesterday’s recall: 800,000 pounds of ground beef). At least the House passed a pretty decent new food safety bill last week.

So given that there are clearly problems in our food system, how do we, as eaters, make better choices? Going back to the New Yorker quote, how do we become more educated about the food we buy?

Local Options

You probably have some resources in your area, like a good local market. In my experience, a good market can make it easy to make better food choices. Many local markets have very knowledgeable staff, and are more directly connected to their suppliers. (When was the last time you saw an actual butcher at Safeway, or someone who could tell you if the beef they carry was grass fed or even hormone-free?).

Two of my favorite SF grocers, BiRite and Rainbow, both post a list of the eggs they carry and how the eggs are produced. It makes it easy to see what farms are de-beaking the chickens, for example, and what (few) farms are raising chickens on pasture.

The Eatwell Guide may be able to direct you to a local market.

Of course, the shortest supply chain is at the farmer’s market. Often, you can ask the farmer herself how the food she’s selling was grown and how the animals were raised. (And it’s worth asking about food production, even at farmers markets.  At our local market, there are both stands that sell pasture-raised eggs and stands that sell essentially industrially produced eggs.)

Online Resources

The web can also help us decode food labels and better understand where our food comes from.

Dairy – The Cornucopia Institute has this useful report card for organic dairies. You can click on each dairy to learn more about their practices. You’ll find out if the cows are on pasture, for example, or if the cows are given hormones or antibiotics.

Food & Water Watch also has a handy guide to finding rBST-free dairy products. Just click on your state.

Eggs – Egg marketing can be quite deceptive, so it helps to know what terms like ‘cage free’ and ‘organic’ really mean (the short answer: not much). The Humane Society provides a clear guide to egg carton labels.

One important word that isn’t on the Humane Society list is pasture. So far pasture  is one word that means what it says: the chickens don’t just have “access” to the outside, they are outside, on the land, scratching and pecking and doing all the things chickens do.

In the Bay Area, farms that produce pasture eggs include Soul Food, Clark Summit, Marin Sun Farms, and TLC. (TLC is even available at Whole Foods).

Meat – The meat department is another landmine of terms that may not mean what you think. “Natural” sounds good, but it only  means that the meat has been minimally processed, and as this brief article by Bill and Nicholette Niman clarifies, it still may include hormones and antibiotics.

Food & Water Watch explains organic meat requirements and attempts to clear up some more misleading labels.  Even the USDA publishes a list of labels, but to get to common terms like ‘natural’, you first have to get past definitions for thing like “mechanically separated meat” (which  is, apparently “a paste-like and batter-like meat product”. Enough to make one a vegetarian).

My post on finding pasture-raised meat can be found here.

On my reading list: Nicholette’s book, Righteous Porkchopso wish I’d thought of that title! — includes a lot of information on meat labeling.

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