Project Verified?

April 24, 2015

One of the regular readers of the Thornapple Blog posted a photo of the Non-GMO Project Verified label on Facebook this week. This occasions a deep philosophical quandary: What’s the difference between “project verified” and “process verified”?

Now I’ll start right out by admitting that this quandary is so deep that it probably never occurred to most readers of the Thornapple Blog, but of course that’s just an invitation for me to go off on one tangent after another. More to the point, I’ve been curious about trying to figure out what’s going on in the non-GMO labeling space myself, and I’m not at all sure that I have things straight. If anyone from the Non-GMO Project or some other certifier wants to jump in and straighten me out, please feel free to use the comment box.

“Process verified” is pretty much answerable, if not entirely straightforward. This is language that the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses for an accreditation program that they have introduced to give consumers confidence that food labels actually mean something. If I have this right (and I might not) you could pretty much cook up just about any standard that you want and introduce some kind of accounting procedure to insure that the standard has been met and the USDA will be willing to decide whether or not it is “process verified.” The terminology derives from standards that refer to a process, rather than some measurable feature of the product. So if I thought there was a market for “Hoosier-free” corn chips, I could define the “Hoosier-free” standard as “containing no corn grown in Indiana”. I would not be able to tell whether a corn chip was made from corn grown in Indiana by doing a lab test, (or at least I think not). There’s no analytic procedure that can reliably distinguish a grain of corn grown in Indiana from one grown across the border in Illinois, Ohio or Michigan. But I could still have a meaningful “Hoosier-free” standard if I had a reliable procedure to ensure that all of the corn going into these corn chips was in fact grown in Illinois, Ohio or Michigan. I might have to have people watch the corn being harvested in these states and then have them ride along with the trucks all the way to my chip factory, but I could do it. That would be a “process standard”: it certifies the product by monitoring the process, rather than doing some kind of end-of-the-pipe test. On the other hand, I could certify that my corn-chips are “quinoa free” just by sending them to a lab where they can do an analysis that is capable of telling the difference between quinoa and corn. I wouldn’t have to have people watching the production process.

Now, is all that crystal clear? The USDA has a “process verified” program to ensure that labels like “organic” or “fair-trade” have been coupled with an accounting or certification procedure that actually matches up with what’s being claimed on the label. On the other hand, terms like “gluten-free” “prime” or even “fancy” don’t have to be process verified because a trained and properly equipped inspector can tell whether a product meets the standard just by testing or looking at it.

Now before getting too deep into “project verified” I should probably admit that the question I posed at the outset was a little mischievous because there really isn’t anything that’s “project verified.” Hey, it wouldn’t be the Thornapple Blog without a little bit of sarcasm, now would it? What there is are “Non-GMO Project verified” labels. The Non-GMO Project is the name of an outfit that’s cooked up a process based label that they have submitted to USDA’s process verified program. Or at least I think they have. It’s one of the things I could certainly be wrong about, but let’s get on with this complicated story for the moment.

One of my sources of confusion was that you actually can send a food product to a lab and determine whether it contains GMOs. (We’re not going down the “What’s a GMO tangent?” Just shut-up and keep reading.) There are arguably some exceptions to this when it comes to oils like canola or corn oil, but taco shells and tofu? You can tell. Also, all organic products are non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project has a website where they explain why, in their view, you might want to be certified as Non-GMO Project Verified instead of or in addition to organic, and I would suggest that if this is the question that’s bothering you, you should just go right there. There are also some “non-GMO” labels out there that (I think) do send your stuff to the lab, rather than watching your production process. So what’s up with a process label for non-GMO?

Well, here you can also go to the website, but my reading is that the answer to this question is a blend of precaution and philosophy. The precaution piece is when The Non-GMO Project claims that their process label is the most reliable one. The philosophy piece is wrapped up in some ideas about solidarity (again, I think). As I understand it, the big thing is that you can’t be a company that is selling both GMO and non-GMO products, like if were to allow a corn chip plant to make both ordinary and Hoosier-free corn chips, just that I watched to make sure that they never mixed these two things up.

Or at least that’s what I’ve been able to piece out so far. Maybe I have the whole thing wrong.

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



Metabolic Rift

April 17, 2016

I spent most of the beautiful afternoon weather we had yesterday sitting within four walls at the Kellogg Center listening to Brett Clark talk about “the metabolic rift.” Like most academic outings and too many Thornapple Blogs, the conversation drifted into overly fine attempts at correction and counter-correction. But I think I’ll resist the temptation to indulge in a satire of our fumbling disputations and just try to say something about the metabolic rift.

