Being born into a family of hoteliers had some advantages, to be sure. As a kid I used to spend most of my winter time reading in the hotel larder because it was quiet, the overhead lighting was good and the smells were reassuring. And it was also a place where I could sneak in a few slices of bread and hack a bit of hard cheese, sit on my chair and dream about the origins of all the products we managed to store between bouts of reading. René Descartes liked to do his thinking in bed, I did mine in the larder. It was my domain throughout the winters and certainly not the place to be in the summertime as the hotel was taken over from April to October by a brigade of noisy, fellow loons.
So it was in that larder that I became seriously interested in food and I made a point of scrutinizing and itemizing every tin, bottle, bag, boxed spices, jars, blocks of cheese, preserves and all the hanging charcuterie; the country hams from various regions, the army of salamis, the rings of smoked sausages…I became an expert in label reading and developed a nose for sniffing out rancidity and spoiled goods.
This was some larder! A huge, oblong-shaped tiled room, with a wide center shelf and two aisles on which one could have easily skated around, I lorded over it from my chair and corner desk with great confidence. It had two doors leading into it, one from the main kitchen and the other one that led into the back of the bar area. There was also a small trapdoor leading down directly to my uncle’s private cellar, in which he kept his prized collection of brandied fruits and rare liqueurs. No one was allowed to trespass his cache of goods. Except me, occasionally. I guess it was reluctantly granted because I was the nosy type and could not be kept out indefinitely. I was also good at keeping the place more or less in order. I loved looking at all the fancy bottles filled with colored liquids among his vast collection of maritime mementos and a truckload of old, leather-bound books (he had been a head chef aboard a large cruise liner and sailed around the globe several times, collecting along the way). But I digress.
What I want to talk about is labels and how to formulate a better country of origin system because in these melamine-saturated days, not many of us know where food produce we buy in supermarkets come from, and equally important, we don’t know what kind of chemicals/preservatives have been added and by how much. Just about every packaged food for sale has a food label indicating serving size, fat contents, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, proteins, recommended intake of vitamins and minerals and so on but rarely states the country of origin of its base products and chemical add-ons. In addition, a proper labeling system should intend to help people who have allergies. Allergies of all kinds are becoming increasingly common in industrialized countries and many children suffer from one or more allergy to food, including cow’s milk, dairy products and soy.
There has been considerable discussion in recent years over food labeling, and the best way to present nutrition labeling and added vitamins and/or additives on food packs. Worldwide, consumers are bewildered by the different nutritional labeling systems and find some of the language used on packaging hard to understand or at best, ambiguous. In the United States I know that a new law has been enacted, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), as a whopping 94% of Americans want to know the provenance of specialty meat and fish products but I see huge loopholes that the majority of consumers would want closed, sooner than later:
The exemptions can be a bit confusing. For example, the country of origin must be labeled on raw cashews, but roasted cashews are exempt. Frozen vegetables will have to have the labels, but frozen mixed vegetables won’t. And Spam, sometimes called mystery meat, will be allowed to “remain” a mystery. It’s exempt as well.
Not all food products under the COOL system will be represented: strongly opposed to mandatory labeling are food retailers, wholesalers and processors, and major U.S. trading partners, such as Australia, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand. All view such mandates as protectionist trade barriers. Here is the COOL pdf for your perusal. You will see some notable exemptions such as ham, bacon, cooked shrimp (cooked products are considered processed food therefore exempt), smoked salmon and fresh meat from butcher shops as well as fresh fish (I suppose a caught fish does not carry a passport!)
There are a number of sites that have good info on label reading such as the American Heart Association and our own Nutrition & Health Foundation (Ireland) but these are limited to nutritional information and little else.
Just last week I bought a packet of organic oats, supposedly safe from added chemicals. Great porridge stuff. This week in my email box there was an alert from the UK Soil Association regarding organic oats:
Batches of organic oats being sold in the UK could be flouting the law after an investigation found they contain the pesticides Chlormequat or Glyphosate, according to the Soil Association. Routine analysis of products by the UK’s Pesticides Safety Directorate, and confirmed by the Soil Association (SA), found that some batches of oats contained one or both of the pesticides which means they can no longer legally be described as organic.
Well, this shows to me that sometimes the “system” works. And the system must work for us. Whoever is going to be Secretary of Agriculture has work to do as food safety (alongside food security) should be on top of the agenda, alongside the biotechs. Another looming problem for consumers is the vitamin supplement market. Whenever you ingest a tab of vitamin C it’s a good bet it came from China. Of late China has captured 90 percent of the U.S. market for vitamin C, driving almost everyone else out of business (in case you wondered, the other 10 percent is manufactured in Europe) even though research has shown that taking supplemental vitamins is detrimental to health. Since the United States does not require country-of-origin labels for any of the drugs or supplements, there is no telling where that vitamin you are taking came from.
Chinese pharmaceutical companies also have taken over much of the world market in the production of antibiotics, analgesics, enzymes and primary amino acids. According to an industry group, China now makes 70 percent of the world’s penicillin, 50 percent of its aspirin and 35 percent of its acetaminophen (often sold under the brand name Tylenol), as well as the bulk of vitamins A, B12, C and E. Well, that’s another post!