Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Informed Consumerism

I remember a news article a few years ago about a butcher in Perth who started selling horse meat, despite receiving death threats for doing so. It's one of those interesting cases where differences in cultural sensibilities come to light. With the recent horse meat scandal in Europe, it seems that the British share that Australian revulsion to the thought of eating horse meat, while the rest of Europe is instead outraged over the mislabelling of the meat.

I can sympathise with people having a taboo violated without their consent, though that problem stems from the underlying problem of not having informed consent. If they were correctly identified as horse meat burgers, it existing might have been a source of revulsion to some, but at least then they could have avoided the product. The incorrect labelling is the problem here.

One of the things that hit me strongest in Food Inc. was the corporate reluctance to properly label food items. Their reasoning: the consumer is too ill-informed to be able to be given accurate information. Of all the things in that movie that could have outraged me, that outraged me the most. I'm pro-science and not in any way opposed to bringing science to our food, but it's vitally important that I as a consumer is not being misled about what I'm eating.

In the case of the horse meat, the companies involved violated that most basic and important of societal agreements - a transaction in good faith. As consumers, we aren't in a position to trace back the source of our food to its exact origin, nor do we have DNA testing equipment that can be taken with us to the supermarket. The labels are all we really have in order to make an informed choice. Obfuscation and dishonesty violate that social contract.

We can't be informed consumers unless we know what it is we are consuming. I'd contend leaked exposé videos of parts of the process with varying degrees of truth are a symptom of this lost understanding. I'd also contend those paranoid chain emails and websites about deadly products are too. Though it's understandable, if something so innocuous as what meat is being used in a product cannot be correctly conveyed, just what can we trust about a secretive and arcane industry?

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