This has just got to be extremely obscure terminology for almost anyone, but the core idea is not that tough. First, you’ve got to latch on to the fact when Brett talks about metabolism, he is not constructing a metaphor. He is talking about the biochemical interactions that occur within our bodies when, on the one hand, we do some work, while on the other, we have dinner. When we work, we expend energy (again in a deadpan literal sense). There are biochemical transformations taking place that yield muscle power, and these transformations literally consume or “use up” the physical materials from which our bodies are composed. We are able to do this as living beings because when we eat something, other biochemical processes convert the peas, beans and potatoes we are eating into fat, blood and muscle tissues that replenish the materials that were used up when we worked. So this does have something to do with food ethics.


Brett’s also pointing out that the peas, beans and potatoes are available for us to eat because a different set of biochemical transformations fueled by energy from the sun converted physical materials in the soil into peas, beans and potatoes. More metabolism, in other words. But the soil itself is a metabolic system where microorganisms fueled by the energy in rotting plant matter and animal manure convert inert matter from rocks into the physical materials that eventually show up on our plates. Still more metabolism, and even closer ties to food ethics. And oh yes, all this needs water. This system of metabolism can reproduce itself over and over as long as the sun keeps shining and there are inert bits of the earth for microorganisms to convert into fertile soils. “As long as” isn’t forever, but it is a long time. We might call this a sustainable system.

Now for the rift part. The links in this system get broken when the animal manures don’t get returned to the soil. Pardon me for once more bringing up the subject of poop in a family blog, but this does have something to do with food ethics. So ask yourself whether your poop from the stuff you ate produced in Iowa, Chile or China is likely to get back there in order to replenish the soils, and as you ask this question you are beginning to get some idea of what Brett meant by “the metabolic rift”. There’s a gap in the system, and we can ask ourselves “Is it still sustainable?”

Now here my penchant for honesty compels me to say that not everyone has the same answer. What we do in real facticity is use fossil energy to convert air into nitrogen fertilizers, which farmers apply to the soil, allowing it to keep on keeping on with its little metabolic thing. This ends up with a supply of peas, beans and potatoes (not to mention ribeyes and airline chicken breasts) that seems to run on forever. We have plenty of air, but the fossil fuel thing may be a bit of a problem. There’s also the way that this complication of the basic system creates sinks of the poop that should be going back to Iowa, Chile and China, while also pumping out emissions that are screwing up a totally different system (e.g. the climate). I don’t think of the climate problem as metabolic, but Brett’s point is that this gap we noticed in the previous paragraph may actually be pretty dang big, e.g. a rift.

Now being of the Marxist persuasion, Brett is strongly inclined to blame all these complications that create gap after gap in our metabolic system (resulting in a metabolic rift) on profit seeking. But here I’m already softening his Marxism because what he would and did say is that this kind of system breakdown is just what we should expect from the infusion of capitalist social relations into our potentially metabolically sustainable world. And once we’ve gone down the Marxist road that far, why not add the observation that our difficulty in perceiving this metabolic rift is what we mean by alienation.

But once he did that, the card-carrying Marxists in that room at the Kellogg Center started accusing him of trying to reassert Engels’ discredited claims about the dialectic of nature, and we were right back into academic lala land. So forget that I mentioned it.

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

Bot Angels in the Food World

April 10, 2016

There’s something serious to be said about robots and their persistent intrusion into the food world. But saying it requires a bit of set up, so don’t expect anything too serious in this week’s blog. We got off on robots years ago when any blogger was going to be beset by dozens of computer programs—bots, they call them—written to scan the Internet looking for an opening. Bloggers in their intense insecurity are always hoping for some meager sign that their activities are being noticed, so most of us use platforms that encourage readers to leave comments. But that comment box is what the bots recognize as an opening, an invitation of sorts to inject a bit of code. At least that’s how I imagine the bots thinking, when I imagine them as thinking at all.

When you see the “robots” tag on a Thornapple Blog, 9 out of 10 times those are the robot demons I’m complaining about. They encourage you to download their software to boost your blog’s visibility, and they pimp all manner of consumer products. They entice you to “Accept” the comment with bogus questions or over-generalized praise. They are less of a problem than they used to be, and I presume that’s because WordPress has unleashed its own fleet of robots to combat them. And then there are the WordPress robots that let you write a blog in advance and then schedule it to post at some designated time in the future. That’s what I did last week when I was down in Arizona and working of a Sunday. These are often some of my least inspired blogs, but my penchant for regularity overrides the blogger ethic of spontaneity (and sometimes good taste). So although I think of the WordPress robots as my friends, I’m not altogether sure that they are good for me.

