Do You Want to Know?

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Do You Want to Know?

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute.

More than 75 percent claimed to scrutinize their food choices more closely these days, which is encouraging. We may finally be reaching the point where the stakes are high enough to crack consumer apathy.

One of those colorful graphs in USA Today caught my eye on Wednesday. It illustrated the results of a survey that asked, "Do you want to know where your food is from?" It wasn't clear whether the "where" referred to origins in the animal sense or geographic sense, but more than 75 percent claimed to scrutinize their food choices more closely these days, which is encouraging. We may finally be reaching the point where the stakes are high enough to crack consumer apathy.

The survey was conducted by IBM in June, to gauge consumer opinions about food safety. IBM is developing technology to track the origins of food products and their transportation, among other things. It concluded that "consumers are increasingly wary of the safety of food purchased at grocery stores, and their confidence in - and trust of - food retailers, manufacturers and grocers is declining." Much of the distrust came from food recalls, particularly peanut butter and spinach (but not, surprisingly, beef). The survey apparently failed to ask whether people understood that bacterial contamination of vegetable products often originates in livestock (as occurred when runoff from cow pastures contaminated the spinach).

Interestingly, another recent IBM survey of U.S. consumer attitudes noted that "meat, poultry and coffee top the list of the one item shoppers don't want to give up" when finances are tight - hence my hunch that people don't truly want to know which animals their food comes from, or under what circumstances, otherwise meat (including poultry) wouldn't be so high on their priority list.

Most people I know don't want to know where their meat comes from. How many vegetarians have had a non-veg dinner companion cast a wary glance in their direction at the mere hint that the conversation might focus on the origins of the veal cutlets or baby-back ribs on the menu? Anyone who's ever tabled at a vegetarian event has seen people speed up, look away and/or veer farther from the front of any display of factory farm or slaughterhouse images. Meat, as far as they're concerned, comes in plastic packages or disguised under buns and breading, and that's all they need or want to know. They close their eyes, cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Awareness may be changing, however. The IBM studies indicated that people are putting more emphasis on the quality and nutritional value of their food choices, even if it costs more, which means they may be more open to information that distinguishes "good" from "bad" food. Organic products are gaining in popularity, which ultimately will cause their prices to drop and make organic products more affordable. "Going green," the catchphrase that's everywhere on Earth Day but less so by Thanksgiving Day, has an impact on both wild and domestic animals, albeit less than switching to a plant-based diet.

The much more immediate focus of informed dietary decision-making goes back to the original question: "Do you want to know where your food is from?" Food labels, aside from mentioning organic content, have yet to note the conditions of the sheds in which the chickens were raised, the feedlots where the cattle were fattened, and the metal stalls where the pigs languished. It's the sort of information people come by slowly, even when it's virtually under their noses.

Denial is a powerful and handy thing: it saves you from having to make tough decisions or cast aside "comfort food" that your grandmother made. But as the health, environmental and economic consequences of mass-producing meat become harder to ignore, the truth will rise to the top like grease in gravy and be seen for what it is: a threat of global proportions. Then, maybe, a future survey will ask, "Now that you know where your food is from, what are you going to do about it?"


Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.