Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?

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What EM Is Thinking

Frequent FoodAnthropology book reviewer Ellen Messer has sent us this eclectic collection of comments and insights into recent food and nutrition related news. We hope to be able to publish more commentary from food and nutrition anthropologists on current events and public policy in coming months.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

16 Jan 17. What’s news? New York Times

Sugary sodas account for 10% of one grocery chain-store food tabs of SNAP beneficiaries, whose receipts show they also buy lower amounts of fruits and vegetables than non-SNAP consumers.  Will this convince law makers to dis-allow sugary beverages as SNAP purchases?  Or will lawmakers use this as an excuse to cut SNAP benefits so government food-and-nutrition benefits don’t contribute to chronic-disease inducing high consumption of sugars?  Nutritionist and food-policy analyst Marion Nestle sounded off against the evil, sugary beverage industry lobbyists, with support from David Ludwig, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s New Balance Obesity Prevention Center.  Another critical voice is Michele Simon, a public-health lawyer, who railed against government (and taxpayer) subsidized sugar and diet-related disease.  In the past, surprising voices against restrictions have included the Food Research and Action Center, which resists any policy change that might stigmatize low-income SNAP beneficiaries.  Perhaps they are also thinking that stigma might resonate with those who want to cut SNAP benefits—period.

Do those who analyze food purchases and dietary intakes have the right methodologies? Should sugar intakes be restricted for everyone? If so, how?

Gary Taubes, a food writer whose earlier book demonizing nutritionists as a large part of the problem of establishing fat over sugar as the culprit, has spent an additional four years trying to understand the science behind sugar’s debilitating impacts (see Chef/Sustainable Food Advocate Dan Barber’s NYTimes review).  Taube’s basic contextual arguments are as follows: Since the 1960s, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic disease have become worldwide epidemics.  He thinks surging intakes of refined sugar, a category that includes cane, beet, and high-fructose corn sugar, is the cause.  His research traces increasing intakes everywhere. In the US, big intakes of sugar followed the earliest Surgeon General’s report and associated Dietary Guidelines advising Americans to eat less fat, especially saturated (animal) fats.  The food industry happily complied, by reformulating products that contained less fat, especially saturated fat, but contained more sugar.  To substantiate the science, Taubes zeros in on the different ways the body metabolizes different sugars.  The arguments, and a continuing diatribe against professional nutritionists who insist that calories do count, and that sugar alone can’t be blamed, so aid and abet the sugar industry, can be accessed here.  There is also a badly edited, earlier video that features Taubes with Tufts Nutrition Dean Mozaffarian, available here.

Although Taubes accepts the nutritional wisdom that individuals and populations differ genetically on their capacities to metabolize foods and their nutritional components, he favors a tobacco analogy that asserts there is no safe level of refined sugar intake.  The biological key to understanding why sugar is so toxic concerns its metabolism and impact on insulin function, the pancreas and liver, and resulting skewing of energy use and fat storage in all foods.  This biochemical process is still incompletely understood, and may involve not only sugar’s direct impact on human biology but also the consequences of not eating certain foods that protect against sugar’s harmful effects.  As a former chain smoker, who has weaned himself off tobacco but for years used nicotine patches to dull the craving, he favors complete elimination of sugar; i.e. “no safe level” although he recognizes this is unrealistic given that sugar is an ingredient in most foods.  (This was one place where his culinary knowledge was faulty, because sugar not only contributes “sweetness” but also binds other flavors together, which is why it appears in recipes for sauces and stews.  Before sugar production and processing became part of the colonial Triangular Trade, it was a valuable spice that was used sparingly like other relatively expensive spices.)  He also demonstrated an unwillingness to think more completely or complexly about the combinations of sugar plus other foods that might be skewing nutrient utilization.  Other likely contributing factors are separated vegetable fats that enter the food stream at greater scale during the same period, after the 1960s, when overweight up-ticks dangerously along with chronic disease. Other possibilities are more hormones or chemical additives or unintentional toxins in animal products. In general terms, he does wonder whether there is something missing in the diet that might have been protective, including fats of various types.  This dietary gap is intrinsic to Tufts Nutrition Dean Dariush Mozaffarian ’s argument that the epidemiological data does not rule out high consumption of sugar, as opposed to fat, as a risk factor for heart and other chronic diseases.  Taubes’ response is that sugar is the common denominator everywhere, but especially sugary beverages.  These other foods are not necessarily present or part of the epidemiological picture everywhere in the world. But I wonder, as I think not only of sugar and alcohol, but fry bread that is part of Native American foods, and all the hush puppies and other fried foods that are typical in African American diets.

