Food labels were designed to earn our trust. Since 1990, the Food and Drug Administration has required manufacturers to list the ingredients of their products, and more recently, "Nutrition Facts" boxes appear on everything from cereal to chewing gum.
But as more Americans attempt to make healthy choices about what they put in their bodies, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to discern how our food was grown, processed and treated -- thanks to our collective support of a food industry that wields its heft and political clout to create labeling laws that make a mockery of disclosure.
This is a story about a regulatory system increasingly friendly to the notion that consumers aren't smart enough or sufficiently informed to make the "right" choices -- an idea the food industry uses to justify the argument that obfuscating the information on food labels serves some undefined public good.
It's also about what happens to our food when industry attempts to achieve economies of scale to meet our expectations that a bag of organic lettuce mix should cost the same as a Yoo-hoo and carry almost as long a shelf life -- not to mention our willingness to believe that everything edible constitutes food.
It's also a story about nomenclature.
At some undetectable moment in recent history, modern food parlance parted ways with common standards of forthrightness and left us in an up-is-down world where food manufacturers may soon be able to subject food to ionizing radiation and call it "cold pasteurization," where "chocolate" may not have to actually contain cocoa and almonds labeled "raw" must be sprayed with a suspected human carcinogen.
In this world, makers of an artificial bovine hormone to increase milk production have used their leverage with regulators to bully dairies that don't use the hormone into cowering away from disclosing on their labels why consumers might want to avoid it.
In this world, it is easier and more cost effective to unleash a mix of genetically modified viruses on lunch meat for children's sandwiches rather than clean up filthy slaughterhouses.
In this world, it is increasingly challenging for consumers desiring to make healthier choices to know which way to turn.
"Raw" almonds aren't, really
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently required that all almonds produced in the United States be pasteurized, including nuts labeled "raw." The rule went into effect Sept. 1, despite protests from health-conscious consumers who prefer unprocessed nuts and small-scale growers who can't afford the equipment, which costs between $500,000 and $2.5 million.
The move follows two Salmonella outbreaks attributed to raw almonds in 2001 and 2004. Critics of the rule point out that both incidents were the result of faulty practices at large-scale commercial farms. Small-scale and sustainable practices -- including mowing and mulching to control weeds, instead of using chemical herbicides -- naturally prevent the spread of harmful bacteria more effectively than post-harvest treatment, they say.
The Almond Board of California, a governing body representing all almond growers in the state, pushed for the change. Small growers complain that the board disproportionately represents the needs of the large producers.
A spokesman for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service says that the agency simply responded to the almond board's request. "We basically move at the behest of industry," spokesman Jimmie Turner says. "If the industry calls and says they want a standard or a marketing order, we take that request, and normally we do what's called a notice in the Federal Register. We seek public comment, and based on that comment, there can be a marketing order established."
The same process is followed for all food stuffs, Turner says.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group leading a campaign to convince the USDA to overturn the pasteurization rule, contends that labeling treated almonds as "raw" is deceptive. More than that, the group argues that it epitomizes the industrialization of our food supply.
"This is just the opening salvo of corporate agribusiness wanting to sanitize all of our food," says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute. The impetus, Kastel says, is the economics of large-scale production. In many cases, such operations utilize growing and cultivation methods that provide much greater opportunity for contamination.
"After the fact, they want to use these technologies ... so they can sanitize our food supply, but it will do great damage to our food and, because of the infrastructure costs, will put out of business small and high-quality growers and independent processors," Kastel added.
To comply with the regulation, almond producers can either steam the nuts or fumigate them with propylene oxide (PPO), the almond board's preferred process. PPO is recognized as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is banned in the European Union, Canada, Mexico -- and much of the rest of the world.