What is good food?

August 29, 2010

So speaking of hunger (weren’t we?) a while back my wife Diane presents a sack to me that our newspaper carrier left for canned goods so we can donate to a local food drive, “What do you want to give?” she asks. I rumble through our rather limited stock of canned items and my hand moves quickly to some condensed milk that I know has been sitting there some time. Diane looks at the can, noticing a “best by” date of December 2008. (This particular episode is occurring in May of 2009.) She points out the date but I am not dissuaded. At this point she berates me for thinking that I can dispose of outdated food items by pawning them off on needy people.

My immediate response is defensive. “That’s perfectly good food,” I say. “I would eat it and I would feed it to my children.” The can of milk is in fact there because it is an ingredient in the pumpkin pies favored by my son, Walker. I go on to point out that canned foods can remain quite safe to eat for many years, even decades, especially when they show no signs of deformity, rust or any other breach of integrity. The condensed milk, I should add, looks to be in pristine condition. I note that food pantries routinely receive items from grocery stores that have passed their sell-by dates, but that are still within the margin of time for safe use. For canned items the use date may be a year or two after the product needs to be removed from the grocery store shelf.

These points are batted back and forth between us for a while. Diane is skeptical. “Why are those dates there if they don’t mean what they say,” she asks. I reiterate the point about margins of safety and the difference between a “sell by” and a safe-use date. I also note that these are not even sell-by dates, but “best by” dates. “How would I be supposed to know that, if I were in a food pantry looking for something to feed my family?” she retorts. I reply that this is not esoteric knowledge that only I know because of my professional work on food. It’s something I learned growing up.

But by now I am actually coming around to her view. I disrespect the eventual recipients of these items if I pick something that can be questioned in the way that Diane is now doing. The condensed milk goes back on the shelf, eventually to become a pie for my son, while a can of spinach well within its “best by” date goes into the bag.

Oddly, however, Diane is now taking my point. Isn’t there an ethical problem here, she asks, if we are wasting perfectly good food simply because the food companies have incorporated these margins of safety into their labels? They have an economic interest in selling more food, after all, while the public interest here should be geared toward getting good food to needy people. Our conversation has now become more philosophical, as we recognize the tension between these conflicting notions of good food. The outdated milk is perfectly good food in the sense that it is safe to eat. What is more one influential idea has it that canned milk is particularly good food. My hand had gone to it partly because of conditioning from my youth that places items like condensed or dry milk into the “good food” category, even though if it weren’t for pies we would hardly ever use these items today. They come from the middle of the super market, and as Michael Pollen has taught us, the good food in the market is around the edges, not in the middle. Such considerations have been working at the back of mind as I switch my ground, coming to a very different notion of good food, one that is much closer to my daily practice. So we are now sending lots of fresh tomatoes on the food bank, but I won’t promise that the now out of date can of organic pumpkin pie filling in the cupboard won’t go in the bag next time there is a newspaper carrier canned food drive.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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Bad Eggs

August 22, 2010

I’m in a serious mood this morning, so be warned before reading further. The food news this week swirled around Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actions to recall a half a billion eggs due to suspected contamination by salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterium that is the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States. Infection by these bacteria as a result of consuming contaminated food typically involves indigestion and flu-like symptoms of relatively short duration, but the infection can be very serious, even fatal. Reported cases of food poisoning from salmonella have been rising dramatically over the last two or three months, and FDA and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are trying to figure out why. There is an argument for suspecting eggs, and here it is:

  • We know that eggs can get contaminated by salmonella in several different ways.
  • We know that people do not always cook their eggs thoroughly. Cooking thoroughly kills bacteria, and reduces the risk of becoming ill to vanishingly small levels.
  • We believe that people are more likely to eat raw or undercooked eggs that they have purchased as so-called “shell eggs” (eggs in the shell), than eggs used in processed foods or prepared by professional cooks.

Δ  An increase in contamination of shell eggs would explain the observed rise in cases of salmonella food poisoning.

Routine monitoring has identified contamination from at least two suppliers of shell eggs, hence FSIS and FDA have acted quickly in ordering the recall. That’s the background. Now for my question: Is there an ethical issue here?

