Welcome to the Global Dinner Table

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on August 29, 2008 · 1 comment

Many Americans are aware of globalization and the out-sourcing of commerce—but do they know how it is affecting their grocery carts? Today, China is the world’s largest grower of apples. Welcome to the new global dinner table.

A developing concern for “ethical eating” is occurring in the US and it’s leading to more questions about patterns of food production, distribution and marketing. But the growing reliance on foreign food sources went largely unnoticed until the pet food scare of 2007, when imported animal food sickened countless pets, killing some.

Imported food now accounts for 15% of all US foods, yet the FDA inspects less than 1% of imports. There are 450 FDA inspectors to cover 300 ports of entry, through which a total of 20 million food imports enter each year.

But, consumers aren’t going to stand by passively any longer. Government and industry are facing a new grocery shopper—one who demands accountability and transparency when it comes to foods. We are no longer talking about just the eco-conscious consumer, but the average shopper who may or may not be up to speed on environmental concerns. This shopper wants assurances that the food she feeds her family is safe.

A tipping point for safety concerns was the investigation launched by the Humane Society in early 2008, spotlighting the use of downer cattle by the meat industry. The organization’s undercover video quickly spread throughout the country, through traditional news outlets and on the internet—in fact, the availability of user-generation information on the internet may dramatically increase the transparency of our food supply. In the future, to ensure animal protection, we may not need government regulations. Instead companies could simply provide verifiable online video of their facilities and operations. Any interested consumer could make judgments for themselves about humane treatment, free range grazing, or any other issue of concern.

Consumers are making buying decisions that affect suppliers. The number of farmer’s markets has grown by 250% in the last decade. The desire to “buy local” is forcing supermarkets to prove that their produce—potatoes, tomatoes, peaches, apples—are sourced locally. You now see signs listing not only the price of tomatoes but identifying them as “Jersey Reds.” Peaches and apples, too, are often tagged by both variety and state.

Starting in September 2008, COOL (country of origin labeling) will be enforced for beef, lamb, pork, fruit, vegetables, and peanuts. Suppliers of wild and farm raised fish have had to COOL label since 2005 and congress is considering extending this labeling requirement to include other categories of foods. This is a great tool for transparency because the label will identify the source of many foods.

Companies see the handwriting on the wall. Many already use a geographic tag as a branding tool—think Ah!laska, Dakota Lean, Florida Natural, Mystic Chips, Nantucket Nectar, and Vermont Sweetwater. McDonald’s started a “see what we’re made of” initiative sharing information about the sourcing of ingredients.

There are foods, such as bananas and coffee, that will always come from a foreign source. Companies dependent on such products are under more pressure to demonstrate fair trade initiatives, safe farming techniques, and fair labor standards. Dole Fresh Fruit Company recently piloted an internet program that allows consumers to type in a farm code printed on organic banana labels and virtually visit the farm where their fruit was harvested. Dole is further using this tool to highlight community programs it sponsors.

As a societal trend, ethical eating is here to stay. As we sit down to our global dinner table we will expect that the food is safe, fresh and tastes good. But we will also be asking about the conditions of the farms and animals, and demand assurances that companies are protecting workers and the earth. We’ll expect broader and more explicit standards for food imports. And, above all we will require transparency to understand where our food came from and how it got to our dinner table. Research has already demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay more for food they can trust. Peace of mind is worth the price.

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