Food Labels - How To Read Them
My nutrition textbook has a section on how to read food labels. Easy. If the object in your hand has a label, do not buy it, do not eat it. Buy local instead, bypass the supermarket altogether.
The point is obvious - the presence of a label means this is a packaged, processed food. Avoid such things. Eat REAL food. Real food does not come with a label.
How realistic is this in practice ? As a general rule it is not so difficult to apply, but there are some tricky exceptions. I buy milk, locally produced but sold in a supermarket, I also buy Greek yoghurt, have no idea where that comes from but can guarantee its not Greece, usually its Tasmania. I buy tinned fish like anchovies for example, the thinking being that wild caught fish in tins is actually better than farm grown fish from the fresh fish counter. All come with labels.
The point is the principle. Remember, this blog is about ethics, our conception of the good life, and my conception does not include packaged food that requires a label to tell you what's in it. Of course, like everyone else, I live in the real world, and in the real world we have to make compromises, we have to do the best we can.
At the same time, if we have an ethical view, then we should fight for it. This is where ethics becomes politics. In my case, I have a political objective, it is this.
I live in a small country town. We have a supermarket, actually two. My goal is that in ten years they will both close down because no one shops there anymore. They get their food from elsewhere.
We live in a meat and dairy producing area, we are also not far from the sea and a fishing port. The idea that we, this community, can locally source our own nutrition needs without a national supermarket chain and all its global logistics management efforts, doesn't seem so unrealistic to my mind. But yes, I recognise this is an ambitious goal.
I believe it is a worthy one. Lets look at some of the things that would have to happen to make this a reality.
Lets start with meat. Local farmers produce a superior product, but its more expensive than what is on offer in the supermarket. It may be that it will always be more expensive, or else the quality will be compromised and there's no real point buying it. So we need our local economy to be strong enough for people to be able to afford to buy local.
We also need them to value the better quality meat enough to pay the extra willingly. I do, but lots don't, so there is an ethical struggle to be fought here as well as an economic one.
There are some other changes that need to happen - raising beef herds needs to be more commercially viable than it is now. Farmers need to be rewarded properly, and perhaps punished if they go the environmentally catastrophic monoculture crop option. (I talk about lettuce growing here) So now we are looking at state and federal government tax incentives.
When it comes to milk, we have more issues. The main problem with milk production as it stands is that it is a bulk commodity. In the supermarkets it sells at a $1 per litre. There is no long term future for local dairy producers at this rate, but so long as they are producing a standardised, bulk item, that is all they are going to get. To get out of this hole, local dairy farms have to go the high road, not the low, they have to produce something of a higher value, independently distributed. Some do this already, but what we really need to break things open is to lift the ban on raw milk.
Raw milk sales are illegal. This is a remnant of the industrial era, the law was passed during the 1920's I believe. At that time the main drive was to standardise quality so that cities could be provided with a safe product, with at least some nutritional value. It seemed to be the best option at the time. Today, the position is totally different. Technological improvements mean, with careful management, that raw milk can be supplied safely in large quantities to urban customers. We also understand, from a nutrition perspective, that far from being dangerous, raw milk is INFINITELY superior to the pasteurised version, so long as it is produced properly. There are challenges, certainly, but these are in fact the opportunity we need - if dairies can do this right, then the potential exists to be rewarded for it through much higher prices.
Alongside the raw product, in the case of both beef and dairy, there are the fermented possibilities. This is where local and individual creativity can excel, producing unique, branded, and high value products, especially for the cities. Cheese makers are doing this already, a lot of people are already on to it, the principle is well established, we just want more, ramp it up.
That's the production angle, how about distribution ? Well, we are talking local here so its really not that great a challenge. I buy my steaks from the high street butcher, who gets it direct from the farm 10km up the road. Its not that hard. Its more of a question of losing our addiction to all the globally sourced goodies available in the supermarket. This is where the ethical choice does come in. We can have available nice pates from France, or we can encourage someone local to make their own version, which may or may not be as good. Its a choice, ethics are always a choice - what matters to us more ? Goose and duck farms do exist in the area btw, so local pate production is also not so far fetched, they may already be around and I just don't know about them.
The supermarket does have something to offer, they wouldn't be so successful if they didn't. They compete on price, and on choice, there is no escaping this. I accept that my political goal means higher prices and less choice, its a price I am willing to pay myself, I don't really buy much at the supermarket these days anyway. I am not trying to force this on anyone, I am not demanding to shut the national chain down, I am just hoping to persuade others to vote with their feet, their wallets, and make a similar ethical choice, so that ultimately the business model of the chain becomes unviable.
I also believe less choice would be a good thing. On what grounds ? I can think of two. First it would mark out our part of the world as unique, different, it would establish our identity, on the basis of the food items we produce, given our climate, topography, history, and culture. It would place us on the map. Second, it would impose a discipline on that identity - it better be good, or else we can just get the supermarket back in, with its global uniformity, where you can buy anything from anywhere, and one branch is exactly the same as every other. So if we don't make some decent pate, and we decide that is something we want, then the door will be open for us to lose what makes us special, our identity.
Bear in mind, we are a newly settled country, my district is really only a hundred years old. The infrastructure we have to allow farming, above all the irrigation system that captures the snow melt, is only decades in existence. But in that short time, we have gone from prizing our farming ability as our greatest asset, the foundation of our communities, to giving it no value whatsoever. After all, we can get whatever we want to eat from a chain, they are all there, both the supermarkets and the fast food outlets, and we consider working the land as something only idiots do, people too stupid to do anything else.
So, next time you look at a food label, maybe you should consider the ethical ingredients...
Put it back where you found it, eat real food, buy local, lets build a viable rural community.