Research Paper

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Katy Mohr
L&CS 122
Monica Fitzgerald
The Honest Food Movement: An Analysis of the Implications on Misleading Labels to
Human Health and the Environment
Marketing ploys are ubiquitous in the twenty first century. Stores have learned the exact
adjectives that customers want to hear, and are not afraid to use them. However, most consumers
do not understand that many of the adjectives used, such as healthy, natural or vegetarian fed, do
not necessarily mean what they think they mean, and almost never have the “healthful”
implications. There are four Grocery stores in Lafayette, California. If the labels at each are
examined it can be seen that they all describe their food in varying ways, even though the food
itself is often be extremely similar in quality. This supermarket duplicity has been going on since
the industrialization of agriculture in 1906, and it has dire implications on both human health and
the environment. There is a national disorder in Americans concerning the way Americans look
at, produce, buy, and eat food, as examined by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivores
Dilemma. This eating disorder concerns the consumption of corn, which is marketed as healthy
feed for animals because it is cheap, and is thus widespread in markets. However, corn fed meat
is bad for both humans and the environment. If legal structures are not put into place to regulate
how products are marketed and how animals and produce are treated on farms, it means sick, fat
humans and denigrated land in America. Producers are manipulative in their marketing which
exacerbates this eating disorder, and stringent labeling regulations must be put in to place along
with consumer education and a change in government subsidy action to improve it.
The labeling of food has evolved over time from something wholly unnecessary to
something clothed in deceit. Prior to the industrialization of the agricultural industry, consumers
knew the producers they were buying from and for the most part knew the quality of the product
they were buying. However, after the industrialization of agriculture, food was made in bulk and
traveled much farther, so the consumer often did not have a complete knowledge of whom the
food was coming from, or what their standards were. This led to an asymmetry in the agricultural
market, in which the producers have more power than the consumers. This asymmetry ultimately
led to the first anti-misbranding statute to be put in to place in 1906.1 While this law did not
require labels to include specific information such as ingredients or manufacturer name, it did
specifically prohibit “false or misleading statements on food labels.”2 While this act was too
vague to ensure consumers knew what they were eating, it did give the FDA more authority. The
Beef Inspection Act also passed this same year and placed even stricter regulations on beef
labels, mandating the inclusion of manufacturer, distributor, and a quality assurance given by a
USDA seal of approval. The Gould Amendment was added in 1913 to packaged food, which
defined federally that companies must label all products with a quality assurance.3 In 1921, the
Beef Inspection Act was amended federally to include this as well.
After the industrialization of the food market, labeling laws became more and more
stringent. In response to the issues with the vagueness of the original legislature, a new document
was written in 1938 that included all misrepresentations, including those of “origin, identity,
quality, effect, or other descriptive quality.”4 There are now 200 identifiers for food. This
legislature was extremely comprehensive in nature, and solved many of the issues from the
initial document, and prevented producers from using use “fanciful, high-sounding names for
1
Mario Moore, "Food Labeling Regulation: A Historical and Comparative Survey" Digital
Access to Scholarship at Harvard, (2001).
2 Moore
3 Moore
4 Moore
products composed largely of cheap ingredients.”5 Between 1940 and 1970, many amendments
were passed to include foods such as poultry, margarine, and baby food. The next big change in
the legislature came in 1973, when the FDA specified standards for nutritional labeling on foods,
although at this time they were voluntary.
Over the next decade food regulations became even stricter. In the first half of the year in
1989, forty percent of food had health labels.6 These labeling requirements gave consumers more
power and allowed them to have more control over the prices of the food. Amendments were
added for health purposes, such as heart checks on food and repealing the saccharine information
necessity over the net ten years. In 2002, certified organic products were labeled as organic, and
country of origin for meat was required per the Farm Bill, although it had many holes in it and
was not officially enacted until 2008.7 In 2003, the FDA began allowing unsubstantiated
scientific claims to be put on labels. The decade of reform from 2000-2010 focused mostly on
ensuring the labeling of healthier products, as dieting became more and more of a fad in
America, but unsubstantiated scientific claims were still allowed, meaning that companies could
say pretty much anything on a label. In 2010 meat was finally required to display its nutritional
value. In 2012 proposition 37, which was intended to force the labeling of genetically modified
food, failed in California. It was said to have failed because it had to many loopholes in it, such
as the fact that meat was not included and there were many other exemptions, but food
companies such as Monsanto heavily funded the no on 37 side of the act, with Monsanto alone
donating over eight million dollars.8 The competitive market has also provoked a mislabeling
epidemic in the supermarket industry. As each company seeks to drive down their price and up
Moore.