I sense nutrition shares with agricultural sciences the dilemma that existing methodologies do not allow researchers to ask more complex questions about diet.  The equations handle one or at most two or a few dietary factors at a time.  In dietary studies, researchers also aggregate primary and secondary foods in what may be unhelpful ways.  Thus, USDA researchers, analyzing SNAP vs. non-SNAP food-purchase data from the receipts of a major food chain, find that SNAP recipients, in aggregate, purchase soft drinks as 10% of their food expenses.  This does not count the beverages purchased at corner convenience stores or prepared food venues.  The rest of the tallies reveal 80 percent of the tabs go for primary (40%) and secondary (40%) food staples, two categories that overlap in that “milk” is counted as a primary staple but “dairy” is a secondary staple.  Legumes overlap primary and secondary.  Nutritionists such as Marion Nestle champion reduction and preferably elimination of sugary beverages in diets. This is not going to happen, but what could change?  How might nutritionists adjust their methods (“cluster analysis”) to take into account fuller dietary patterns?

Meanwhile, laboratories in the US, Europe, and elsewhere are trying to reduce (red) meat consumption for any number of environmental, ideological, or political reasons. Laboratory efforts to mimic beef burgers with microbial ingredients has become a growth industry for food chemists and sensory experts and food-studies (especially social and cultural studies in the history of science and technology) researchers who track and compare the motivations, terms of analysis, and sensory and economic results of such lab-meat efforts.  The latest entry concerns “Impossible Burgers” which contain a clone of “heme” iron, which is what gives meat burgers their flavor.  The article also includes a video, which makes the burgers seem (to me) quite unappealing.

Sensory analysts are also busy developing more flavorful berries.  An engaging professional profile describes the passionate expertise of one Driscoll employee, who applies the lessons learned in his UC Davis undergraduate concentration Nutrition, and two master’s degrees; one in nutrition biology, a second in food science and technology.

Father writes to ethicist—my son, after one season at a pricey Ivy League university, is passionate about sustainable agriculture and says he wants to be a farmer.  Is it acceptable for me, the father who is paying the bills, to be upset?  The ethicist (Anthony Appiah) replies: did you contract for a major investment career when you invested in his college education?  He will yet hob-nob with the children of millionaires and major investment-house officials. In any case, sustainable food enterprise or farming are respectable and ethical occupations…

Finally, in preparation for the inauguration of Donald Trump:

  • Go back a week to food-writer Corby Kummer’s review of three recent books on the history of U.S. food culture. It suggests that the overall theme in American food history is to welcome immigrants.
  • On evolved or un-evolved behaviors, check the January 16, 2017 science and culture reflections by an NPR correspondent, who cites interpretations of Donald Trump’s character by primatologists and ethnographers of foragers. These traits are consistent with non-human and human primates asserting dominance, like a would-be alpha male (chimp) leading his troop, or a forager bragging about his success as a hunter bringing down prey.

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What FoodAnthro is Reading, January 17 Edition

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Do you have items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

First, we thought it would be fun to point to Culture and Agriculture’s Readings, because they have a lovely Wendell Berry poem and because, after all, eating is an agricultural act.

At this, the last week of Obama’s presidency, we thought you might like to read this article about the impact of Obamacare for restaurant workers:

Only 14 percent of restaurant employees receive benefits from their employers. You either need to marry someone with benefits, or go without. This is a very physical industry that causes a lot more damage than just cuts and burns — bad backs, bone spurs, pinched nerves, slipped discs. And then there are worst-case scenarios, which always happen to somebody else, until you remember that to everyone you know, that somebody else is you.

Nutella is bearing the brunt of anti-palm oil sentiment. The anti-palm oil sentiment seems quite well-founded, at least from an environmental perspective, but the question of why Nutella has been chosen as the specific scapegoat is an interesting one.