In a lighthearted mood, the answer is “Well, it depends,” but I’m not in a lighthearted mood, and I want to examine some of the things that it depends on. It may not be obvious to everyone, but it does depend on what we mean by “ethics”. If we are talking about a personal code of conduct that individuals follow out of respect for others, and if we see this as different from obeying the law or having sound public policy, that narrows things a bit too much. There is a story out this morning stating that the owner of the egg farm has been cited for several previous violations—everything from worker safety laws to mislabeling product. That starts to sound a bit like an ethics issue, but operating a business (even a household) in our society today often means responding to complaints and paying fines as a matter of course. So we need more context than we currently have from the stories being circulated in the newspaper to say for sure.

I’m not lighthearted about this because regular readers of this blog (if there are any) know that I have a professional relationship with the egg industry. This entails three things that I see as extremely important. First, I know something about egg production and how the industry works. This puts me in a position of moral responsibility to the general public that extends beyond that of the average person, or even the average ethics professor. Second, I worry about whether my relationship compromises my judgment. I worry that I will be too ready to excuse conduct that should be condemned simply because I understand how I might have done the same thing had I been in that position. Third, I know that my relationship with the egg industry leads people to think that I am shilling for the egg industry, despite the fact that I do not receive any financial compensation for my work with egg producers. I am as likely to overstate an ethical concern in a benighted attempt to boost my credibility as I am to understate one because I am too sympathetic with the difficulties that egg producers face.

I’m sorely tempted to do about 4000 words on reflexivity. Academics are misusing this word a lot these days by referring to an activity properly described as “reflective” as “reflexive”. But reflexivity occurs when the process of perceiving, measuring or monitoring a phenomenon dramatically changes the nature of that phenomenon, usually in ways that an un-reflective perceiver is not aware of. One navel-gazing aspect of reflexivity here is that my own attempts at being ethically reflective have been affected by the way that I perceive other people to perceive me. More important, egg safety is itself reflexive. The tools that we have for monitoring salmonella have dramatically changed the way that we conceive egg safety. The rates of salmonella contamination in eggs are so small that one must normally test thousands of eggs to find any at all. The testing itself is a time consuming process that destroys the tested egg, so in using testing, one is looking for a statistically determined rate of salmonella occurrence that one presumes to be representative of eggs that are in the stores and being eaten. What safety means within the context of FDA regulation has been dramatically shaped by these statistical and technological testing procedures. People in the industry believe that there is much less actual contamination by salmonella today than, say, fifty years ago. But is this because technological methods for testing eggs began to be used, or because sanitary conditions in factory farms are actually better than traditional farms? Or were traditional family farms with chickens in barnyards safer? We have no straightforward way to know.

The recent recalls mean that inspectors have seen a rise in this rate of salmonella occurrence in the eggs they are testing, but it is still the case that salmonella is being found in a very small number of eggs. It is also still the case that cooking the egg kills the bacteria, so unless you have been eating raw eggs (like I have), you are very unlikely to get sick. Although there are pundits pronouncing on the causes of contamination, I do not believe we have a very good handle on what might really be causing it. In order to statistically analyze what might be causing contamination, one must test hundreds of thousands of eggs under conditions that isolate the hypothetical cause and compare it to a control group. The control group must be similar to the test group (except for the hypothetical cause) in order for the testing to have any validity. This is expensive and has not been done. As I write this, we don’t know what, specifically, might be causing the rise in contamination. We don’t know whether it is a blip or a trend. More generally, we don’t know which feature of the production system (such as the machinery, the housing of the birds, the feed, etc.) might affect levels of salmonella in eggs. That uncertainty affects our understanding of food safety, too.

Here is another little tidbit  for food ethics: FDA and FSIS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are struggling with one another to see who can appear to be the most pro-active and consumer responsive in this crisis. It’s interesting to note that neither agency’s website even mentions the existence of the other agency. A certain amount of behind the scenes inter-agency politics is definitely affecting the way that this recall episode is being portrayed to the wider public, but that is another (and much longer) story in food policy.

Saying all this can readily be seen as a defense of the industry, but that’s not how I mean it. (That’s another instance of the navel gazing reflexivity I mentioned above.) The FDA is telling people to discard any eggs that you might be unsure of, and I would not contradict that advice. We also know that many people will simply stop eating eggs of any kind for some time. That’s what always happens when news like this hits, and that, too is a reflex action. I’d like to think that ethics involves being reflective, rather than reflexive, but man, that’s a hard road to travel!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Mail Call

August 15, 2010

I occasionally get responses to the blog through back channels. Very few official comments posted to the blog come from sources that do not look suspiciously like robots. I thought I would share a few e-mails this week from blogs over the summer. First, Terry Link, Director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank copied me on the following message he had sent around to a number of friends:

Dr. Paul Thompson, Kellogg Professor of Agricultural Ethics at MSU, writes a great weekly blog on food, agriculture and ethics. This one actually mentions the GLFB briefly. His pieces are typically thoughtful, “light-hearted”, and pertinent to how we make sense of living in a complex world. You can subscribe yourself. His work is always food for thought!

