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Ethical Eating

10 Supermarket Ethical Dilemmas

By Joe Wilkes
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to Win!

Every time we walk into a supermarket, we are faced with hundreds of seemingly minor decisions over which product we should buy. But while the decisions seem minor, the ramifications of our choices can affect our health, our environment, and our society. It can be overwhelming having to take all these issues into consideration, and it's important to remember that even if we don't completely load our shopping carts with perfectly grown, politically correct food, we can still spend an extra dollar here and there to help ensure better health for our families and ourselves, and maybe even make a small difference on a global level. Here are 10 things we can keep in mind next time we're at the grocery store. Not all of them are food related, but what affects the environment ultimately affects what shows up on your plate.

  1. General Modern FoodGenetically modified foods. Is that a pig in my tomato? Or a pig gene, more specifically. Would this genetic modification bother anyone? If it made it taste like bacon, I could go for it. But I don't keep kosher and I'm not Muslim or vegetarian. They might not want that unlabeled gene in their produce. According to the Center for Food Safety, about 70 to 75 percent of products on American shelves contain some genetically modified (GM) ingredient. Over 85 percent of soybean crops and over 45 percent of corn crops grown today are GM. But before we all start picturing the salad bar on the island of Dr. Moreau, there are some benefits to GM. Food stays fresher longer. Crops are hardier and more nutritious, which is huge for third-world countries. They are also more resistant to pests and disease, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, however you feel about GM technology, you'll have a difficult time making the call in the store, as products are not required to be labeled. Some will advertise if they don't contain GM products, but otherwise you'll have to do some research on the manufacturer's Web site, and even that might be fruitless (no pun intended).

    PROS: Longer shelf life. Less pesticide involved. Fewer naturally occurring toxins. Possible health benefits. Finallychicken for dinner and everyone gets a drumstick!

    LocustCONS: May be a religious abomination. Super-insects and weeds may evolve in response to the GM food. More herbicides used to kill weeds around herbicide-resistant GM plants. Unknown effects on allergies and other health problems. Unknown consequences to the ecosystem. More expensive-to-produce GM food can squeeze out small farms. Ever see Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?


  2. Buddy's FarmSustainable agriculture and aquaculture. This refers to the ability of farmers to produce renewable quantities of food without screwing up the ecosystem. Sustainable agriculture incorporates techniques designed to renew and recycle the land including polyculture, where farmers rotate different crops to allow the soil to recover and replenish its nutrients. This process is also believed to help reduce pests and disease without the use of chemicals. An example of unsustainable agriculture is cutting down rainforests or draining wetlands to get new land after soil from the old land has been depleted of its nutrients. You can ask your produce manager or butcher where the produce or meat you're buying comes from or better yet, shop at your local farmers' market, and you can ask the farmer in person.

    Fish SchoolSustainable aquaculture includes not overfishing species of fish until there are none left. You can ask your seafood merchant if the fish you're buying carries the Marine Stewardship Council's "Fish Forever" label, which indicates the fish came from a fishery that meets the council's requirements for sustainability practices. There are also fish that come from "aquafarms" labeled as "farm-raised" in your store. These are usually cheaper than wild-caught fish, but do not have as many of the nutritional benefits, and some worry that because of the cramped conditions they are raised in, they are far more subject to disease and contaminants than their wild counterparts.

    PROS: We might want to have fish for dinner again next year. And hey, our kids might even want to eat fish when they're our age. So maybe we shouldn't eat all the fish now. And it would be good to keep some rainforest and wetlands around. You can ask anyone from New Orleans how good an idea draining the wetlands is.

    CONS: Sustainability isn't always cheap, especially for seafood. It also may be more difficult to find.


  3. KidsFair trade. As the global village continues to grow, we are offered a lot more food from locales from all over the planet. And sometimes at unbelievably low prices. How can they afford to sell it so cheap? Well, you can save a lot of money if your produce is picked by people who work for free, or as they're sometimes called, slaves. Or maybe the food is picked through some sort of apprenticeship program—you're never too young to earn a decent wage, after all. Unless you're eight. And the wage isn't decent.

    Watch DogYou can look on labels of international products to see if they're "fair trade certified." There are several watchdog organizations that provide certifications. Some good certification marks to look for include the International Fairtrade Certification Mark, Fair Trade Certified Mark, and IFAT (International Fair Trade AssociationI know that makes IFTA, but whatever). Any of these marks will guarantee that the producers of the goods were paid decent wages under humane conditions.

    PROS: Your conscience will rest easier knowing your international delicacy wasn't picked by a child at the wrong end of a rifle.

    CONS: Once again, it isn't always cheap to be good. But it doesn't cost too much more to be a decent world citizen. And isn't the rest of the world mad enough at us already?


  4. Caged ChickenFree-range poultry and eggs. This may be a point lost on the chickens, but we're not total jerks. We'd like them to have a decent, happy time on this earth, free of pain and anxiety, until the day we cut off their heads and eat them. And we'd like them to be comfortable while they're laying our breakfasts. So we look for labels that say "cage-free" or "free-range" when buying our poultry products. But what does that really mean? The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture defines "free range" as "poultry that have been allowed access to the outside." So a free range, as Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore's Dilemma, could just mean a barn crammed wall to wall with chickens with a small patio where they could venture outthough most seldom do, as they've spent their entire lives in the barn and the outdoors freaks them out. Similarly, a free range could mean a pen next to a dumpster behind a poultry market. "Cage-free" is not a legal term and could mean anything. If you want to eat a happy chicken, look for the term "free farmed." This is a trademarked certification by the American Humane Association, meaning that the chickens have been well-treated according to their strict criteria. Or best yet, buy your chicken at the farmers' market and ask the farmer about the chicken's past. At my farmers' market, the eggs that I buy come in a carton that has a little story about where the eggs came from and how the chickens were treated.

