They have a legitimate fear of transparency and “right-to-know” laws.
By James McWilliams
(Photo: Purple Carrot)
Transparency is the foundation of modern North American food policy. Since 1906, with the Pure Food and Drug Act, consumers have insisted that producers come clean about how the sausage is made. In a political environment grown increasingly distrustful of Big Government, food producers have, somewhat surprisingly, submitted to extensive federal oversight without too much fuss.
By the late-20th century, an intensifying push for transparency converged with a rights-based message to promote a “right-to-know” approach to food and agriculture. Consumers have benefited immensely from this convergence. All things considered — and despite our kvetching about Big Food’s unchecked dominance — food transparency in the United States has been a remarkable triumph. In fact, it has become, for better or worse, a so-called right.
Nowhere is this development more evident than in the current pressure to label food made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). General Mills, Mars, Inc., and Campbell’s have all recently decided to assume the labeling burden. They’ve presumably done so because — with Vermont requiring GMO labeling and congress having just rejected a bill blocking labeling efforts on the state level — they see the legislative handwriting on the wall. It’s going to happen. May as well be early adopters.
What’s most striking about this overall push toward GMO labeling is that it doesn’t concern a specific ingredient, agricultural chemical, or calorie count. Instead, it centers on an obscure and (according to leading scientific organizations, such as the American Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association) safe technological process. Why do we have a right to know about it? Irrelevant question. If we want to know, so we’ve determined, we should know. And, according to all indicators, it looks like we will know.
No food reformer has advocated more publicly for GMO transparency than former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. In a 2012 Timespiece supporting Proposition 37, a California initiative to label GMOs, he wrote, “Prop 37 isn’t a ban on foods containing genetically engineered material; it’s a right-to-know law.” He went on: “We have a right to know what’s in the food we eat and a right to know how it’s produced.” Typical for Bittman, he delivered this power-to-the-consumer message as a jab into the rib of agribusiness.
“If you’re Monsanto,” Bittman wrote of Prop 37, “this is a big deal.” (As it turns out, it failed.)
But now Bittman is on the other side. No, he’s not working for Monsanto. But he is a leading member of a “meal-kit start-up” called Purple Carrot, a company that delivers plant-based meals to customers nationwide. Despite Bittman’s assertion that “I don’t think making money is an honorable goal,” he must now make money. The Purple Carrot must be nourished by profit.
Conflicted as Bittman might be in this role, I think his project merits huge praise. I hope it succeeds. Not only is the plant-based mission inspiring , but it’s exciting that Bittman, a true icon of American food writing, has a chance to imbue it with the principles that, as a columnist, he lamented as absent from the food system. He can put ideals into action. How many writers get to try their hand at that?
But it appears that articulating foodie ideals is a lot easier than living them out. Most notably, Bittman has already dismissed complete food transparency — which he deemed essential to a healthy food system — as unimportant for Purple Carrot. Worried that consumers were being turned off by his meals’ high calorie counts, he and the company decided to make a conspicuously controversial move: withhold nutritional information from its deliveries.
In a Fast Companyprofile Bittman explained the reason for this decision: “It’s counterproductive for us to provide nutritional information with our meal kit deliveries because the food we ship comprises whole, real ingredients and our recipes combine them in ways that produce delicious meals.” He added, “At the end of the day, you don’t really need to know more.”
Of course, this was a long way from his 2012 claim that, “We have a right to know what’s in the food we eat.”
Yes, there’s the hypocrisy. But so what. If you stick around long enough, and share your opinions as widely as Bittman does, hypocrisy is inevitable. Much more interesting is what such hypocrisy suggests about producing food in the age of right-to-know transparency. Bittman’s legitimate concern over calories (and, more to the point, how they’re perceived by his customers) is no different than Monsanto’s legitimate concern over GMO labeling. Both cases are examples of food producers wanting to avoid transparency not because they’re hiding anything sinister, but because they know their audience has been primed by decades of misleading information (often maliciously) to react negatively to their products.
The primary reason that Big Ag opposes GMO labeling is that GMOs have been characterized for decades as “frankenfood.” Likewise, the primary reason Purple Carrot opposes labeling with calorie counts is that high-caloric meals have gotten a bad rap as detrimental to our health when, if the food is clean and wholesome, the very opposite is the case. Neither company, understandably, wants to be associated by a label with bad health, even if the association is based on patently false information.
None of this is to suggest that consumers should stop demanding — and legislatively protecting — a certain level of transparency. Instead, it’s only to point out that, as the ideals of sustainable food production become reality, the “right-to-know” imperative will increasingly cut both ways. And, as fallout from the Purple Carrot declaration reminds us, looking hypocritical (human though it may be) can be just as detrimental — if not more so — than wanting to keep some information off the label.