If we shouldn’t be eating Nutella, what are we to do? Eat insects, obviously! (sorry, I know that’s not really a smooth or appropriate transition). When The Conversation had a recent fairly in-depth view of insect eating in Africa, it felt like an opportunity to look at recent articles on the subject. From Nikassi and Ekesi, insect researchers:

But people living in Africa have never considered edible insects as pests or a nuisance. Perhaps we need to think of a new appellation for edible insects to kill the disgust factor. A simple language analogy between 30 ethnic groups in 12 sub-Saharan countries provided tentative names for edible termites. These are, “Tsiswa”, “Chiswa”, “Chintuga”, “Inswa”, “Iswa”, “Sisi”, “Ishwa” or “Esunsun”. Any of these indigenous names could be used to market termite based products.

A little over the three years ago, the FAO released their report on the potential of insects as food for humans and animals, it led to quite a bit of talk on the subject. From their report, it was clear that the barriers to insect farming and eating outside of the tropics are not just related to the disgust factor, but also to the ways that insects live and breed in the tropics, where they tend to be freely available. Last year, Syngenta’s Thought for Food awarded first prize to a group that focused on the potential of insects as food. An article in The Guardian encouraged us to put insects on the Christmas menu, and as is often the case, the comments section is great food anthro reading. If you are in the U.S., did you know that you could get 36 different cricket flour products from Amazon? And lastly, a most recent story on eating insects: if you’re in North America, you may also be able to watch a recently released documentary, Bugs at the theatre.

Of course, there are other important, and perhaps overwhelming, things happening in North America at the moment, and we’d love to spend more time processing how the incoming president will affect food policy. If you have articles to share, please let us know!

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CFP: Making Sense of Taste

An intriguing call for papers! Please direct inquiries and submissions to the contacts listed below.

CALL FOR PAPERS

Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food

2017 – Making Sense of Taste

From which angle does a scholar approach the concept of taste? Is it primarily an objective, chemical quality, or should it be considered a product of culture? And are these perspectives wholly incompatible? The physical quality and flavour of food and drink preoccupy molecular biologists, gastronomic professionals, and bon vivants. Chemists, among others, construe classification systems, aspiring to help us understand the complexity and the possibilities of flavour. Mediators and their audiences may oftentimes embrace subjectivity, by detailing their intimate and embodied experience of taste. Neither approach is new: historically, classification systems have had major cultural and religious significance, whereas the conception of ‘good’ food – as opposed to ‘bad’ food – and its application in mechanisms of social distinction is at least as old as class-based societies themselves. Clearly, discussions about taste have always been informed by an array of physiological and psychological experiences, not just our palates. We invite proposals on this complex notion of taste: its characteristics, its cultural evaluation, and its history.

Topics

We invite abstracts for papers covering any topic related to the (historical) study of taste including, but not limited to, the following:

  • The physiology and representation of taste
  • Taste, power, and social relations
  • Authentic versus artificial flavours
  • Taste, emotion, and memory
  • Individual versus collective taste(s)

Guidelines Paper Proposals

The conference program consists of plenary keynote lectures, paper presentations and panel discussions. If you are interested in presenting a paper at the conference, please submit an abstract before 5 March 2017. Please expect to be presenting to a large audience of up to 350 people, including academic as well as professional participants. The conference language is English. Presenters of accepted papers are asked to speak 20 minutes as lively and engaging as possible, followed by a discussion with the panel and the audience under the supervision of a session chair.

Applications should include:

  • Title of proposed paper
  • Abstract (maximum 500 words)
  • Biographical information (short CV)
  • Contact information (e-mail, telephone and postal address)

Applications should be sent by the deadline of 5 March 2017 to:

Foodhistory-ub@uva.nl

Notification of acceptance:

As it may not be possible to include everyone’s submission, the organizing committee and advisory board will make a selection. You will be notified if the paper is accepted by 1 May 2017.

Organisation

The Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food is the result of a collaborative partnership between Special Collections (UvA), the Amsterdam School of Historical Studies (UvA) and the research unit Social & Cultural Food Studies (FOST) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Advisory Board

Prof. Dr. Ir. Louise O. Fresco; Mrs. Claudia Roden; Prof. Dr. Peter Scholliers; Prof. Dr. Irene E. Zwiep

Aims

The symposium has the aspiration to become an annual point of assembly and an exchange of knowledge in the field of food history. It intends to stimulate debate and research that bridges the gap between different disciplines. Submissions are encouraged to use an interdisciplinary approach, in which theory and methods from diverse (social) sciences are appropriated or from other disciplines that take a historical stance. Another aim is to transfer academic research to a wider public and stimulate research using the Special Collection of the University of Amsterdam. The symposium is therefore targeted at both an academic and a professional audience.

