Our food is labeled more intensively than it ever has been. But, does that make it safer?
It is not uncommon to see labels containing information such as: ingredients, use by/best by/sell by dates, nutrition information, lot numbers, level of pasteurization, and what it has been fortified with.
I am not suggesting this information is not important (although, to be honest, much of it is meaningless). But, any importance food labels possess is found only within the context of our modern food system. It is, after all, the disconnect created by the modern food system that makes labeling the vehicle through which consumers can learn about their food and feel safe. However, a centralized, labeled food system is not our only option.
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when the prevailing message was that all food safety decisions fell under the purview of the USDA and FDA. “Unburdened” from this responsibility, we stopped relying on the very senses we humans have developed over millions of years to determine if food was safe. Instead, we outsourced food safety to others and, along with it, relinquished a massive amount of control over the entire food system.
We have lost the art of sniffing our milk.
There was no longer any need to sniff or, god forbid, taste that gallon of milk in the fridge. Why would you? The label affixed to the side of the carton that informed you to-the-day when it would go bad. And, that label was omnipotent. It didn’t matter if the cows were healthy and if they were raised on natural diets, how and how often they were milked, what the shipping conditions were like, how long the milk sat in an aisle before they were stocked on the refrigerated shelves in the supermarket, how long your groceries sat in your car, or if your fridge at home kept a consistent temperature. It didn’t even matter if someone from your family left a half finished gallon of milk out on a counter too long in the middle of August. Nope. We imbued that label with so much power that we trusted it no matter what.
We need to regain control of the food system
The disconnect that started with the agricultural revolution, ramped up with the industrial revolution, and kicked into light speed during the past several decades is now the reality of our modern food system. It has the appearance of safety, but it is anything but safe. And, to be fair, perhaps we expect too much from it. It is silly to presume such a centralized behemoth, so large and out of control, to have the ability to ensure safety in all of the food supply. We need to regain control.
The first step to regaining that control is taking the responsibility of safety back into our own hands. That means removing links from our food system, understanding real food and how to make it, knowing where it comes from, how it is processed, and all the players involved in it. When you are intricately connected to your food system almost everything you need to know about your food is directly in front of your eyes. And, when you do have a question, you know exactly who you need to ask such as your farmer, your butcher, and your baker. It is through that level of connection labels lose their power and become irrelevant. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the labels on egg cartons. What used to be a carton that simply said “eggs” (if anything at all) is now cluttered with incredibly confusing food system propaganda.
Feathers, dirt, straw and feces
Zach, our manager at the MSAK, planted the seed for this post the other day when we were talking about the huge box of chicken, duck and goose eggs that Kate Kavanaugh and Josh Curtiss brought from their farm in upstate New York to share with our team last week (just to be clear – they were not to sell/use at the MSAK – just for personal use). To most people these eggs looked anything but safe. The eggs were covered in dirt, feces, bedding straw and feathers.
There were no labels whatsoever on any of the cartons.
In fact, many of the eggs were loose and not even in a carton. And, to top it off, they were not refrigerated. Nothing, I mean nothing about these filthy eggs piled in a box resembled what most of us have come to expect as “safe” from our grocery store egg supply.
In this simple gift of eggs, there was no need for the standard egg carton labels that declared statements such as:
- vegetarian fed,
- pasture raised,
- humane and,
- the most meaningless – natural.
- There was no need for any information about the Omega 3:6 ratio.
- No need for a use by date either.
I knew everything I needed to know because I know Kate and Josh and their values, ethics, and approach to their animals.
Trust your instincts and use your senses
Any information that appears on the outside of a container of food is an inadequate substitution for the first hand knowledge you get from participating in a truly connected food system. To achieve this, we need to remove links from our food chain and re-establish a decentralized food system built on direct human-to-human relationships.
This is exactly why we are passionate about empowering you to cook at the Eastern Shore Food Lab and why we make everything from scratch at the Modern Stone Age Kitchen. The safety of our food system is our responsibility. I sign every one of my books with a phrase I believe is relevant here: It all begins in your kitchen and around your table.