Moore
7 Moore
5
6
8
"Yes On Prop 37" Yes on 37: Right to Know, Yes on 37,
their consumption, the desire to make their products sound better then they are becomes too
great. ‘Natural’ still has no meaning in the modern marketing schema, and many other labels
such as organic still have hazy definitions, and the repercussions of this can be seen in the
marketing at grocery stores.
Each of the Lafayette supermarkets has a unique mission and personality. The four
supermarkets in Lafayette are Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Diablo Foods, and Safeway. Each has a
different focus for their marketing. Safeway is extremely focused on value, and on maximizing
profits for their shareholders. Safeway believes in having the best deals for their customers.
Alternatively, the other three stores focus more on the quality of the food coming in. Whole
Foods is dedicated to quality, and even more pertinently to sustaining the Earth. Whole foods
features local farmers very heavily in their advertising, but not always as heavily in their actual
production; however, they claim to have a dedication to organic and sustainable farming. Trader
Joe’s is a market dedicated to quality, and attempt to give consumers as much information as
possible. The last store in Lafayette is a privately owned local business, Diablo Foods. They are
dedicated to local and sustainable meat, cheese, and produce and put a high emphasis on
customer satisfaction and loyalty. While these four stores are very different in mission, it can be
seen that they are extremely similar in terms of food.
The four foods looked at for this case study were Roma tomatoes, avocados, chicken, and
steak. All four stores had tomatoes imported from Mexico. Diablo Foods, Trader Joe’s, and
Safeway did not have any USA or California grown, but did have imported organic options.
Whole foods had one source of organic Roma tomatoes from Mexico. Whole Foods also had
Roma tomatoes from Windset Farms, which is based in Arizona and California. They had one
source of tomatoes that was grown by a local farmer in Dinuba, California. These were
extremely heavily marketed. All four store’s avocados are produced in the USA by Hass, but
they were priced and advertised differently at all four stores. Diablo Foods also offers an organic
option from Nature’s Partner, which are grown in the United States of America. Only Diablo
Foods specified that their avocados were grown in state.
Chicken varied widely between all the stores. Safeway had the most types of chicken,
coming from six sources: Safeway Farms, Foster Farms, farmed in California, Eating Right,
farmed in the USA, Rocky Fresh Chicken, farmed in Colorado, and Open Nature, farmed in the
USA. None were specified to be vegetarian fed. At Trader Joe’s, their whole roasting chicken
comes from Massachusetts. Other chicken comes from Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. in
Pennsylvania, and Oregon Tilth in the USA. At Diablo Foods their Chicken is from Mary’s
Chicken, which is a good brand that prides itself on being Vegetarian fed. However, if you study
their site it is clear that ‘vegetarian’ is synonymous with corn and soy.9 They also get Kosher
chicken from Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. from Perdue, Pennsylvania. At Whole Foods their
chicken comes from Petaluma Poultry and is Vegetarian fed, also meaning Soy and corn. 10
Beef is the most dangerous meat to have labeling lies about, and all of the stores are very
vague about what is in the packaging. Beef at Safeway comes from Australia from the brand
Open Nature. They also had a USA brand Rancher’s Reserve. The Rancher’s Reserve website
did not have any information about what the cows were fed. At Whole Foods they had one grassfed choice from Panorama Meats. The rest of their meat comes from Country Natural Beef,
which is in Sonoma, California.11 They tout themselves on their website as being extremely
sustainable and having vegetarian fed beef. Their beef is grass fed for 12-14 months, and then is
9
"Vegetarian Diet" Mary’s Free Range Chicken: Pitman Family Farms, Panorama Meats.
