Can I take a moment to tell you about my first boss? It was the early 90s, I was a recent college grad, an even more recent grad-school-dropout. There was a recession on, the job market had imploded, and I was knocking about Chicago with no practical experience and a liberal arts degree. I needed a job.
The job I snagged: an administrative assistant to a vice president of a health care software firm. If I recall correctly, my annual salary was $18,000. My boss was a tiny powerhouse of a woman in designer grey flannel suits. She didn’t interview me — she was too busy — so the first time we met, we realized that we had attended similar liberal arts colleges. She asked me what I majored in, and I thought this is good. We’re bonding. This is gonna’ be great!. “Anthropology,” I answered, excitedly. “How about you?”
She looked me right in the eye and answered, deadpan, “In my family, we were taught not to take the easy way out. I studied history.”
Another story: she had me drive to northern Michigan to pick up her family’s new puppy from a breeder, about 7 hours each way. To make the drive a little more pleasant, she let me take her Lexus, and she agreed to borrow my beloved car, a bright blue Acura Integra that I had bought, with the help of a tiny loan, for $2,500. When I returned after 14 hours of driving with her new family member, she handed me the keys to my car and said simply, “your car’s a piece of shit.”
But this boss of mine — this sometimes nasty, and (I suspect now) deeply unhappy little shark of a woman — did have an impressive, almost encylopedic knowledge of the health care system. She knew how many beds would be owned as a result of the Human-Galen merger, and she could speak fluently about CHAMPUS reimbursement at Columbia-HCA hospitals. I once asked her how she did it — how did she keep all of those facts in her frosted head at once — and she answered: it’s about trends. Paying attention to trends will give you the framework to digest what is happening in the world.
So I was thinking about her when I saw the news that the FDA determined that dairy and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat, and it probably won’t be labeled. I’ve talked about cloning before, and my stand today is basically the same as it’s been: I think there are valid animal welfare issues at stake, the whole notion makes me squeamish, and the word ‘clone’ never fails to make me giggle. I’d prefer to avoid cloned animals. So, by the way, would the majority of Americans. But, if they’re not labeled, I won’t be able to avoid them, and neither will you.
Which brings me to back to my boss, and her advice to look at trends. There’s a trend at work here, and I don’t like it. We have:
1. Dairy and meat from cloned animals, as described above. Bottom line: a majority of Americans don’t want it. But not only will we get it, it won’t be labeled, so you won’t be able to choose.
2. rBGH, also called rBST, also discussed in these pages. It’s illegal in virtually every developed country with the exception of the United States. Plenty of Americans, too, have preferred to avoid the stuff, and there has been a huge debate about whether and how dairy products can be labeled so that Americans can avoid it. A few years ago, the FDA brokered a fragile peace, wherein products could be labeled as rBGH-free, as long as they followed that label with a statement that the FDA finds no difference between milk from animals treated with rBGH vs. those not treated with rBGH). Since then, companies like Starbucks, Publics, Kroger, Dean Foods, and even Wal-Mart has chosen to buy their milk from dairies that are rBGH free. Now, ticked off that they’re losing the battle for milk-drinkers hearts and minds, Monsanto has tried to make even these labels illegal. Individual states — like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio — have recently considered making any labels illegal. Just yesterday, Pennsylvania lost this battle — the labeling can remain. But the bottom line? Concerted efforts remain to stop this labeling. If these labels are lost, then you won’t be able to choose.
3. Creekstone Farms and their mad cow battle: I haven’t talked about this one much, but after mad cow disease was found in the U.S., little ol’ Creekstone Farms, a meat processor, invested in equipment that could test every one of its cows for mad cow disease — so that you, the consumer, could be guaranteed, without a doubt, that your burger isn’t from a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (which, by the way, is a really horrible disease). But the USDA told Creekstone that they were not allowed to test their cows. Mind you, Creekstone paid for the testing equipment with their own money — they wanted nothing from the government. And, mind you, there are many consumers out there who would like to have this confidence. But, claiming that it would make non-tested meat seem unsafe, the goverment said they weren’t allowed. Creekstone sued and won, the USDA appealed, and President Bush himself has said that he’ll fight to block Creekstone from doing this testing. Bottom line: Creekstone Farms is being kept from providing information that at least some Americans want.
4. Genetically Modified Foods: okay, this issue is deep, and huge, and too much to cover in a paragraph. But: 70% of the foods on your grocery store shelves have genetically modified ingredients. According to the most recent survey by the Pew initiative, only 27% of people actually support having these ingredients in the food supply. The same survey suggests that most people are unaware that they’re eating these foods daily. Why? Because they’re not labeled. Bottom line: although many consumers would like these products labeled, they’re not. So you can’t choose.
So what’s the trend? The trend is about information, and whether or not we as consumers can have it.Now, it’s true that some people like to pay more for things, just because it makes them feel like they’re getting more value. And perhaps those who are trying to limit testing and labeling are legitimately concerned about protecting us from ourselves. But there are compelling reasons that people might want all of the above information. Some people — like one recent Pope, for example — take issue with GMOs for religious reasons. Religion might also prompt people to be troubled by animal cloning. Some might be concerned about rBGH’s impact on animal welfare. Others may learned that although mad cow disease has been found in this country, the USDA tests fewer than one percent of slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease and decided, “Whoa Nelly. I want to be sure my burger doesn’t have any of them nasty science-fictiony mad cow prions.”
Whatever the reason people want information about how their food was produced, let’s give it to them. I mean, it’s information. Information about food, this thing that they’re putting into their bodies, and that through all of human history has had tremendous religious and family meaning. I’m not alone in my thinking; at least one bioethicist has said that society has a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that people aren’t forced by the marketplace to eat foods that they are opposed to.
The interesting thing here is the role that organic food has taken in all of this. The organic label has become a de facto clear-cut way of avoiding things like cloned food, GMOs, and rBGH — under organic labeling rules, these things simply aren’t allowed (there’s no hope for the mad-cow-testing issue short of legal victories).
But I will remind you that consumers can win this battle. They just did in Pennsylvania. It’s a huge victory, one that caused Lustybit to post a picture of Kool and the Gang, claiming that “this really is a stinging rebuke to what I still contend was some highly dubious and downright slimy actions.” So, yes. Consumers can win.
Anyhow, I’m thinking about this trend on a Friday afternoon, which is making me think about that boss of mine…. Are you out there, Ann? How did that puppy work out for you? Do you still making cutting comments to your employees? And most important, do you want your cloned meat labeled?