Why the Food Establishment is at Fault

Sacha posted the following in the comments which I would like to address.

I read your blog fairly regularly and find a pretty regular selection of articles that interest me and/or tickle my fancy enough to inspire me to create or explore more food. This latest post about a food algorithm triggered something else in me. Irritation. Much noise is made in the media about the food establishment and the ills it has caused the Western world. Of the food blogs I read, yours has a particular bent against the food establishment. This is a misguided focus. The problem lies not with the establishment. The problem lies with the people who support it. The consumers.

Thanks for the comment Sacha. There’s much truth in what you say there, and let me see if I can address at least some of it.

First off, I do have a bias against the food establishment. I’ve never claimed otherwise, and I never will in the future. That being said, my bias is not really a broad stroke bias against every company, but rather a sampling of some whose behaviors strike me as really egregious. But sometimes I do speak in generalities, and that is probably not the best way to promote my arguments. But let’s get to the substantive issues you and I have both raised.

I absolutely agree with you that there education issues that need to be addressed when it comes to consumers and food. I would hazard that a fair amount of our American population take the food infrastructure here in the United States for granted, and they allow themselves to be sold and fed foods that are both nutritionally and aesthetically dubious at best.

But I don’t think this position is a simple as Americans being led like sheep to the grocery store (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor). Human nature dictates that only a finite amount of resources are available for a person to apply to their life, and if a person chooses to be more interested in, say, socializing at their church, doing volunteer work, or heck, even going to the movies, than reading up and understanding food, who are you or I to say that’s an improper way to approach their life?

Complicating matters even further are things such as home finances, and children. I have a bit of luxury in my life in that I have an okay job that puts a decent amount of money in my checking account, and have no children. If I had the responsibility of raising kids, or having to hold two or three jobs to pay off debt or a mortgage, one of the things likely to go would be spare time. Add to this that low finances would restrict my access to better food, then all the talk about organics and eating local become a luxury which I’m unlikely to afford. A single mom has a much different perspective on food than I do. I’m loathe to chastise her (or at least the idea of her) for not understanding that seeing a “Heart Healthy” label on a box of Cheerios is misleading.

But let’s say the single mom does want her kids to eat well (either healthy or tasty or both). Here’s a list of things that she has to overcome:

  • Restaurants that are loathe to provide nutritional information for fear it would affect their bottom line.
  • Companies that advertise that one aspect of their products are healthy, when several other aspects clearly are not.
  • Companies which downplay serving sizes.
  • Restaurants that give extra-large serving sizes as the default single serving.
  • Produce that has sacrificed taste for shelf life.
  • Meat industries that seek to keep their production techniques secret, because the means would strike even some of the most strident meat consumers as abhorrent.
  • Food producers who add chemicals and preservatives to food with minimal short term testing.
  • Food producers who add chemicals and preservatives to food with no long term testing.
  • Food producers who marginalize or outright dismiss safety inspectors on location.
  • Food lobbyists who marginalize or outright dismiss safety inspectors at an institutional level (I’m looking at you, beef industry).
  • Food companies who add both fat and sugars to their products as fillers.
  • The diet industry that makes people feel dirty for enjoying food.
  • Ad agencies that pepper children’s television with ads for cheap sugar and/or fat laden products.
  • Food lobby groups who seek to vilify those who search for the truth to all of the above.

I could go on, but I hope you see my point here. Granted, not all companies do these practices, but most companies engage in some of these practices, and more than a few engage in the majority of them.

Even the most engaged individual has difficulty overcoming all of these variables. The majority of the food establishment seeks to obfuscate the reality of their product. Some do it unintentionally, others do it quite blatantly.

My point here is that while consumers do bear some responsibility for their choices, I’m of the belief that the food establishment, by far, bears more. Because an average consumer will have difficulty making valid choices if the information they’re provided is compromised by lies, distortions, misdirection, and embellishment.