But there are angelic robots in the food world, not the least of which are the ones that make the hundreds if not thousands of food related blogs possible in the first place. One might be tempted to say that there would not even be a food world without them. That’s not quite right, though. I think all human beings have inhabited a food world. We do tend to eat, don’t you know. And because of that we carry around an implicit sense of how to do that. I’m confident that the food world of many of my undergraduate students is severely impoverished. Food has always just been “at hand” for them, whether that meant being hailed for dinnertime by the parent-in-charge or being able to amble into a dining hall or drive-through whenever the moment struck them. Getting interested in local food is often an early step toward building out one’s food world, as is watching Iron Chef or Guy Fieri on the Food Network.

But neither of my regular readers will be surprised to learn that this is not what I sat down to write about this Sunday (no robot posts on April 10, mind you). No, the angelic robots I was thinking about this morning are the armada of apps that service our dining needs. I should start out by saying that I’m pretty oblivious to this aspect of modernity. I don’t have an app on my phone that helps me figure out how to prepare celeriac or that computes the nutritional value of items in my shopping cart. If I want to know what guanciale is I have to Google it: I don’t have a specialized app on my i-phone that helps me probe the obscure details that distinguish salami and bologna from bresaola and mortadella. It’s embarrassing, but as a foodie, I am pretty low grade.

I do use Open Table and Yelp!, however. And frankly, because I am such a low-grade foodie, it’s Yelp! mostly. Of course Yelp! is not even exclusively food oriented. Until just recently I was the “duke” of Williams Volkswagen just because of the work I had done there back in December. (It seems that like the Energy Bar, no one checks in at Williams Volkswagen.) I think it’s great that these feisty little robot angels are out there enriching our food world by giving total strangers a way to vent their emotions about the service they got at some random Applebee’s in Poughkeepsie way back in August of 2013. I want to know about that. Or how they don’t really care much for the General Tso’s Chicken at some Chinese joint in Murphysboro because it isn’t authentic enough for them. I want to know about that, too. My food world is infinitely richer for it.

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


April 3, 2016

So a couple of weeks back we did a blog about chin warmers, which, I should say right up front, was just a lame idea I had to talk about a yummy chilly-day meal we cooked up from adzuki beans and course-ground cornmeal. I allowed the blog to veer off onto a tangent about charcoal broiling in your backyard and my rather pleasant encounter with Chef Dan Patterson out in L.A. a few weeks back. But enough of that because if you really want to know all about that you can just click on the link I embedded into the words ‘chin warmers’ and read the dang thing your own self.

Which gives me an opportunity to launch onto another wholly gratuitous offshoot by pointing out the single quotation marks I put around the words ‘chin warmers’ in the previous paragraph.

Whoops! I did it again! It seems that philosophers and also a few linguistics professors have this deeply ingrained tendency to call our readers’ attention to the fact that we are talking about words rather than actually using them to talk. There are about six occasions on which failing to notice that one is referring to the word itself rather than the thing the word normally refers to can cause really serious confusion. The fact that this seldom causes any dramatic consequences has led ordinary people to ignore the use-mention distinction, and the Wikipedia article on it says that copy editors generally advise against deploying these single quotation marks, as they are more likely to leave the reader sitting there scratching his or her noodle wondering what the who the author was thinking with that one than they are to actually clarify anything. Unfortunately two of those six occasions have absolutely catastrophic consequences for one’s ontological orientation. I’m not going to bore you with which ones.

And we all know how painful losing one’s ontological orientation is, so while I’ve said enough to bring ontological consistency to everyone’s attention, I also realize that I have probably already crossed the line this week into yet another one of those blogs that will have long since left the average reader shaking (rather than scratching) his head and thinking (like Ronald Reagan once said) “There you go again.” And of course we know which one of my two regular readers is the average one.

So in the spirit of straight-ahead dada I’d like to come back to chin warmers. This time without the quote marks, which would mean that I’m now actually talking about foods that warm up your face. We still need these in Michigan this time of the year, but as it happens I am waking up for the second Sunday in a row in a decidedly warmer part of the U.S. of A. This time it would be the Phoenix area. And although it can get surprising cold in desert after the sun goes down, it doesn’t really seem appropriate to be worried about keeping your face warm. Keeping it cool would be more like it.

So in anticipation of my trip, I decided to do some research on chin chillers. I discovered that they are crepuscular rodents, native to the Andes Mountains. I learned that “Since I was young boy, I saw metal bands in big halls,” is a pretty lame quote of Pete Townsend by an 80s German hair band. This research also led me to learn about the controversy over chinchilla ranching (if that’s what it really should be called) in Southern California. While some see chinchilla ranchers as “amazingly kind, bright and dedicated” women, some animal protection organizations are horrified by the very idea. “Whoa!” thought I. “This is taking way to solemn a turn for a blog on chin chilling.”

Notice, however, that in quoting Chinchilla (and my own thoughts) I use ordinary quotation marks. I can tell the difference between use and mention, even if I still have a few lingering difficulties with the ontological virus that plagued Emily Litella so many years ago. Enough of this nonsense! At least for this week.

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