Cynthis Wollman, " Petaluma Poultry Discovers Happy Chickens Also Tastiest," Institute for
Agriculture and Trade Policy, (2002).
11 "FAQs" Panorama Organic Grass-fed Meats, Panorama Meats.
10
fed on a feedlot for three hundred days. However, at the feedlot the cows are fed by-products
from Ore-Ida potatoes.12 Any potatoes that they do not send to be used in markets they give to
the cattle, and these potatoes are not sustainably grown without pesticides.
In his book, Michael Pollan discusses America’s eating disorder. Capitalism inherently
demands the most products for the least amount of money, and this truth extends to the meat
industry. Corn and soy are cheap to grow, and are therefore used in abundance in our capitalistic
economy, and not just in their pure forms. Corn syrup and oil are derived from corn to preserve
and sweeten foods. Cows and chickens are often fed corn and soy, not only because it is cheap
but also because it makes them very fat, very quickly. The ‘lifespan’ of a corn fed cow is
completed in 12-14 months, which means the cow is ready for slaughter 2-3 years earlier than a
grass-fed cow.13 However, cows are one of the only animals with a rumen, which is an internal
organ developed to digest grass and turn it in to protein. Giving these cows, designed to eat
grass, corn leads to plethora of issues for the cow like bloat, that need to be treated with
antibiotics. The Union of Concerned Scientists did a study that showed that around fifty percent
of all antibiotics produced go to cattle.14Humans are exposed to these antibiotics when they eat
the meat, and it is in turn making them more antibiotic resistant when they get sick. Furthermore,
the fattiness of the meat caused by corn leads to a higher instance of heart disease, high
cholesterol, and other ailments in humans, but we have learned to prefer the taste of fatty,
marbled meat to the taste of grass fed meat. Besides having been forced to prefer fatty, unhealthy
meat, the abundance of corn in our society has also made humans used to meat being cheap
enough to eat on a daily basis. Therefore, capitalism has made a system that favors cheaply
12
"Frequently Asked Questions," Country National Beef, Country National Beef.
Michael Pollan, "When a Crop Becomes King," New York Times: 19 JUL 2002.
14 Pollan.
13
produced meat, bought very frequently. Due to the fact that supermarkets are a competitive
market, it is in their best interest to drive down the price of their products as much as possible,
leading to an excessive use of ‘sale’ meat, which is almost always feedlot fed.
There are many organizations working towards a more honest labeling system, the most
effective ones in California are local farms and advocates for proposition 37. Local farmers set a
new precedent for what is good and normal for food, and proposition 37 labels these ‘normal’
foods correctly in a market setting. In order to make a change in the ways in which labeling
misinforms the consumer, three steps must be taken to abolish the asymmetry between producers
and consumers. Abolishing this asymmetry involves taking away the impetus for farmers to use
harmful ingredients in their crops and with their livestock, and then removing the capitalistic
impetus for misleading labels, which can be done in three steps, changing government subsidies,
changing the legislature around food, and educating the public.
Changing where government subsidies go is a key ingredient in changing the food
labeling system. When in term, President Bush signed a one hundred and ninety billion dollar
farm bill, which used 4 billion dollars per year of taxpayer money to farmers that produce corn.
15
This gives incentive to produce and use more corn above and beyond the market demand for
cheap, corn fed products. If the government instead used those subsidies to aid farms that raised
grass fed meat with no antibiotics, and vegetables on the pastures instead of corn, then farmers
would be more inclined to grow that type of food. This is the first and potentially most important
step in making the industry more sustainable, because there are economic barriers in the food
industry that make it impossible for the farmers to grow exactly what they want the way they
want to. It is their career, and if the government will pay billions of dollars for them to produce
15
Pollan.
corn, they will produce corn. However, if the government instead starts paying for sustainably
farmed, healthy foods, more will be produced, and along with a change in legislature and public
education, the system will change.
An example of the type of farm that the government could subsidize is Polyface Farm.
