Consumers Under Pressure
I can't decide what to eat. I don't mean which recipe to make, or what restaurant to go to. I mean when I go grocery shopping, I'm paralyzed with indecision. Everything, it seems, is either ethically, nutritionally or environmentally incorrect. Guilt is ruining my appetite.
Take the other day when I went to buy eggs. Sounds easy, but this is the dialogue that played in my head as I stared at six shelves of egg cartons:
"Should I buy the omega-3 eggs that are supposedly good for my heart? But wait, they're not organic. Maybe I should spring for the $3.50 organic eggs from Horizon, even though I read that the company has gotten so huge, it's driving out the smaller organic farmers. Perhaps I should get the cage-free eggs from a small farm in Pennsylvania? Or the brown eggs from vegetarian-fed, free-roaming hens?
"Oh, never mind. I need to save money. So what if the hens are living a miserable existence in the poultry version of the state pen. The eggs are only 79 cents. I have bills to pay."
(Note to PETA: Don't worry. I couldn't live with the guilt. I ended up buying the brown eggs from free-roaming happy hens, so don't write to me.)
The point is, choosing what to eat and drink has become hard work. It's not simply a case of taste or price. Now we have to ask ourselves: Is this good for my health? Have animals suffered? Is it local? Organic? Bad for the planet? Harvested by child workers?
What's worse, the answers are often contradictory. Should I buy the locally grown lettuce at the farmers market, even if the farmer uses some pesticides? It's good to support local farmers, but what about pesticides' link to cancer? Then again, that California-grown organic lettuce at the supermarket has been trucked in thousands of miles, burning up thousands of gallons of fuel. Does that make environmental sense?
Even when you think you know the answers, it turns out you don't. Consider salmon. To prevent the over-fishing of wild salmon, which was also wildly expensive, farm-raised salmon was developed. It seemed the perfect solution to controlling cost, protecting the species and meeting the exploding consumer demand for the kind of fish that health experts insisted we needed to eat. Except that now farm-raised salmon is said to have high levels of chemical contaminants and other carcinogens because of the way the salmon are raised. Should we limit our intake? Switch to something else? (But not Chilean sea bass, which is over-fished, or shrimp, which is farm-raised in equally contaminated water in foreign countries, or canned tuna, which is full of mercury.) Or should we just take the risk because we're told -- this week -- that fish oil is good for us?
The tough decisions aren't limited to the fish counter. Books such as Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) have raised questions about the humane treatment of cattle and of the immigrants working in packing plants. Critics wonder how closely the federal government really inspects the meat we eat. The feds say our meat supply is safe, but companies aren't required to announce recalls of contaminated beef. And what about that Texas cow discovered last year to be infected with mad cow, the brain-wasting disease? Government officials played it down; should we trust them? Switch to chicken?
Oh, wait. Avian flu. Salmonella. Chickens raised in factory farms. Manure runoff polluting the Chesapeake Bay. Chicken-of-the-sea becoming literally true.
I think I need to lie down.
My anxiety over what to eat is what Michael Pollan addresses in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Penguin Press, 2006). The question of what to have for dinner has become complicated, he acknowledges. Fast food and processed food are making us fat. Dietary advice is confusing. Even organic is becoming big business, including organic junk food and organic factory farms.
But refusing to consider these developments is not the answer. Ignorance, he argues, is not bliss. It's just ignorance. "To eat with a full consciousness of all that is at stake" can afford great satisfaction, Pollan writes, because it lets you choose what is best for you. Bottom line for him in the dinner dilemma: Choose local.
Still, I wondered if there might be some moral and ethical template I could apply to my food decisions. Arthur Caplan is the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He's usually asked about tough subjects such as stem-cell research and human cloning. I asked if he found moral predicaments at the grocery store.
"Oh, absolutely. And it doesn't even end with the food," he says. "One of my great moral quandaries comes when the cashier asks, 'Paper or plastic?' " (For the record, he chooses paper.)
Caplan believes there's no need to have "a moral aneurysm" every time we go to the supermarket. Every person, he says, needs to establish a scale of ethical priorities. Is taste most important to you? Cost? The environment? Your health? Animal suffering? Pick one thing that matters most and let that drive your decisions.
For Caplan, No. 1 on his list is whether suffering was involved. "So I want happy chickens, no veal, no foie gras. After that comes environmental impact, and then labor. I have an ethical guide in my head that helps me through the store."
He also points out that, in a way, we should be grateful we are even considering all these ethical questions. "These are the dilemmas of abundance," he says. "If we were living in Darfur, the only answer to 'what to eat?' would be 'anything I can find.' "