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Aug. 18th, 2011

I stopped by the supermarket just now, which is rare because I'm usually (a) not home during the day, or (b) not at street level since my fifth-floor walkup apartment is not precisely conducive to quick errands. But I needed to do a garbage run and also needed a few things from the store so I hit the store. It's really quiet in the morning - enough so that I can read the labels in more detail than I usually do. Rather than just relying on the front-of-box adverts that this cereal is high fiber or this sandwich meat is low sodium or whatever, I could dig a bit.

The end result, as always, was I quickly got overwhelmed. How many carbs, calories, fat grams, etc. is too much? Is gluten free better than me (I'm diabetic) than the standard fare, and how much better? What is the practical difference between low sugar, high fiber, whole wheat, etc.? It seems like there's always a tradeoff so I often am left wondering whether a certain item is that much better or worse than the other option. And whether it is worth the price, because there's a tradeoff there as well - saved money means I have more ability to afford healthy options when I have to eat out. Sometimes NYC is not the easiest place to eat healthy in.

All of this got me thinking about an editorial I saw over at HuffPo. In the quick pace of online news, a post from August 1 is beyond old news by now, but to my credit I had bookmarked it and only got around to reading it last weekend. Essentially, this editorial argues that food labeling shouldn't be left up to agribusinesses - that the government should decide what counts as whole grain or low fat or whatever, because right now it really is anything goes. Reading the editorial, I thought her language was a bit overblown. I mean, corporate culture resisting regulation is news? That's what they do, because restrictions means it's that much harder for them to turn a buck. Duh. And with all that's wrong in the world, food labeling seems to me a rather low priority even as I pay more attention to my health than I once did.

But then I was standing in the supermarket, wondering how much I should trust those labels. Even more vague is the scant info on ethical issues - what does cruelty-free mean, free-range, etc. for meat, poultry and egg products? Good luck knowing whether the agribusiness displaced small family-owned farms or used the undocumented at slave wages or used actual slaves in the third world. Or whether the pesticides and growing cycle is environmentally sustainable. Those issues are important to me, actually, as are the moral issues of helping people eat healthy. But how do I know what "cruelty-free" means?

Thinking of all this, I was reminded of a verse I read in my morning Bible study. Yes, I actually do read Leviticus beyond clobber texts like 18:22, and take it seriously. The verse in particular is 19:14. In the NASB it reads:

You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the LORD.


In a very real sense I am blind. It is impractical to expect me to have all the facts of every item I need to buy in front of me. So I have to rely on what the company says. In a best-case scenario I will have the option to compare carb counts, sodium levels, etc. - but if Ms. Wartman is correct, even that information isn't for sure. But to quote Spider-Man's Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibilities." If a company has the freedom to label its food the way it sees fit, then that company's officers have the moral responsibility to label it fairly, accurately and in a simple enough way people can actually understand. And that's pretty huge, I think.

Btw, as I've thought about it a bit, I start to see that this isn't an issue limited to food companies. News corporations are the first example that jumps to mind. If Fox tells its audience that the health care bill has a death-panel provision, that's taking someone who doesn't have the access or resources to understand the bill for herself and potentially setting up a stumbling block for her. Ditto if a leftist site like HuffPo says that voter fraud laws are part of an organized drive to disenfranchise minorities. Or if a neo-Nazi website tells its readers that Muslims didn't die in 9/11 because they had advance warning. I say potentially because if the news organization is right - if their claim is unambiguously true - then it's not so much a stumbling block as a guide-post. But if the information is wrong, that's pretty bad.

For the record, this is the scariest part of teaching for me. My students don't know what these philosophers said, and it's my job to point my students to the invigorating parts of philosophy - and to do a fair job presenting the different arguments. Forget about pedagogy and confusing the students for the moment. My students can judge whether the excerpt I give them is representative or the end of the story. Stumbling-block to a blind-man indeed!

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/3749.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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