Organizing Committee

IJsbrand van Dijk; Joke Mammen; Antonia Mazel; Jon Verriet; Ingrid de Zwarte

More information and updates about the symposium

http://bijzonderecollectiesuva.nl/foodhistory/amsterdam-symposium-on-the-history-of-food/

Partners

Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam

Amsterdam School of Historical Studies (UvA)

Social & Cultural Food Studies (FOST) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 10, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Feeling overwhelmed by all the political changes taking place at one time? Perhaps one way to get a grip on things is to focus on just one aspect of change. You might think about sustainability and food justice in urban environments, for instance. Fabio Parasecoli has written an intriguing review of two new books on this topic right here. The books are Rositza Ilieva’s “Urban Food Planning: Seeds of Transition in the Global North” (Routledge, 2016) and Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen’s “Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City” (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

A team of AP reporters (Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza) researched and wrote a series of the most disturbing and incredible stories about the slavery in the seafood industry last year. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. You can—and should—read all of it here. If you are eating imported seafood, once you read this you will be very concerned about who has been victimized in getting it to your table. Assign this in your classes.

Once you have read the AP report, you will want to find out where you can get seafood that is not produced by slaves. You may also want the supply chain to be shorter, the seafood to be sustainable, and more. PBS and NPR have produced this fascinating story by Allison Aubrey on an effort in New England to get Americans to eat domestic seafood that meets those criteria. Similar efforts are going on around the country, of course, so look around locally and you may find something.

Has the United States been experiencing “the Golden Age of Restaurants” and is it about to come to an end? In this thrillist article, Kevin Alexander examines the evidence for the imminent bursting of the restaurant bubble economy. This the part three of three articles. Links to the other two are in the article, of course.

Meanwhile, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells recently gave no stars to the star-driven healthier fast food alternative restaurant Locol in Oakland. This might seem like an odd restaurant for the New York Times critic to review, but given the high profile of the owners (Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi) and the highly publicized social mission (“the most important fast food restaurant in America,” according to Willy Blackmore, at eater.com), perhaps it is not surprising. Whether he should have and whether he committed an injustice in so doing has been the object of much social media attention. The response from Chef Choi is here. Here is an overview of the debate from Jay Barmann and here is where LA food critic Jonathan Gold commented.

One of the more inspiring TED talks I have seen in a long while was this very brief lecture by culinary historian Michael Twitty. In it, he recounts both his personal trajectory and his ideological commitment to challenging the way Americans think about race and food. Excellent scholar activism and potentially very useful for class discussions.

Raising related issues, but in a curiously essentialist manner, this piece on the Intersectional Analyst blog by Lorraine Chuen attacks culinary appropriation by white chefs. The fundamental issue is an important one, but this blog posting seems to suffer from a deeply reductionist understanding of things like cuisine, culture, race, and ethnicity. This might be because the author is focused in this article on “data” rather than on actual people. All that said, it would make for a great reading if you want to spark a discussion in a class.

Why are cured foods so trendy and how does that relate to the former Soviet Union? It doesn’t, really, but you might think so if you read this lovely discussion between Christina Crawford and Darra Goldstein from Harvard Design Magazine. Great hypotheses are tossed out and discarded, large pieces of furniture are discussed, a jar of mushrooms is produced from under a bed. Get some dark bread, some herring, and vodka and enjoy.

What happens to culinary media stars in the wake of the election? Do they also think food is political? Anthony Bourdain clearly does. Read this biting and bitter interview from a few weeks ago, conducted by Helen Rosner. Bourdain appears to have a strong moral compass and a colorful way of speaking about it.

Let’s end this with the suggestion of a drink: Black Lightning. From the always-interesting Southern Foodways Alliance, this discussion between Jonathan Green and Kevin Young about the disappearance of black bootleggers from the public imagination. Get yourself a drink and settle in for a fascinating discussion. Enjoy the fact that anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston sets the theme.

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Review #2: What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Foods?

