adventures in craft beer and real food

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Blog commentary

My friend xenobiologista recently made an interesting post about inefficient packing of organic versus conventional products, and practices of Whole Foods and Wal-Mart.

Issue 1. My friend recently purchased salmon burgers at Whole Foods. The salmon burgers were wrapped in plastic-coated paper that was meant to look like news paper.

I don't think that you can fault them for not using real newspaper as the ink rubs off the pages too easily, and the ink is not approved for human consumption by the FDA. In other words, it would be illegal to use real newspaper. They're presumably using a plastic-coated paper because it creates a hydrophobic surface, which prevents the juices from your salmon burgers from soaking the head of garlic that's also sitting in your basket.

I agree that, all things being equal, it would be great if Whole Foods used paper without ink.

I feel that Whole Foods is doing more than other companies in this area. They're eliminating plastic bags at the checkouts by April 22, 2008. Sure they will still offer paper bags at the checkout and there will presumably still be plastic bags used in the produce section. But this is an important step in the right direct, and hopefully one that will reduce the use of plastics. Moreover, they have a fairly progressive list of unacceptable food ingredients that will disqualify an item from being sold at Whole Foods. This list includes such chemicals as aspartame, EDTA, bleached/bromated flours, MSG, FD&C colors, and sucralose. This list limits the extent to which items can be processed, which presumably saves energy and decreases dependence upon unsavory chemical additives. (Note: I disagree with the inclusion of foie gras on this list. Foie gras production is an ancient tradition, produces wholesome food, and is humane.)

But there are some reasonable points that can be made here. They probably would have been happy to not wrap the salmon burgers at all if you had brought your own reusable container. Second, yes it's a waste of ink to make the paper look like a newspaper. But I'm not certain how significant this inefficiency is in the scheme of things. Do you buy new books or do you only buy used books or (even better) only check books out from the library? When you are afraid that you're going to forget your eye exam next Thursday at 1:30 PM with Dr. Robinson, do you write a reminder on a post-it note or do you reuse scrap paper? The point being that people waste a lot of ink all the time. Singling out the ink on the paper at the meat counter seems inappropriate unless you intend to address the issue comprehensively to reduce ink use across the board.

Issue 2. Extra packaging on organic foods. My friend noticed that organic cabbage was wrapped in plastic while conventional cabbage wasn't. She also noticed the long standing head-scratcher with egg packaging: the organic, vegetarian, "free range" (cough cough) eggs are usually in plastic containers while conventional eggs are usually in cardboard containers.

Just some background, though. While organic eggs have to comply with USDA organic standards, there is no regulation of the term free range in the United States (unlike in the European Union and Japan). In many cases, it just means that the farmer bought a cage that's a couple of inches larger and installed a window in the hen house. The organic standards require that livestock have (21 CFR title 7 205.239)
(1) Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment;
To be clear, this standard prohibits the use of battery cages which most experts believe is strictly inhumane. Unlike the European Union and Canada, the US has no plan and no time line to legally prohibit the use of battery cages.

Unfortunately, there is currently much abuse of the federal code's lack of specificity. For example, it's perfectly acceptable for a farmer to theoretically allow his animals to roam freely but exert psychological control of them so that the animals naturally eschew the outdoors. Studies have shown that most farm animals, when raised indoors prefer to remain indoors and eat feed even when given the option to go outdoors and eat natural foods. Come to think of it, this sounds applicable to humans as well. Other common ways around this are providing only very small outdoor areas for a large number of animals, or an outdoor area that's covered in concrete or gravel or dirt (i.e. not covered with vegetation).

Federal regulations also require that organic animals must be fed organically. This prohibits the use of less-savory industrial by-products such as animal blood, slaughter house waste, ground up male chickens (high speed maceration), and feces.

So organic-certified eggs may be better than conventional eggs in terms of access to the outdoors and what they're fed. But even the organic label is no guarantee.

But my friend's original point was that organic eggs tend to be packaged with less sustainable materials than conventional eggs. Good point! But there are some things you can do about it.

For one thing, you can always buy eggs directly from a local farmer (e.g. Pecatonica Valley Farm) or through an intermediary (e.g. Artisan Foods Delivered). Such small scale farmers generally use cardboard packaging and actually want the cardboard back so it can be reused. The eggs also don't travel as far, which reduces the energy cost associated with transporation.

It's not realistic that large numbers of people will switch to buying local eggs. In the interest of completeness, Organic Valley does sell organic eggs in cardboard containers. Unfortunately, even these eggs have a plastic label glued onto the cardboard which adds up to more packaging than conventional eggs. I have heard that Organic Valley doesn't allow farms to enter its cooperative that have fewer than 2000 laying hens and really prefer that a farm have at least 5000 hens. Given how large these numbers are, it's likely that these farms live up the lofty goals Organic Valley purports to hold -- although, to their credit, they are open about their standards and even post them on their website.

So, in summary, yes it's bad that most organic, vegetarian, and free-range eggs are sold in plastic containers. But you can choose to buy ones that are not sold in plastic or -- which may involve buying eggs locally.

Issue 3. Wal-Mart has been criticized for its entry into the organic foods market.

It's great that Wal Mart wants to get into the organic foods business. For as many short cuts and half-hearted attempts to be green as some companies take, organic practices are generally more environmentally friendly all other things being equal. If you don't use pesticides, you don't have to pay to have them shipped to your farm, there's less demand for industrial chemicals, and you're putting fewer chemicals into our water supply. If you use natural fertilizers, you're not less dependent upon the Haber-Bosch cycle which is extremely energy demanding even with the use of a catalyst.

