All The Policy in Our Food!

Bunch of bananas with googly eyes stuck on them
Photo by Diane Alkier / Unsplash

My kitchen is absolutely teeming with policy. Probably yours, too! Let's take a spin through the cabinets to find policy's fingerprints all over them.

In the lazy Susan, my spaghetti sauce has to tell me it has sugar in it and my rolled oats have to tell me they have 6 grams of protein per serving, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) labeling requirements.

On the shelf above the kettle, the Stress Ease tea that proudly states that it "Relieves Tension & Promotes Relaxation" has an asterisk that whispers in much smaller font, "These comments have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease," also per FDA labeling requirements.

The cow's milk I pour into that tea (that may or may not relieve my tension) has to be priced above the minimum set by the Maine Milk Commission. The government has been in the milk pricing game since the 1930s, when it started setting minimum prices to help out farmers in the Depression.

Since then, milk pricing has become a stupendously complex enterprise that involves phrases such as "milk marketing orders," "classified pricing," and "skim-fat pricing pool," which will be the name of the folk rock band I form. While I suspect you'd love nothing more than for me to unpack all the ins and outs of American milk pricing, you will just have to wait for another time. But tide yourself over with this.

Or I could use my soy milk in that tea, soy milk that's labeled "organic" because it goes along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic standards.

And what, pray tell, are those organic standards?

  • No synthetic chemicals allowed.
  • The land it was grown on can't have prohibited substances (think arsenic, lead salts, tobacco dust) applied within the last three years. (See what is and isn't prohibited here.)
  • There's gotta be an organic plan that lays out how the manufacturer will comply with all organic regulations.

And here's your organic labeling decoder! A "100% Organic" label means just that. An "Organic" label means 95% organic. "Made with organic [insert ingredient/s]" means products with bare minimum 70% organic ingredients.

However, my beloved Teddy Peanut Butter (a day without Teddy PB is a glum day for me) is labeled All Natural and that's a pretty loosey-goosey label. The word "Natural" is the FDA's beat and is interpreted to mean that there's nothing artificial or synthetic that wouldn't normally be expected in that food. In other words, it's a Wild Wild West and the manufacturer can slap a "natural" label on just about anything their heart desires. And apparently they do.

When my cousin came over for dinner the other night, I made cornbread and the cornmeal wasn't too expensive in part because the U.S.D.A. subsidizes corn. As well as sugar, dairy, peanuts, rice, and soybeans.

But those "Best by" dates on the black beans next to the Teddy Peanut Butter? The federal government has no hand in those (except infant formula), though there's a patchwork of state laws about what kind of food needs what kind of label.

This, along with other factors, contributes to 30-40% of the food produced in America going unsold or uneaten, creating a veritable K2 of food loss and waste. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste makes up nearly 25% of solid waste in landfills, and uneaten food contains more than enough calories to feed the 35 million folks in America who don't have enough to eat. It's got some pushing for federally standardized date labels.

And next to those beans is where the protein powder I used to buy once lived.

A very big sigh here.

A whole bunch of protein powders have been found to have lead and other problematic junk in them. Protein powder is a supplement and the FDA doesn't regulate supplements, per the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (pronounced D-Shay for those in the know).

Lobbyists for supplement deregulation launched an ad featuring Mel Gibson being arrested for having Vitamin C. While Mr. Gibson has, in fact, been arrested, it was not for having supplements.

Notably, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, one of D-Shay's original cosponsors, received major campaign contributions from supplement manufacturer Herbalife. His son also worked for the industry. All a little cozy there, isn't it?

To be sure, we could both probably point to plenty of other junk in the grocery store that the FDA is a-ok with. But heavy metals - with all respect to Ozzy Osbourne - are in a class of their own.

Policy is quite literally the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. The more we understand about how policy shapes the world we live in, the more we can make informed choices about how we live in that world. And the more we can help reshape that policy, if we don't like the taste of it.

And now, let us conclude with William Matthews' lovely poem about onions (which are eligible for USDA's Federal Crop Insurance Coverage, a fact that is oddly not included in the poem).

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