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Black Boxes

January 22, 2012

At my house we normally get our supply of coffee through the mail, but since we ran out of coffee in the middle of the week I ended up buying us a small can to tide us over until the next shipment arrived.  It’s Yuban, and it comes with a little notice on the front that tells the buyer that it’s Rainforest Alliance Certified*, in such a way that’s obviously meant to be a selling point.

What’s the asterisk for, you ask?  Well, as it turns out, more than 30% of the content is so certified (exactly how much is never specified), and exactly what the certification means isn’t entirely clear.  The label says that the 30% or more is from certified farms, and it tells us that the Rainforest Alliance helps farmers “improve their skills and environmental practices enabling them to grow better beans, receive better wages, and build stronger communities.”

You’ll have to forgive me for some of my cynicism regarding this claim when the last Rainforest Alliance certified farm I visited in a foreign country looked like this, and much of my work in cultural anthropology while I was there involved collecting data on how these cash export crop farms were destroying the health of their workers and their families, tearing families apart, and generally ripping up the local culture1.  While this wasn’t a food plantation (because we were in the highlands of Ecuador, it was roses; export food crops for the country such as bananas, chocolate, and coffee are grown closer to the coast), it does give a shocking insight into how little we actually know about the conditions in which most of our food is produced, and how little we can actually determine from the certification that does exist in our country.  For example, take a look at this bucket of roses, photographed at the same plant (on the right).

Roses being prepped for shipment at a plantation in Ecuador.

That’s a Whole Foods label.  But the roses that were grown there weren’t grown organically at all, because the plantation owners literally cannot afford to.  All it takes is one opportunity for an insect or a virus to get loose in one of the rose hothouses, and literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of crop will be lost and cannot be replaced any time soon, as rose bushes aren’t very fast growers.  The labor practices on the site leave much to be desired as well, as plantation workers are exposed to insecticides and herbicides that can linger in their blood until they are declared unfit for work at any more plantations and frequently develop urinary tract infections because they don’t have time to go to the bathroom at work (especially in the run-up to Valentine’s Day), or perhaps are not allowed to1.

This is one of the better rose plantations, mind you – Rainforest Alliance Certified and all.  Unfortunately, think about what this means for other typically imported crops such as bananas, coffee, and chocolate, where organic may simply mean that they spray their child workers with fewer pesticides in order to bring us these luxury foods.  I ooze cynicism on the topic simply because we do not know, because we must trust the people trying to sell us a product to tell us the truth, and because not everyone has the recourse to sidestep the labels, go to the country in question, and actually see how these products are being made (the way I ended up doing with roses).  Hell, right now I’m not sure anyone would really want to.  It’s pretty disillusioning seeing other countries being forcibly turned into agricultural fiefdoms for First World luxuries.

Economic imperialism isn’t a problem limited to the food supply, as the rose plantation example aptly demonstrates.  However, it does highlight something that I mentioned in my previous post.  Namely, that the issues one encounters with wild fish, however thorny, are similar to those seen in literally everything else, food-related and otherwise.  The biggest of these issues, and probably the primary reason why these and other less savory practices can continue, is what I refer to as the Black Box approach to food: food arrives on supermarket shelves as if out of the aether, and we have very little information of where it came from or how it got there, and little recourse to find out if we were so inclined.

Unpacking the Black Box

When looking at what we would want to know about our food, there are a number of different levels at which we can look at it:

  1. Production – How was it obtained/grown/made, and where?  Are the practices used to produce the food environmentally unsound, produced using types of labor we find abhorrent (e.g. children), or cruel to the animals?  Does it actually matter if food is produced organically?  How about locally?
  2. Content – Although by law there must be lists of ingredients, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what all of them mean (and this is not unintentional).  For example, an otherwise innocuous word like “cellulose” apparently means processed wood pulp in a great number of processed or prepackaged foods2.
  3. Labeling – What do the labels mean?  Foods nowadays are covered in health claims, all forms of food are touted as organic, and “fair trade” shows up quite often on the outside of certain types of products such as coffee and chocolate – but as noted above, what fair trade implies and what it actually means are not necessarily the same.

Of the three, production is the most problematic.  Although the health claims and various labels placed on food may be confusing, there are rules that must be followed in the U.S. and there are ways to find out what the words and labels mean (for those who want an in-depth read on the topic I recommend Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat).  Although the recent adoption of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) in 20083 provides us with more information about where the food comes from, allowing us to make more informed choices about things like seafood, it doesn’t address other questions, like the conditions in which our food animals are raised or the labor conditions under which our produce is grown and harvested.