It's unfortunate, however, that many companies including Wal-Mart are continually lobbying the federal government to relax organic standards. The other issue here, as far as I'm concerned, is that there are now organic versions of many processed foods (check our your local breakfast cereal aisle). Yes it's great that these foods probably have lower environmental costs, but you're still supporting the processing of the food product which is environmentally inefficient.

Moreover, organic practices are only one part of a larger picture; eating organically is great, but not sufficient. Food should also be local and seasonal to the greatest extent possible. The environmental gains from not using pesticides are readily lost if the product has to be shipped a much farther distance to market.

Beyond placing value on organic, local, and seasonal products, one should also hope that the people intimately involved in the production of said food will be fairly rewarded for their labor. As the saying goes, farming is the only job where everything you buy is at retail and everything you sell is at wholesale. Wal-Mart's mantra of "low prices always" is largely incompatible with proper compensation of farmers, and instead creates a system that can achieve no more than the bottom line. Indeed it brings the bottom line down across the board as even stores like Whole Foods and the Willy Street Co-op offer prices to farmers that are only marginally greater than at conventional stores (i.e. that the added dividend to the farmer is less than the premium paid by the shopper). In the absence of cooperative bargaining, the Nash equilibrium is readily established. The current approach is a great way to deliver large amounts of food to market cheaply, and I hope that basic food shouldn't be so expensive as to be a privilege. But it's a crummy way to deliver food that meets the standards that many consumers expect. The quantity issue would also be more sensible if we weren't producing a significant excess of food already.

I think the closing chapter of Fast Food Nation resonates with a lot of people. Schlosser talks about the German city of Plauen, which had the misfortune of being a part of the DDR. Even though the city was occupied by Russian troops, who largely maintained political control due to a network of Stasi informants, over twenty thousand people rose up against their government on October 7, 1989 in the first of many mass demonstrations. The crowd demanded the "freedoms of their forefathers" and remained largely non-violent despite government efforts to break up the demonstration. Just over a month later, on November 9, the Berliner Mauer fell.

This is an extreme example, yes. But it demonstrates the ability of individuals to effect large-scale social change. I know it's likely a pipe dream but I hold out the hope that the more people taste real food that's skillfully prepared, the more these people will demand honest, delicious food. And they will come to accept nothing less in much the same way that many craft beer drinkers would never "lower themselves" to drinking BMC.

We should expect more from our food's supply chain, whether the point-of-purchase is Wal-Mart or Whole Foods.


xenobiologista said...

Honestly, what pissed me off so much about the "fake newspaper" isn't so much the waste of ink (admittedly trivial) as that it's part of the pretentious facade that WF projects.

A lot of environmentalists seem to enjoy this aura of cultural elitism, and the point of my post was arguing that that needs to be got rid of in order to make conservation a true universal value. And healthy food needs to be made financially and physically accessible to *all* people, *especially* those who can't afford the time and money to drive miles to the nearest hippy store. People who work all day in a factory and come home to a tiny apartment with several kids who need feeding.

I have a VERY VIVID memory of my family going to a WF store the first time my family was in the USA when I was a high school student. My dad was on sabbatical doing a Master's degree, so we were basically living off my aunty's charity. We went into this store once to have a look around. There was so much great food that looked so much more interesting than what we normally got at Aldi's, but all my parents could afford to buy us were a couple of pieces of "Fruit Leather".

Rich said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Will & Kate said...

I have to object to the bottom line of your point #1, basically - if you aren't going to try to eliminate all extra ink, why try at all. (though I completely agree with you that the 'fake newspaper' isn't really worth worrying about, and though I ALSO agree with xenobiologist that the 'pretentious facade' is annoying. Side note: I really can't stand Trader Joe's for this reason. It seems to think it's so awesome, and 'loyal' shoppers think it's the most amazing place of earth. But yet all the food is shipped from who-knows-where and not local (well, maybe some produce, but nothing like even Woodman's, where I'm constantly amazed at how much foodstuffs are local.) and also, not really that special.

Sorry, tangent. Anyway, I disagree with the premise that if you aren't going to do everything toward being green or organic or whatever that you shouldn't even try. If that were true, none of us should ever try to do anything toward helping save the environment or going organic or whatever, unless we live in a cabin with no electricity, grow all our own food and raise our own meat and own no vehicles, and even then, probably something else could be done better.

Thanks for the interesting, thought-provoking blog posts.


Nicholas said...

Kate, I didn't intend to claim that we shouldn't try to be as green as possible. But I think it's important to be realistic about the consequences of small steps in the right direction.

Eliminating plastic bags at checkouts is a significant small step in the right direction as plastic will persist for centuries in landfills. The less of it we use, the better.

Ink on seafood packaging, on the other hand, seems far less significant. An absolutely astounding amount of ink is used all the time from the credit card applications we all get in the mail, to the ink on the sides of Whole Foods grocery bags, to the latest trash romance novel.

My point was that it seems inappropriate to cry foul at Whole Foods for the ink on the paper when we a tremendous amount of ink is wasted on our behalf all the time. The point being that a comprehensive approach (against junk mail, etc.) will do far more good than merely dealing with one small part of the problem. So eliminating the use of this ink is a good thing, but eliminating more wasted ink would be a better thing.