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reviews of this book, with a rather different perspective. For the first review by Ellen Messer, link here

What’s So Controversial about Genetically-Modified Foods? John Lang. Reaktion Publishers. 2016

Jacket Image

Robyn Flipse (Nutrition Communication Services)

If you want to write a book about a controversy, putting the words “genetically modified food“ in the title should help sell it. Genetic modification of food involves altering the genes of a seed to improve the traits in the plant. It is a difficult technology for most people to understand, and even harder for them to accept when used on what they eat.  A recent Pew Research survey on the risks and benefits of organic and genetically modified (GM) foods found 75% of those who are deeply concerned about GM foods say they are worse for one’s health than other foods, and 79% do not trust information about GM foods from food industry leaders. Is reading What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? going to allay their fears? Maybe not, but the book does fill a gap in the literature by providing entry to a discussion of how GM foods are just one part of a complex and consolidated food system that has made the global food supply more nutritious, affordable and plentiful than at any other time in history.

Author John T. Lang states his goal in this work was to move towards a more productive model of agriculture based on better policy and investment choices. He effectively uses the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a proxy for the failures of the current food system. The handful of companies that make GM seeds and agrochemicals serve as a more tangible target than the elusive international policies and trade agreements that have restricted land ownership and blocked investment in infrastructure, warehouses, distribution facilities, centralized markets, and other farm supports needed for local food production to succeed in many parts of the world.  Instead, readers are given an unfolding narrative of how the interconnectedness of the global food system created the need for the consolidation of agribusiness companies so they could operate more efficiently, standardize their products and meet the food safety requirements of their trade partners. These multinational companies were then able to use their vast resources to invest in the research to develop the GM crops that are now being blamed for a breakdown in the religious, social, cultural and ethical meanings of food.

Astute readers will find it difficult to accept this tradeoff. The more important message about this technology they will gain is that it is simply another tool for farmers, like the plough or tractor, both of which were controversial when first introduced.  Readers will come to appreciate that farming is a business, whether done by conventional or organic methods, and it faces the same problems of scale as any other business that tries to expand.  And like any other tool, GMOs can be replaced by ones that do a better job at solving a problem, so working with the companies that develop new technologies is the best way to have an impact on the design of the new tools. A poignant example of this is concept is found in this critique of sustainable agriculture by Tamar Haspel for The Washington Post.

Lang’s focus on GMOs as a surrogate for a broken food system also provides an expedient way to illustrate how central trust is to our relationship with food today. As Lang explains, fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food from “gene to supermarket shelf,” and the path our food travels is a “maddening, impenetrable maze.”  He says the food system has become so complex and entwined that it’s “almost impossible to ascertain the true origins of any given foodstuff.”  Is it any wonder the public finds it difficult to trust all of the players in the food chain, especially when they view companies, regulators, and policy makers as having their own vested interests?  This “trust factor” is further compounded by the indeterminate nature of scientific knowledge and the uncertainly and unintended consequences that go with it. Can we really say GM foods are safe? Can we say any food is safe? It has become easier for people to trust complete strangers to be their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts than to trust government institutions and big corporations to protect the food supply.

The book provides a broad view of the issues that must be considered when discussing GM foods and the global food system and an opportunity to expand research into several key concepts introduced, such as risk-tolerance, the precautionary principle, and how the “technology treadmill” impacts industries trying to grow and compete. Intellectual property rights and patent laws are also briefly covered, but could be explored further as they apply equally to GM, non-GM and organic seeds and to all of the research conducted at public and private universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and international agencies,  not just private industry.

The discussion on labeling of GM foods in Chapter 3 opens up multiple channels for continuing research and debate. Questions to consider in a classroom setting include, Is GMO labeling about inalienable rights of consumers or personal preferences? Are GM foods different in any measurable way? Can we verify the use of GM seeds in the foods we eat? At what thresholds can GMOs be detected? Who will monitor adherence to labeling requirements and at what cost? Should we have international standards for labeling? Do laws requiring the labeling of GM foods mean we agree we should sell GM food?