Looking more deeply into the issue is like turning over a rock and watching the various squirmy inhabitants underneath writhe, glistening, in the unexpected sunlight – and it doesn’t take much digging to find some truly horrific practices going on.  Muckraker documents like Food, Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma illustrate the terrible conditions in which our meat is produced and killed: fed on cheap corn until it is chronically ill, typically unable to move around freely, kept in darkness and kept alive through the heavy and chronic use of antibiotics.  Additional antibiotics, up to 70% of those used, is given at subtherapeutic levels in order to boost growth rates in pigs, cattle, and poultry4.  The feed they are given is not entirely corn, either.  As noted previously, where it once was a dumping ground for cheap fish taken from the waters (and local food chains) of equatorial nations, later it became a place to use up the inedible portions of their own and other food species as well as the final resting place for an uncounted number of euthanized strays, housepets, and roadkilled animals4.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. . . instead of stories of how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes – as inscrutable as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity5.

However, he notes that the bar code doesn’t have to be a veil of secrecy.  In Denmark, supermarkets have experimented with adding a second bar code to meat that, when scanned, brings up images of where the animal was raised as well as information about its feed, medication, and slaughter date.  This sounds like an awesome idea, but truthfully most of the meat produced in the U.S. would never be sold if such information was so easily available – not even the organic and free-range animals sold at Whole Foods and other such upscale markets5.  The best indicator of the value of such information to consumers is amply illustrated by the herculean efforts of the industry to stifle any and all of it, as illustrated by the uproar over recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST.

Asterisks and Disclaimers

Remember that little asterisk noting that there was only 30% rainforest certified coffee in the can?  Asterisks aren’t only used to provide a caveat or disclaimer to loud advertising claims (e.g. “50% OFF ALL PRODUCTS that meet specific criteria, limit 4) but also are sometimes there because a powerful industry doesn’t want consumers getting the idea that there might be something wrong with their product, whether or not there might be actual science that there could be.  For example, milk can now be advertised as rbST-free, but only with a little asterisk that goes to a disclaimer stating that the FDA has found no significant difference between the milk of rbST-treated and untreated cows6.  This is actually somewhat unusual, as no milk that is treated with rbST is actually labeled.  When the FDA was considering the initial approval of rbST as safe to be used in milk, Monsanto (the company that produced it) mounted an enormous lobbying campaign to prevent milk from being labeled as to whether or not it was produced by treated cattle.  Their argument was as follows: since rbST is not chemically distinguishable from the natural bST that cows produce in their milk, there should be no label since it would suggest that milk from treated cows might be different and that untreated cows’ milk might be better6.

An rbST disclaimer, from The Food Enquirer

Although they are probably correct in that the rbST itself does not pose a danger to human health, cows that are treated with rbST are more prone to udder infections and mastitis, requiring more frequent antibiotic treatments that then end up in the milk.   For reasons unknown it also causes them to produce more insulin-growth factor (IGF-1) in their milk, which is identical to the human form of IGF-1 and may possibly represent a health issue6.  Unfortunately, the effects of both of these secondary side effects of rbST treatment in milk cows is unknown, because such milk cannot be identified in the absence of labeling.  The only way milk can provide information about whether or not rbST is used in its production is by the addition of the FDA disclaimer.

The rbST episode actually stands as a good example of what the industry will push the government do when not reined in by public outrage, as well as what the government will let them get away with.  The latter is less surprising than you may think, since the primary goal of the government regulatory bodies that monitor food production and safety is to encourage agricultural business, including meat production – in other words, their primary goal is to make you eat more (American-grown) meat, milk, produce and grains6.

If this sounds like a clear conflict of interest, it’s because it is.   It is why we have to treat our meat like a biohazard and why we can’t be told what foods contain genetically modified ingredients without a forest of disclaimers.


All is not lost, however.  Take organic standards, for example.  There are specific rules that must be followed to allow food to label itself as “organic”, and when the organic movement was originally building real steam in the 1990s, agribusinesses fought to make the definition as loose as possible.  In the original set of standards released by the USDA in 1997, operating under industry pressure, genetically modified crops and irradiated crops would have fallen under the “organic” label.  Public outrage from farmers and consumers alike forced them to tighten their rules and omit both GM and irradiated food5,6.  Whether you consider the current standards to be meaningful or meaningless, they are nonetheless representative of the power of the consumer to force tight rules onto the industry.  In response, the attempts by the industry to weaken the rules for organic standards and our confidence in organic labeling are relentless and never-ending6.  As Marion Nestle notes:

The best evidence that Organic Standards really do mean something – and are not so easy to achieve – comes from the unrelenting efforts to weaken them from Big meat, Big organics, the USDA itself, and now Congress. . . [The] repeated pattern – the USDA proposes weakening the rules, sees how much fuss its proposal causes, and backs down if it causes too much – is a clear indication that Organic Standards are meaningful and worth fighting for6.

