These images all come from Carol J. Adams’s website. She’s the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.



Counting Calories

Senator Tom Harkin recently introduced a Senate bill that would require all restaurant chains with 20 outlets or more to provide information about calories, grams of fat, and sodium content for standard menu items. (This is not exactly a new idea; I believe a similar bill was introduced in the House a few years ago.) This information would need to be posted on the menu board or the printed menus, depending on the model of service. Although many chains already provide this information on their websites, this may be less than helpful for the consumer standing in line at the restaurant.

Although I like the idea of the policy, I wonder if it’s likely to have the desired effect. As much as I think it makes sense for all players in the food business to provide far more information about the nutritional content of their products (in addition to information about where ingredients are sourced, how they were produced, etc.), I just wonder how much impact this has on people’s food habits. The assumption that, “if people only knew X, they would make better decisions about it,” only goes so far. Perhaps the more significant impact of this law would be that having to post this information in plain sight may prompt many of these chains to reformulate their most fattening dishes to make the numbers less forbidding. But they may also figure out ways to sugar-coat the numbers, just as nutrition labels on packaged foods seem to confound as many people as they inform.
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I wanted to talk about consumer co-ops in Japan that I mentioned in the earlier posts in relation to toxic dumplings made in China. Co-ops are interesting because its philosophy is to go ‘against capitalism” to borrow the title of the book edited by Furlough and Strikwerda (1999). Japanese consumer co-ops are among the world’s largest co-ops. According to Ruth Grubel, there are 19 million members for Japanese consumer co-ops, representing 20% of households. The largest consumer co-ops is Coop Kobe, which has 1.2 million members and over 140 stores (compare this to the largest US food co-op in Seattle, PCC Natural Market, which has 35,000 membership according to Wiki . The largest co-op in the US is said to be R.E.I., but I could not find the number of membership in the REI website).

One has to wonder why Japanese consumer coops have enjoyed this success, and it is interesting that Ruth Grubel argues that the relative strength of Japanese coop movement compared to its counterparts in the US and Europe is that its primary focus on food as opposed to poverty alleviation in other countries. The production of high-quality food products has been key to their identity and mission. Coops made various items from miso, tofu, soy sauce, to devil’s tongue jelly from since 1920s. Coops have also tried to maintain direct relationships with farmers and producers of other processed foods. They have tried to work with farmers to reduce chemical use for fruits and vegetables, and imported fair trade bananas from a worker-owned plantation in the Philippines. Safe, good food has been the biggest selling point of coops. So it is in this context that the Co-op brand Chinese dumpling incident was shocking for both consumers and the coop themselves.

Japanese consumer co-ops have faced many challenges not least of which is the attack from corporations which saw them (rightly) as a significant threat. Corporations wanted to curtail the power of coops in terms of regulation on two things: geographical restriction of operation and restriction on shopping by non-members. Co-ops were able to outmaneuver these regulations, forming cross-prefectural alliances of coops to aim for the economy of scale, and modifying laws to allow nonmembers to shop at their stores. Nonetheless, retail is a fiercely competitive business, and co-ops have been under intense pressure to cut costs to survive.

There is a sad irony in the Chinese dumpling incident. The co-ops turned to overseas outsourcing in order to survive the competition from conventional commercial retailers, yet it undermined the very core of their identity and what made them different from corporate actors.

Did anyone else catch the reports this week of nanoparticles being found in over 100 food and food-related products?  No time to write anything about it now, but I wanted to open the topic for discussion.

Check it out:

Scientific American article

Friends of the Earth report (includes list of foods found to contain nanoparticles)

after almost 100 years of being illegal to import the stuff into the U.S., the absinthe ban has now been lifted.

Modern revival of absinthe, the drink associated with the artwork of (and psychotic episodes of) Vincent Van Gogh and Edouard Degas, among others, has mainly happened through the EU legal system – challenging old bans or recognizing that no ban existed on some of the national books.

The lifting of the import ban points to two facts – 1) Contemporary absinthe production is quite different than that of 100 years ago, and 2) Scientific studies have disproven the direct causal link between absinthe and psychosis.

Apparently waiting approval for import is one brand, commissioned by Marilyn Manson, called Mansinthe. No joke.

For those further interested in scientific absinthe-knowledge, the March 2008 issue of Food, Culture & Society has a great article by Kima Cargill.

Farms without food

I’m going to continue with my discussion of the paradoxes of our industrial food system this week, since there are so  many of them. Here’s something I experienced in my own life but hadn’t really thought about until recently: people in rural areas have less access to food than people in cities.

 It sounds ridiculous–they’re in the country! There are farms! You don’t exactly see what and corn and cattle being raised in cities. This is another perversity of how we get food these days: most rural areas produce just one or a couple agricultural products, and those are sold as commodities and shipped around the world to be transformed into what we recognize as food. We then go pick them up at the supermarket. Living on or near a farm doesn’t necessarily–or even usually–free you from this food system.

 Up until a few decades ago, most small towns had a small grocery store. But when supercenters like Wal-Mart and large warehouse-style grocery stores like Food 4 Less entered the market, many smaller grocery stores went out of business. The transportation costs to bring food to a rural community often far from an interstate highway meant small stores often had to charge more for products. Limited shelf space prevented them from offering the wide variety of products found in larger stores. I remember when the grocery store in my hometown finally went out of business; it had limped along for several years as the owner watched his former customers drive to the new Wal-Mart 20 miles away. Continue Reading »