In which we say thanks for telling us what we’re supposed to want

Trying Hard Not to be Chicken Little

I’m trying hard not to be Chicken Little here – but the recent announcement by Michelle Obama of the “Nutrition Charter” in partnership with, of all things, Walmart, leaves me really tired. Yet another retail driven approach to solve a policy driven problem.

This would be the third time in recent days that Big Business/Big Agriculture has completely driven government policy. The recent Food Safety Bill, USDA approval for unfettered use of GMO alfalfa and now this. Sigh.

Bill and I don’t grocery shop together often, but when we do it’s a living demonstration of how marketing works.  He is a product driven problem solver. When he has a problem to solve, he finds a product for that purpose and he buys it. He enjoys (loves?) convenience and value added products.  I (she) on the other hand, do not. I am attracted to more hand crafted and DIY items.

Of course, I’d like to believe my preferences are smart and independent, but I suspect I’m probably drinking Kool-Aid too, mine’s  just a different flavor.  Who knows for sure??

So now I’m wondering, how do we form our consumer beliefs anyway? I feel myself firmly attracted to and repelled by products that upon further examination I realize that I  really don’t know much about.  Many times it takes nothing more than a well designed package and my mind just fills in the information I want the label to contain. Honestly, we don’t even have to be paying attention – somehow the influence just sneaks right in and plants itself.

Big Food Marketers teamed with the help of the USDA have a practice of feeding you “knowledge” via their use of “helpful” information and FAQs.  You can be sure that according to their helpful information, your “wisest” choice is the product that is most efficient and cost effective for them to produce.  This continues to be such an effective strategy because we don’t really care to know more. Our food ignorance provides the perfect medium for their information to take root.

I find it really interesting that the USDA grading system we use to evaluate meat has changed so conveniently to remain in step with the changing practices of the feedlot industry and industrialization of meat processing.  The quality of beef has changed so much since the 1920’s, the USDA grading system no longer has categories appropriate to grass fed meat and the handling requirements for beef are definitely to the detriment of grass fed beef.  Apparently, today’s Prime is yesterday’s Select. And, did you know, then “Select” was called “Good”. It was changed because good just sounded ok while select sounds, well, select.

We needed to be taught to prefer this lesser beef.  I could go on…..

Food conglomerates are now busy working to beat independent third party certification to the punch by creating their own certifying organizations and labels.  Of course, surprise surprise, their well-spun animal husbandry standards match exactly their current factory farming methods. They know we won’t look under the surface – we’ll just look for some kind of label.  So, they create some crafty wording and homey logo to slap on their packaging and along we go.

Most of us sort of  know what Organic means and what can be bad about Natural?  Grass Fed, Grass finished, Pastured, Pasture finished, Free Range, what??  For example, from the Giant Eagle website:

Nature’s Basket®

At Giant Eagle®, we’re proud to provide meat that is as good as nature intended. That’s why our Nature’s Basket® meats come from a passionate generation of farmers and ranchers who raise animals without added hormones or antibiotics while fulfilling an uncompromising commitment to quality and a healthy environment.

We are grateful for the land, and with Nature’s Basket®, we can bring you the best it has to offer. We are committed to responsible management of our resources and are hopeful that supporting farms with eco-friendly methods will make a positive difference for years to come. Our Nature’s Basket® meats go through strict quality testing with consumers — just like you — to ensure that it has the great taste you’ve come to expect from Giant Eagle®. And we will remain steadfast in our effort to bring delicious, fresh and wholesome food to your table.

We trust that you will prepare our Nature’s Basket® meats with pride and joy, knowing that you are enjoying natural, flavorful food.

What does this really mean? Many words saying not a lot. Conveniently, my mind quickly fills in the holes with what I want to believe.  What kind of cows were fed what kind of food? How many cows to a square foot at the feedlot where they live for 3 – 6 months? I’m skeptical about but appreciate said lack of hormones and antibiotics, but what about the uncompromising commitment to quality and a healthy environment? Is that from some flowery mission statement or a real practice?  What kind of lives did these cattle get to live? What type of stewardship of the land was practiced? How was manure disposal handled? How were the neighbors of this feedlot impacted by the facility? Would they concur that a healthy environment is a respected goal? How were the grains these cows eat raised? GMO, non GMO’s? What type of pesticides? What about the transport, auction and slaughter facilities? Safe, humane for man and beast?  How has this meat been aged? Has it been irradiated? Sprayed to retain its redness? Pink slime added?

Thanks for telling me what I’m supposed to prefer…. more from the Giant Eagle website:

What is the difference between grass-fed beef and corn-fed beef?

Cattle spend the first year or more of their lives in the pasture, but for the final three to six months, the vast majority of U.S. beef cattle are fed a nutritionally balanced mixture of grain and nutrients (can you please tell us about the feedlot they live on for three to six months?).

On a small number of U.S. farms, ranchers raise cattle that continue to feed on grass through the final stage. There are no significant nutritional differences or differences in safety between grass-finished and grain-finished products. The principle differences are taste and texture. (Really, not what I hear…..)

Most American consumers prefer the taste of beef that comes from corn-finished cattle. The grass-finished market aims to satisfy consumers who prefer the taste of grass-finished beef.  (What does this mean? Let’s nip this whole grass-fed potential loss of market share nightmare in the bud??)

What you can do:

  1. Pay attention when you see food issues in the news – it really is relevant to you
  2. Know there are two sides to issues you see in the news
  3. Question ads and commercials
  4. Question whether the charming picture on the label has any resemblance to the real life “farm”
  5. Don’t be satisfied with the wordy generalizations on the labels, look for specific facts.  Or lack thereof –if it doesn’t say otherwise, it’s factory food.
  6. Reclaim your brain space
  7. Buy from people who can show you the cows/chickens/pigs/goats/sheep
  8. Join an organization like Slow Foods or PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not being hard on Giant Eagle – I shop there too. They’re just passing along the information they got from the helpful folks at the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association . Let’s not forget their lawsuit against Oprah.

All I ask is that we simply call things what they really are.  And stop looking to retail to solve all our problems.

5 thoughts on “In which we say thanks for telling us what we’re supposed to want

  1. Just an FYI, I have a call into giant eagle about all those questions you asked and some of my own. I’ll be happy to forward their response! I’ve been thinking of going vegan for humane reasons and in trying to become more educated!

    1. Hi Kate,
      That’s an older post – haven’t checked in with Giant Eagle’s website for a while. It will be interesting to hear the result.

      I started my journey by going vegan – obviously not very well. I found it too difficult to eliminate processed foods on a vegan diet. It’s possible, but was unsustainable for me.

      Also, when you become discriminating about farming practices, it becomes even harder.

      Good luck with your journey Kate!

    2. Dear kate,
      I just found this post and am interested to hear if you found the answers to your questions to Giant Eagle. I typically buy Nature’s Baskey brand meats but i am also skeptical about the quality. Thanks!

      1. I find their current television ads pretty annoying – very carefully worded and manipulative.

        Thanks for your interest in where your food comes from Jonathan & Kate :)

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