Terry’s generous comment was written in response to “Hunger” on July 25, 2010. He is referring to the link on the upper right hand corner of this page that will deliver a copy of the blog to your e-mail, probably sometime on Monday morning.

And then there is this one, written in response to “I Scream”:

The ice referred to in this blog (below) was not free… it was half of a 25 pound block (15 cents), crushed after purchase… into the aluminum lined green can, which finally bit the dust when I emptied out the storeroom a few months ago.

The secret to the ice cream recipe is enough vanilla.. just pour it in there.
And… the big debate in the family (my dad, Grandpa and Grandma Brown.. also ace ice cream makers) was whether or not to cook the eggs.
answer… no way.

and be prepared to get the roof of your mouth painfully frozen.

The author of that will remain anonymous, though I presume that most readers can guess. I’m generally presuming that these direct e-mails come in from people who really don’t want to be identified for all the world see on the World Wide Web. This goes especially for my most recent correspondent, who wrote in response to last week’s blog on “Supply Chain Food Ethics”:

Dear Professer Tomsun,

You have whited my interest in ethics and stuff like that.

Thanks to you, I am now a thinker more than a believer.

In your poll, mark me down as voting yes.

Yes, I think food is ethical.  My supporting for that is
I prayed long and hard about it.  And God appeared with a
chiken leg just when I thought I would die.

Bless you and your Mission

What else needs to be said beyond that? … And, by the way, “Happy Birthday” to Diane.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Supply Chain Food Ethics

August 8, 2010

The food supply chain is basic for present-day food ethics. The idea of a supply chain comes from retail management. Once upon a time, not that long ago really, retailers of all kinds sourced the goods that they offered to the public from wholesalers. Wholesalers sourced from distributors, distributors from manufacturers, and manufacturers sourced from commodity brokers. The commodity brokers, in turn, got the raw commodity goods that they were selling to manufacturers by operating businesses where primary producers could sell their goods at the prevailing market rate. Primary producers, in turn, may buy inputs for the production process from various input supply firms, each of which may have wholesale suppliers themselves, and the whole thing cycles around again.

This varies from industry to industry, of course. In the oil and gas industry, big oil companies roll many of these elements together to produce a “vertically integrated” supply chain. But in food, each of these elements was distinct and each represented a transaction that was pretty much divorced from the others, at least until recently.  The primary producers are farmers and ranchers who buy inputs from seed, chemical, machinery and energy firms. The retailers at the end of the chain were grocery stores and restaurants. The rise of chain stores just about eliminated wholesalers some time ago, except in limited areas like fruits and vegetables. A few meat or dairy wholesalers and restaurant supply firms service the independent restaurant trade.

So one thing that changed this picture is the concentration and integration of food industry firms. Production of chicken broiler meat is now every bit as vertically integrated as the oil industry. Broiler companies such as Tyson own the birds right up to the point that they are sold to the grocery chain as processed chicken, though they generally contract with independent operators to raise the birds in facilities that the operator, not the integrator, owns. This is a way of shifting the capital at risk in broiler production to relatively small-scale firms.

Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres rather nicely lays out how struggling farmers are tempted to get into this kind of contract animal production (there it was hogs, I believe) as a last ditch effort to “save” a farm that his become unprofitable. They go heavily in debt to build facilities, and are totally at the mercy of the integrator for the series of contracts needed to pay them off. Since it can take well over a decade to retire such debt, and technology may well change faster than that, these highly vulnerable “little guys” are often faced with the unenviable choice between a deepening cycle of borrowing, construction and debt, on the one hand, or losing the farm to bankruptcy—the very fate they were hoping to avoid in the first place—on the other.

Large chains such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds built their success in large part by reaching much deeper into supply chains than wholesalers and distributers, the people that were selling to them. Once these chains became large enough, they had the economic power to stipulate conditions for manufacturers. In the first rounds of supply chain management, the emphasis was on price. More recently, such firms have made stipulations that sound a bit like food ethics. McDonalds has stipulated that farmers and ranchers follow production practices that respect animal welfare and that curtail rainforest destruction. Wal Mart set a standard for the amount of energy a television sold in its stores could consume as a way to reduce carbon emissions.

