10 June 2009

Where Did Your Meal Come From?

The New York Times has a forum on line today about whether people who eat seafood should know where it came from (and how its fishing and transport affected the environment). Oddly, though the Times usually has people on various sides of these debates, all of the participants in this forum agree that those who eat fish should make the effort to inform themselves about the source of the meal.

The US passed a law in 2002 that required sellers of meat and vegetables to label such foods with the country of origin. The agricultural industry got implementation delayed for years, but it finally went into effect in March. That means if you can read the tiny, tiny type on the little labels all over your food, you can find out if it was shipped from Chile or New Zealand, or produced right here in the USA.

Country of origin labeling laws have been around in Europe for quite a while, and since countries there are fairly small, if you buy something from the same or even a neighboring nation, you can pretty conscientiously call it local.

For the US, though, we really need a state of origin law to tell us if those strawberries were produced in your own or a neighboring state, or were shipped or trucked or flown a few thousand miles to get to your local supermarket. Still, if you cook almost all of your meals at home, it's useful to know if your hamburger came from the US or from Argentina, or your kiwis from California or New Zealand.

The Times debate, on the other hand, focuses mostly on meals eaten out, where it's harder to know what you're eating and where it came from. The debaters recommend small fish lower on the food chain as lower in impact, both on the fish and on the environment more broadly.

Taras Grescoe writes that small fish are "still relatively abundant in the oceans." The use of "still" and "relatively," though, bother me, with their implications of decline, both past and future. I'd really like to see people think of animal products as a condiment, to be used in small quantities to flavor a meal composed primarily of nuts and beans, fruits and vegetables, and grains, rather than as a primary food group.