Julius Richmond, former assistant secretary for health and surgeon general, wrote in his report to the American Society for Clinical Nutrition: “Individuals have the right to make informed choices, and the government has the responsibility to provide the best data for making good dietary decisions.” (1) But what happens when the facts are obscured to the point that the average consumer cannot readily access the information necessary to make an informed choice?
I think it’s safe to say that most food and nutrition professionals would agree that the health of a community depends equally on the actions and decisions of proactive, informed citizens and on the formulation of well-planned, transparent programs and policies by governments and authorities prepared to enact them. Policy and programming is indeed plentiful, but it’s not always easy to understand. In some cases, those who bother to read between the lines might find cause for concern.
Several common knowledge gaps relate to:
In addition to the already startling list of synthetic substances that are permitted in organic crop production (disinfectants, sanitizers, irrigation system cleaners, rodenticides, slug baits), the ingredient list on pesticides warrants special attention from a carefully trained eye. Technically speaking, both the active and inert ingredients must be allowed in order for the pesticide to be approved for organic production; however, “The active ingredient is listed on the product label, but the inert ingredients often are not listed, and companies may choose not to reveal that information. Determining whether a commercial pesticide is allowed for organic production is a daunting task.” (2) Though organic certification requires that pesticides be derived from natural substances, natural origin does not guarantee safety in our food system.
Caramel coloring, widely used in a variety of processed foods, can be produced by several methods, some of which require ammonia. But even for the conscientious consumer who reads the labels of the food items they purchase, this process is hidden. Several organizations, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are outspoken on this important omission. (3) Additionally, both ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ flavorings can be comprised of up to 50 other undisclosed ingredients.
Farm to School
The farm to school movement is steadily gaining speed in the U.S. and rightly so. It’s an effective way to connect local farmers to a group of consumers for whom adequate intake of fresh fruits and vegetables is especially important, children. However, this clause from the USDA description of the program is less than inspiring: “Schools can define ‘local’ however they choose.” (4) Some choose to define local as any product from within their own state, while others define it as any product from an adjacent state. From the point of view of a Montana school lunch program employee, I can see the advantage to this vague designation. With a short growing season and sometimes unforgiving climate, Montana schools would be hard pressed to source all their food needs from very ‘local’ sources. But surely there should be some sort of criteria for defining the word.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
Marion Nestle, food policy expert and professor of nutrition at New York University, voiced her approval when several food giants hopped on the band wagon for GMO labeling last year. (5) Companies which previously stood against the movement have finally begun to realize that it is no longer confined to a few “foodie” states, and if they hope to garner favor in the eye of the consumer, they must exhibit a willingness to evolve. Perhaps the consumer voice will eventually reign supreme in this scenario although cause and effect in the consumer-food supplier relationship is not often cut and dry. Consider the abundance of fast food chains, within which an ever-growing demand for uniform, golden french fries has driven American potato farmers to convert almost exclusively to the monoculture of the Russet Burbank. Whose desires and goals most guided this trend to where it stands today—the consumer, the food entrepreneur, or the farmer lured by subsidies and the ideal of agricultural control? (6)
All of this evidence, and plenty more, raises some cause for concern. The bright side is that consumers have a voice. The more we are informed about the intricacies of the food system, the better prepared we are to petition for appropriate change.
(1) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 32 (1979): 2621-22
(2) http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5101542 (page 40)
(6) Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. Random House, 2001.