Examining our fraught relationship with food

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Haydu, author of Upsetting Food, writes about how food is ethically identified—and why that matters.

On May 28, 2021, the New York Times reported a lawsuit against Vital Farms. Plaintiffs charged that Vital Farms misled consumers by advertising its eggs as, “‘delicious, ethical food you don’t have to question.'” Three years earlier, a leading proponent of alternative agriculture, The Cornucopia Institute, rounded up different egg labels (ranging from “All Natural” to “Omega-3”). Of eleven examined, the Institute found five to be meaningless, misleading or “seriously flawed.”

These disputes testify to our fraught relationship with food. Concerns about the safety, nutritional value, and ethical virtues of what we eat are pervasive. Increasingly, consumers rely on third-party programs to certify a food as “good,” whether for body or soul, local community or planet. Upsetting Food: Three Eras of Food Protest in the United States, shows that such doubts about commercial food date back to the early 19th century. But the ways in which conscientious consumers sought to resolve those doubts have changed. Consumers have looked to quite different markers of trustworthy food from one era to another.

In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham warned his followers of the dangers of meat, commercial bread, and spices. What were the hallmarks of trustworthy foods? Those sanctified by the Bible, but also those prepared at home with the loving hands of wives and mothers. Such food, wrapped in piety, family, and tradition, was good for the body. It also met ethical goals by quieting men’s and women’s baser impulses.

Food reformers of the 1890s and 1900s voiced some similar concerns over suspect bread, contaminated meat, “unnatural” preservatives, and adulterated beverages. In this era, however, consumers were told to trust food that had been vetted by the federal government; that conformed to the new science of nutrition; and that had been prepared in modern, “hygienic” factories. Here too, more than health was at stake. The new regulatory and educational regime would restore honesty to markets and expertise to tradition-bound homemakers.

In the 1960s, some additional concerns emerged: “artificial” foods and pesticides joined fluffy white bread and preservatives on the list of anxieties. But now, food untainted by modern technology and nutritional science—”natural” food—represented the gold standard. And food acquired through alternative institutions like small farms, natural food stores, and neighborhood co-ops was deemed more reliable. By patronizing these alternatives, moreover, consumers were joining a virtuous conspiracy against Big Ag, corporate capital, and a servile state.

These differences among the three eras mostly reflect the larger movement cultures in which food reformers moved. Graham applied to diet a more general evangelical template for social uplift, one already in use to address the problems of slavery, intemperance, and “fallen women.” Proponents of pure food legislation and nutritional science applied to food the standard Progressive playbook: modern science can identify solutions for social ills, and government regulation can implement those solutions. Early organic advocates shared with a wider counterculture a deep suspicion of organized politics and modern technology. They shared, too, its belief that by living our lives differently we could bit by bit build a better society. Nowadays, many activists retain doubts about government as a lever for change. And partly for that reason, we have more faith in our ability to achieve social justice through concerted consumer choices. For a better food system, vote with your fork!

But there is more to the story than that. Upsetting Food also shows how reformers’ ideals of trustworthy food built on—or deliberately repudiated—the efforts of their predecessors. Progressive reformers were deeply skeptical of religion and tradition as guides to social practices, whether in managing factories or cooking food. Early organic advocates, in turn, explicitly rejected modern science and government—the Progressive stalwarts—for being little more than shills for big business. And contemporary food reformers are often guided by the perceived failures of the organic movement. Its eventual embrace of minimalist government standards and its cooptation by large food companies, we hear, doomed organic as a genuinely alternative food system. Hence the appeal both of labels less easily coopted by global corporations (“local”) and of third-party certifiers (Non-GMO Project, Certified C.L.E.A.N.) who, we hope, can themselves be trusted. And thus the outrage (channeled through legal action) when the virtues proclaimed by labels (“delicious, ethical food”) prove illusory.

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