Unlike most farms in America, Joel Salatin cycles the animals on his land through different
phases- first cows in an area for manure, chickens for the clean up of pesticides, and lastly, sheep
to eat what the cows would not, making his farm completely nitrogen sustainable.16 This makes
it so that Joel Salatin does not have to use pesticides on his grass to enhance the mineral level,
and also means that the grass his cows and sheep are eating was grown naturally. If farms that
are self sustaining such as this one were subsidized, the whole industry could work more
efficiently and to a better end.
Once the farmers are able to sustainably produce the food economically, the next step is
for legislation to be put in place that mandates that foods be labeled in an honest way. The root
of this change was in proposition 37. This proposition was a good start, but is not finished yet. It
ensured that some genetically modified foods were labeled, but in order to be effective for
healthfulness in the twenty first century, it must be expanded. This legislature must be expanded
to include what the animals were fed before slaughter and any antibiotics that were used.
Similarly, the GMO campaign must be expanded to include products injected with growth
hormones for ripening purposes and which pesticides were used on the plants. Another helpful
queue on labeling is miles the food has traveled: not just country of origin, but miles between
there and any other plant the food went to. The bill also should include strict definitions of all
food modifier terms such as natural and sustainable. Lastly, this bill needs to include regulations
16
Michael Pollan, "Sustaining Vision," Gourmet, 31 AUG 2002.
for which organizations uphold these standards. Instead of leaving all the responsibility to the
FDA, who do not have the manpower to keep up with every farm, local organizations in each
community should be in charge of checking the standards. The local community has a vested
interest in the food produced and distributed being sustainable and healthy, and thus will be less
likely than FDA members to lie or encourage lying on labels. These steps will ensure that the
farmers that are producing better quality food based on the aforementioned subsidies are being
correctly represented for their moral, sustainable farming.
The last step in normalizing labeling in the food industry is educating consumers.
Consumers can make a lot of change in the food system by voting with their pocketbook. In his
article “Think Little”, by Wendell Berry, he comments that the first step to making a more
sustainable world is each human doing exactly what is within their means to make changed in the
system, and voting with their purchases is one step many people are able to make. The more
consumers make an attempt to shop only at places that sell local food that is raised right by
farmers such as those at Polyface farms, the higher the demand will become for the right food.
Furthermore, the more educated people are about what is in their food and what is going on at
factory farms, the more they will want assurance via label of what they are paying for. By only
buying foods that have honest labeling and tell them information they want to know, consumers
are casting a vote and shifting the market forever. At this point, it will no longer be fiscally
responsible for distributors to be misleading in their product labels, because the consumer will
know better and will steer clear of misleading labels. Furthermore, if consumers are sufficiently
educated in what foods naturally look and taste like, they will be more likely to be able to
recognize genetically modified and corn fed food, and will be able to avoid those labels.
With these three changes, the labeling system in the marketplace can be changed forever.
Right now, there are huge amounts of people who do not know what they are really putting in
their bodies. A group of people who do not know that vegetarian fed is not synonymous with
healthy, and these people are being tricked by the industry. Honest labeling is a consumer right,
and it is high time it started being demanded. This will not happen if people who are able do not
make the attempt to vote every time they shop, but if they do it will mean a healthier population
and healthier land. There are many people that do not have the money to make the choice
between Safeway and Whole Foods, and those people, the impoverished section of America, are
affected most by this duplicity. Assuming they do find the money to buy Organic or non-GMO,
it should be ensured that they are getting what they pay for. Furthermore, it is the responsibility
of America to create a society in which the poor and their children are protected. Making it so
the only economically viable way for them to eat is to eat corn fed beef and high fructose corn
syrup is not protecting them, it is damning them to a life of obesity and other health problems.
Furthermore, as John Muir believed we are a part of the land around us, and are stewards of it,
and it is thus our responsibility to maintain it. Planting and producing grotesque amounts of corn
is not protecting the environment, it is ruining it. It is humans responsibility as stewards of the
land to protect it, and it must start with what we put in our bodies, and on the table for our
children. If this can be done, then the future of the environment, and of American health, may be
less bleak than it is at this point in time.
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