But the other thing that has changed this picture is consumer tastes. In the old days, consumers were pretty much buying food based on price and on material characteristics that could be ascertained by inspecting the product itself. A given consumer might rely on a brand or label, but a testing organization (such as Consumers Union or the Food Safety Inspection Service) could determine traits such as microbial contamination or moisture content by examining the food item itself. The shift came when consumers started to care about things like “fairly traded” “locally grown” or “organic”. There is no test that can be performed on a coffee bean that will tell you whether the farmers who grew it got a fair return for their labor. However, retailers who have become adept at reaching back into a supply chain to reduce carbon emissions or improve animal welfare can just as easily do so to promote fair trade or locally grown.

There is some debate in the food ethics crowd as to how we should feel about these trends. Some are buoyed by the new responsiveness to ethically oriented actions. Others see it as just another extension and growth of corporate power, a trend that they presume will come to naught sooner or later. What do you think?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Fat Elvis

August 1, 2010

Thornapple members picked up some wonderful tomatoes at their weekly delivery this week. For the Thompson family, this signals a time to stop in at the grocery store and pick up some ordinary cottage cheese. I say “ordinary” because there is nothing better to go with fresh, juicy summer tomatoes than the bland, liquid type of cottage cheese you get from the major chains store brand. In fact, not even Dean Foods makes a decent cottage cheese for eating with tomatoes. And none of this piquant, curdy or cheesy stuff you get from the so-called quality brands. I’d love to find an organic brand of cottage cheese that could cut the mustard for eating with that acidic bliss you get from summer tomatoes, but everything available locally is just too arty for my taste. It’s one time of the year that I am definitely heading to Meijer or Kroger.

All of which puts me in a mind to reveal one of my long held dreams for getting rich. I want to open up a chain of drive through restaurants that sells fresh, ripe tomatoes cut in chunks and topped with my preferred style of cottage cheese. Fine ground black pepper will be available on request. That and some cold cereal with milk and a generous helping of fresh Michigan blueberries is just about all I’m going to need to get by for the next six weeks or so. And I can’t imagine that other people wouldn’t see things the same way if they ever got a taste of this wonderful combination. The only trick will be to source enough of the right kind of cottage cheese. It used to be plentiful in my youth, but as tastes have become “sophisticated” it’s getting harder and harder to find. But if I can operate these drive-throughs on a large enough scale, I’m sure I can commission some organic supplier to make the right kind of cottage cheese.

And then there are the tomatoes, of course. I personally love the heirloom tomatoes we are getting from Thornapple right now. I notice that some people don’t seem to get it. They think that tomatoes are supposed to be bright red, with no pithy parts and of generally softball size and shape. How wrong you are, deluded youth. You are supposed to have ugly tomatoes that come in shades of purple, pink and yellow to orange with huge woody stems, tough skins and bulbous globules that bulge out at irregular angles. My Nana never grew a tomato that she did not feel obligated to peel, and she grew the best tomatoes under creation. You just trim off the inedible parts and put them in the compost heap. Tomatoes are so plentiful when you can get them at all, that you don’t think twice about tossing away those rotting, pussy and fibrous bits that constitute the top half of some really good heirloom tomatoes. Get used to it, and you will find yourself eating some of the best food to come out of the garden all summer long. Texas songwriter Guy Clark has it about right:

Get you a ripe one don’t get a hard one
Plant `em in the spring eat `em in the summer
All winter without `em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ & diggin’
Everytime I go out & pick me a big one

Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes

But in fact, all the tomatoes coming out of the Thronapple plots are pretty damn good with cottage cheese, even the regular varieties. So if I can wrap up enough supplier contracts I’m sure I can make a fortune with my drive-through restaurant idea. The only problem is that you can’t make a drive through restaurant work on six to eight weeks of business, and you will not catch me serving those boxy tomatoes that have been bred to withstand the thirty mile impact that they get when they are hurled into a truck by a mechanical tomato harvester at my drive in restaurants. Nooo. So my idea is that when the tomatoes go out of season, we will serve canned peaches with our cottage cheese. I want to call my restaurant chain “Fat Elvis”, if I can just get Priscilla and Lisa Marie to go along with it.

Well I’ve probably blown my chance at untold fortune by giving this great idea away in my blog, but fortunately I’ve got fresh Thornapple tomatoes sitting downstairs on the kitchen counter, and Walker and I stocked up on massive quantities of cottage cheese on Friday afternoon. So I’m outta here, right now. If anyone capitalizes on Fat Elvis, the least you can do is send me check.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University