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Truth in Labeling

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George S. Patton apparently said: “No good decision was ever made in a swivel chair.” (You weren’t expecting quotes from Dead White Generals, were you?)

Experience is worth a thousand books. Because I grew up on a farm, I know something about vegetables. (If not their botanical names — in Real Food, I called the Brassica plants a genus, not a family; thanks to a botanist for pointing out my error.) From selling at farmers’ markets both well-run and not-so, I learned something of what works for farmers and what doesn’t. From my years as a vegan and vegetarian, I discovered things first-hand about fat and protein. When I had a Cesarean, I learned the virtues of high-tech medicine.

Experience is a fine teacher. But you also need to know wider facts about the world — facts beyond the grasp of your own eyes, your own hands.

My life as vegan and vegetarian was not sufficient to conclude that humans are omnivores. I needed to read about human nutrition from objective and scientific sources.

My Cesarean is but one data point among many of interventions, some justified and some not, offered to mothers and babies. Now that I count myself and our son among the small percentage of mothers and babies who need to be rescued by surgery, I appreciate hospital technology with something I could blandly call personal conviction but is more like white-hot fire.

And yet. The Cesarean has made my views even more radical about what typical care for mothers and babies should be. We needed our surgery. But now I am even more concerned about the mothers and babies who undergo unnecessary pharmaceutical inductions and elective Cesareans. You need to read the results of these interventions in large studies to make decisions about what’s good for the average mother and baby. I wish more women and obstetricians read those studies.

My life as a farmer, with our own milk and eggs and heaps of fresh vegetables, did not teach me how people in cities and suburbs and small towns could and should shop for real food. Later I lived in cities, and — hungry for local food — I shopped at, and even created, farmers’ markets.

This summer, my life is suburban. Instead of pontificating from the swivel chair, I am in the car, looking for good food. I am testing, in the field, the rules of thumb I blithely offer when asked, “Where do I buy real food if I’m not lucky enough to own a string of 17 farmers’ markets, or even to live near one?”

Once piece of my own advice I’m taking: the higher up the food chain you’re buying, the more important it is to buy clean foods raised with ecological methods. Translation: I am ordering grass-fed and pastured meat from relatively far-flung farmers (Niman Ranch, Flying Pigs Farm, and New York Beef Co.) rather than buying lesser meats from local farms or shops. I am seeking pastured eggs from local farmers (hard to find). I’ve bought organic, flaxseed-fed eggs from cage-free hens. Not my first choice, but better than battery eggs. Local cheeses aren’t bad, but I haven’t found local (much less raw) milk and cream. We’re settling for a regional milk, unhomogenized, without the hormone BST, even though it’s pasteurized and it’s not from grass-fed cows. We do our best.

Of course we buy local produce when we can. Local strawberries just passed, and we bought our last. They were (sadly) unimpressive anyway. Some farmers don’t care about good-tasting varieties. Blueberries are in, and they are better, but farmers don’t know to pick them ripe. Corn is in, and we’ve found a very good lettuce grower. But everywhere, I have to ask where the food comes from. Here a farm stand is assumed to be A Good Thing — better than the local supermarket or gourmet shop, but often the produce sources are just the same. Thus, another piece of my own advice I’m taking: it’s more important (for health) to feed your family fresh fruit and vegetables daily no matter where they come from than to buy local exclusively.

But can you tell? I visit farmers’ markets all over the country, and have seen plenty lately, on the East Coast and West. For me, the term “farmers’ market” means local food, sold by the producer — plus bakers. It frustrates me that so-called “farmers’ markets” are so often unlabeled mixtures — some farmers, some merchants, some local shops selling prepared foods containing no local ingredients, some farmers selling a mix of their own and other (sometimes local) produce. My eye is pretty sharp for farmers, for out-of-season or out-of-region foods, but even I can have trouble distinguishing the real thing. I read signs and ask questions.

On a Georgia radio show, the host asked me why, in this era of toxin-laced, cheap imports, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) wasn’t the law of the land. “Seems like common sense,” he said.

It’s not American farmers and ranchers (or their senators) who oppose it, I replied. It’s food manufacturers and retailers – and their senators. They don’t want you to know you’re eating milk protein concentrate from countries with dubious cow hygeine. They don’t want to tell you where your food comes from.

As Marion Nestle says, “Once a [bad]food goes on the label, it’s out of the food supply. That’s how food policy is done in this country.” In other words, Americans read labels. They will avoid foods they don’t want to eat — if they know about them.

Recently, at a so-called farmers’ market where the farmer/vendor and the market manager were only half-keen to help eaters like me figure out what was hers and what wasn’t, I got to thinking about COOL. Remember, it’s not the farmers who don’t want you to know where the spuds come from. It’s the retailers.

At a producer-only farmers’ market, all the farmers want you to know they grew it – and the managers want you to know, too, because their integrity depends on it. When the farmer becomes a merchant — when she’s selling other produce, local or not – she starts to act like one. Origin labeling begins to be a regulatory burden. The market manager’s incentive is also weak. Why make the farmer-cum-merchant label his produce, just for the eater’s sake? Seems like a lot of bother, doesn’t it? Isn’t the point to help the “farmer” who is selling at the “farmers’ market”?

I have no objection to hybrid food markets. Some, like the Ferry Building, are spectacular; it makes me envy San Francisco eaters. But it’s time for the market for local foods to show some integrity. A fully traceable food chain with origin labeling is the bare minimum.

People wonder why I praise Whole Foods. Today I’ll give you two reasons: they banned trans fats (unlike any farmers’ market I know, except mine in Washington, D.C.). And the signs are better.

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