I don’t quote this because I necessarily think organic, especially in its current incarnation, is the answer to our industrialized food system woes.  I quote it because it provides a hint of what we can do, and proof that we are not just pawns for the multinational corporations to push around.  There are two lines of attack and both must be pressed if any actual standards for food quality, safety, improved labor practices, and reduced externalities are going to go into place.

The one we are most familiar with is purchasing power – “hit ‘em where it hurts”, “vote with your dollar”, and so forth.  This does have tremendous influence and is not to be underestimated, particularly in the food industry; the decentralized farming industry of Japan, so very unlike our increasingly consolidated meat and farm industries, actually works the way it does because of a cultural emphasis on freshness.  Consumers won’t buy food that’s more than a day old, so the system remains heavily decentralized to avoid having to transport anything very far (which takes time)7.

However, as noted above, our own government and the industries it works so closely with constantly attempt to remove the information that we need as consumers to make such choices.  This is where the second approach must be applied, and this is where it gets difficult.  Pressure must be applied politically, to uphold standards, to tighten standards, to stop making the USDA and FDA simply another wing of the industries they are meant to regulate.  This is difficult both because of the immense political power wielded by such entities as Big Meat and Big Agriculture, and also because my generation and those after it (X and above) have long been inculcated with the idea that we have no political power, that nothing we say will change anything, so why bother8?  Vote with your dollar and call it a day, because at the end of the day, the Baby Boomers overshadow us politically.  We won’t get anywhere until they’re dead.  Probably not even then because the corporations own us all, and the government only listens to them.

Well, they will if we don’t say anything, and simply roll over and let this happen.  We have forced change on them before through the harsh lens of public outcry; the FDA and any industry standards exist at all because of the rage that followed the release of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and as more and more evidence of the dangers and externalities of our current food system leak out, steam is building.  It’s why organic anything even exists.

And the coffee, that I mentioned before?  Fair Trade rules in any form exist because of public outcry, and political pressure forces tighter rules.  FLO-CERT is a form of certification followed by certain European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, which enforces tight labor rules as well as environmental impact rules (no 12-hour days, for example, nor child labor).  These rules are followed because if they are not, these markets are literally impenetrable to imports.  Contrast this with our own markets, in which Fair Trade-certified tropical goods by any regulatory body are rare and typically found only in upscale (read: expensive and very specifically-placed) markets.  Lobbying for more FLO certified goods in our markets would take a combination of market pressure – willingness to pay extra to ensure that the people that produce it are protected by the same sorts of labor laws we require of businesses at home – and political pressure.

But even with the version of Fair Trade that is commonly applied in the U.S., the pressure from outside forces has forced the Ecuadorian government to make changes in its laws that improve the health of its workers.  For all the horror stories I collected while interviewing health professionals in Ecuador, the common refrain that followed was that it used to be worse – more miscarriages in the female workers, more birth defects, and a faster buildup of poisons in the blood of workers1,9.  Change was happening, even if it wasn’t as fast as anyone might have liked.

We are not powerless victims of the system.  We made corporations and allowed them certain rights, and we can take them away.  We allow modern-day trusts to exist in the meat and food industries (hello there, Monsanto and Cargill) but we’ve broken their backs before.

The Black Box can be cracked.  But first we need to know, and to care, and to have a will to change things.



  1. Roland Marrino, field interview, 20 July 2011.
  2. Reimer, M.  2011.  “15 Food Companies that Serve You ‘Wood’.”  TheStreet.  Online.  Accessed:
  3. United States Department of Agriculture, 2009.  “Country of Origin Labelling (COOL): Frequently Asked Questions.”  Accessed Online:
  4. Leffers, L.Y., M. Kucharski, S. McKenzie and P. Walker.  2007.  Feed for Food-Producing Animals: A Resource on the Ingredients, the Industry, and Regulation.  Report from The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future: Baltimore, MD.  Accessed online at
  5. Pollan, M.  2006.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Books: New York.
  6. Nestle, M.  2006.  What to Eat.  North Point Press: New York.
  7. Diamond, J.  2004.  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  The Viking Press: New York.
  8. Draut, T.  2007.  Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead.  Anchor Books: New York.
  9. Esteban Cardiños, field interview, 25 July 2011.
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