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October 13, 2013

I’m not sure who it was who said, “Standards! The young folks today just ain’t got no standards!” But the thrusts of today’s blog is to assert that in the world of food at least, people today have more standards than at any time in history. There are ‘fair trade’ standards, good agricultural practice (GAP) standards, ‘fair food’ standards focus on farmworkers, nutrition standards (as exemplified by RDAs or recommended daily allowances) and a bunch of environmental standards that range from Wal-Mart’s standards for sustainable packaging to (my personal favorite) bird-friendly coffee. The U.S. FDA (see last week’s blog) has standards for fat, moisture and sorbic acid content that bear on the difference between cheese and cheese food. They also have standards for defining an edible portion and the minimum amount of solid content in a can of corn. And we haven’t gotten to the USDA standards that determine whether an apple is “Extra Fancy”, “No. 1” or plain old “Utility”, much less the standard that probably means the most to an average reader of the Thornapple blog, to wit, the USDA organic standard. It’s tempting to go off on a tangent about whether there are  any “average readers” of the Thornapple blog, but just this once I’ll stay on track.

I’m not sure who it was who said that “The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from,” but I’m personally used to hearing this said by my friend and colleague Larry Busch, who wrote the book on standards, (Standards: Recipes for Reality (Cambridge, MA: 2011, The MIT Press). Larry is fond of pointing out the difference between a standard and the test that certifies whether or not it has been met. Which leads him right on down the road to point out the difference between the standards developing organization, on the one hand, and the organization that certifies whether the standards have been met, on the other. Truth be told, Larry is fond of pointing out all manner of obscure detail, but once again we’ll ignore this eccentricity and stay on track. In the case of the USDA organic standard, it’s the Agricultural Marketing Service in conjunction with the National Organic Program Advisory Board who say what the standard for organic food actually is, but it’s a myriad of little companies hired by individual farmers who go out to the farm and certify whether the standards have been met. Paying the freight for those certifiers is one of the big reasons why organic produce is generally more expensive. I would make a comment on who is actually on the National Organic Program Advisory Board, but in case you have not heard, our federal government is out of buisness and the website where this information can be found is unavailable for the duration.

I’m not sure who it was who coined the phrase “ecological modernization”, but the general idea is that we can shop our way out of the environmental crisis if only we can get our standards and labels right. Folks can buy that bird-friendly coffee, and they can by that “Certified Humane” pork, or if they don’t like that they can “American Humane Certified” pork, and of course if they don’t like that they can buy some Niman Ranch natural pork, which is certified as “raised with care” and if you still don’t like that, there’s always Whole Foods 5-step Humane meat standards that let you choose how far down the ecological modernization slippery slope your conscience and your budget can take you. On the one hand, there’s the “shop our way out of the environmental crisis” theme, which holds that consumerism can be turned away from the dark side by appealing to people’s better instincts. On the other hand, there are all these different standards development organizations out there pedaling their own approach as the one that you can rely on. And in every case, there are a bunch more companies out there turning a buck by certifying that “Yep, the producers of this meat, coffee or punkin’ pie sure did go to a whole lot of trouble to ensure that their production process is in conformity that whatever it was that the standards developer said was the way to go.” We’re studying animal welfare standards in my class at MSU right now.

I’m not sure it was who originated the expression, “¡Ay, caramba!”, but why am I not surprised that my students are skeptical?

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

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