Chapter 4 moves beyond the symbolic battle over GM food to expose the complicated way people actually make decisions about what they eat. Compelling classroom discussions could be generated by asking students why people say they are concerned about putting GMOs into their bodies, yet there is a global epidemic of obesity and its co-morbidities due to the poor food choices people make every day. Why do people say they do not believe the scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of GM foods that has been reviewed by international food safety authorities, yet accept the conclusions of those same authorities about the nutrient content of foods, absence of bacterial contamination and truth in labeling of ingredients? Why don’t people want to change their own eating habits to reduce food waste, eat less animal protein and consume fewer processed foods, but want the way food is grown and marketed to change?

Lang says these contradictions will not be resolved by providing people with more information on how GM foods are made since they view GMOs as tampering with nature, but that misperception needs to be addressed.  A discussion of the 2015 PEW Institute study that exposed the problematic disconnects between the public and the scientific community regarding the safety of GM foods would have been instructive here. Resistance to new technology is a well-documented human response, as chronicled in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), so Lang’s suggestion of “stronger safeguards and regulations” is not necessarily the answer.

My interest in the book stems from my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to Monsanto, as well as my work as a cultural anthropologist focused on hunger and food waste. Its classroom effectiveness depends on how it is introduced and what additional readings are assigned, but it should be an effective tool to prompt discussion in undergraduate courses in agribusiness, anthropology, biotechnology, dietetics, ecology, environmental science, food science, horticulture, investigative journalism, nutrition, public health, and sociology. This book is also recommended for any casual reader with questions about the role of science and technology in producing our food.

CITED REFERENCES

Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center website, December 1. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Haspel, Tamar. 2016. “We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.” The Washington Post website, December 15. Accessed January 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.1a4263e3eb3f

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017.

http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

Juma, Calestous. 2016. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Journal Issue Review: Food and France

Special Issue: Food and France: What Food Studies Can Teach Us About History. Bertram M. Gordon & Erica J. Peters (eds). French Historical Studies 38, 2 (April 2015): 185-362.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

French historical studies centered on food can teach anthropologists a lot about gender, food habits, and class-based notions of a “proper meal”.  This special issue of French Historical Studies offers some delicious readings of particular interest for food and gender courses or lectures.  For appetizers, the introduction by the editors contains a good working bibliography on food-history and food-studies source materials in this amplifying field.  For a main course, food anthropologists can choose from a menu of five historical articles (four in English, one in French; with excellent abstracts in both languages).  The first is a cultural history of coffee.  The second (in French), on seventeenth through early nineteenth century notions of gourmet food product “terroir” and associated political-geographic connections with gourmet markets and tastes is very well crafted, and provides a good historical reference point from which to compare later conceptual and historical writings on this topic.  The third, on Parisian workers’ lunch away from home during the 19th and early 20th century, and the fourth, on female garment workers’ “Midinette” (lunch) behavior, describe in great detail the eating establishments that served workers, with their menus and prices.  Together, they communicate from nutritional and sociocultural perspectives the plight of the undernourished working girls, who were often hungry for small luxuries (a fashionable accessory) that competed directly with food.  Particularly the literary evidence suggests that these slender and allegedly “coquettish” maidens, who were probably very hungry, sometimes put moral reputations on the line in order to grab a bit more mid-day sustenance offered by enticing male companions. These articles provide excellent discussions and supporting evidence regarding what constituted “proper meals” and what substitutions were made (or which foods were eliminated) under conditions of financial duress.

Continuing this theme of expected multi-course meal structures and comparative duress, the final article documents the menus, food-sourcing regulations and circumventions, clientele, and politics of Black Market Restaurants during World War II.  It documents how the politically connected and influential French elites, as well as German officers, dined extremely well, despite food shortages, official rationing, and horrendous hunger among the French masses.  It adds to a growing literature on food and war.

Returning to the initial case study as a beverage course, anthropologists can use this history of coffee and its associated class and cultural entailments in France as illustrative of a holistic approach, which uses a wide range of primary political, economic, medical and nutritional, periodical, and literary sources.  Anthropologists might be frustrated, however, that the evidence-filled article does not get around to discussing coffee’s (medical) humoral value(s) until near the end.

As a set these papers effectively demonstrate the ways studies of food are contributing to new historical and anthropological understandings.  In the words of the editors’ introduction: “People’s hunger for any kind of food under conditions of deprivation or for more appetizing dishes when times are better provides a new angle from which to view questions of nationalism, global networks, gender, race, ethnicity and class.”  A 16 page compilation of recent writings on French food history completes the volume.

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