    PROS: Healthier chicken. Happier chicken. And most say, tastier chicken.

    CONS: More expensive chicken and hard to find. But wouldn't you rather have a tasty high-protein treat instead of a mouthful of poultry despair?


  5. CowGrass-fed beef. Why should we care what the cow that we're going to eat ate? Well, the mad cow scare got a lot of people wondering what was going into our beef. In that case, cattle were being fed remnants of other ground-up animals which eventually led to the fatal Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in humans. Cows are ruminants, which means that they have very complicated stomachs designed to digest fibrous vegetation like grass. Their stomachs are able to transform the cellulose in grass into protein, a process that even we humans lack. Grasslands unfortunately, are in short supply, and agribusinesses have found that is far cheaper to feed their cattle corn, which we produce tons of. Unfortunately, cows have a hard time digesting corn. Eating corn usually leads to liver problems including abscesses on their livers, which would ultimately be fatal to the cow, if they weren't already scheduled to be turned into steaks. Since beef liver is a fairly unpopular foodstuff, agribusinesses have decided that abscessed livers are a small price to pay for the savings in feed. And what's worse, in order to keep cattle alive on this diet, they must be given huge doses of antibiotics with their corn. Also, many beef producers add growth hormones to the feed to get the weight of the cows up.

    CalveWhat this means to us humans, aside from the not-inconsiderable humane concerns, is that the corn-fed beef is much higher in saturated fat, contains antibiotic and hormone residue, and has fewer nutrients than grass-fed beef. So, you'd think you'd want grass-fed, but here's where they get you in the supermarket: almost all beef is grass-fed, meaning that the cow ate grass at some point in its life. Most young cows have to be grass-fed, as their stomachs are too immature to digest corn. But even so-called grass-fed cows are usually shifted to the feedlot to be fattened up on corn, hormones, and a "healthy" dose of antibiotics to keep them alive on their unnatural diet before their final appointment with the slaughterhouse. So if you want the healthiest, most humane beef, look for grass-finished beef. This indicates that the cow was fed grass throughout its life, meaning beef that is lower in saturated fat and higher in nutrient value for you. Again, it pays to ask your butcher what really went into that beef you're going to eat.

    PROS: Healthier beef. Happier cows. Fewer antibiotics and less bovine growth hormone in your diet.

    CONS: Much more expensive than regular beef. Although honestly, we Americans could stand to reduce both the portion size and the frequency of our beef consumption, which could help mitigate the cost increase. Also because grass-fed beef is leaner, it isn't marbled with as much fat as steak connoisseurs enjoy.


  6. CrateVeal. Tell your vegetarian friends you're going to the store to get veal, and you might as well put on your Dalmatian-puppy coat for the trip, Cruella. Even carnivores blanch at the treatment of veal calves. To keep mother cows lactating, calves do need to be born, and since there is little use for the male calves, they are often dedicated to become veal. This means that they are penned into an enclosure small enough to discourage muscle growth and fed only milk or formula until they become scallopini. As with foie gras, the fattened liver produced by force-feeding geese, the crating of veal calves is slowly being legislated out of existence. In fact celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck recently celebrated his 25th anniversary as a restaurateur by announcing that his restaurants would only serve calves that were raised unpenned, out of doors.

    PROS: Less fatty. Much more humane. You'll feel better about eating a baby cow.

    CONS: More expensive. Harder to find. Many gourmets say not as tasty or as tender as crated milk-fed veal.


  7. RunAnimal testing. A friend of mine avers that she wouldn't use any product that wasn't tested on animals. After all why should she be the guinea pig to see if the shampoo causes blindness when there are so many actual guinea pigs, rabbits, monkeys, etc. that can take the bullet instead? Animal rights activists maintain that the practices of testing cosmetics on animals is needlessly cruel and that surely enough testing has been done in the past that we could formulate a shampoo that won't sear our retinas without having to test it on animals. Their opponents argue that animal testing is necessary, and especially in the pharmaceutical industry, vital in developing products with important applications for humans. It reminds me of a guy I met in a bar. When we were ordering another round, I said "Thank goodness they're almost able to give humans pig liver transplants. Bottoms up!" He responded, "I would never take a pig's liver. I think it's inhumane." I asked if he was a vegetarian, and he said he wasn't. So I asked if that meant he would eat a pig's liver but not use it to prolong his life. He said "That's just the way I feel." I thought he was a crazy drunk, but like most of the items on this list, we all have to figure out where we draw our personal line in the exploitation of animals for our own gain, and animal testing is one of the most controversial subjects.

    PROS: No animals harmed. Doesn't cost more to not test things on animals.

    CONS: Hasn't been tested on animals. Products potentially less safe.


  8. Excessive PackagingExcessive packaging This is a pretty simple way to help the environment. While we all want our food to be sealed at least enough to protect it from outside contaminants, many products go way overboard wrapping products in a bag, and then in a box for you to put in another bag. Many stores now offer bulk-bin items, where you can shovel as much of a cereal or dry good as you want into one bag and take home to put in your own container. Instead of buying your cereal-eating family three small boxes containing three bags of cereal, you could choose to buy one big bag. You can also save money while you save the environment by buying in bulk. You can either go to a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club or most supermarkets now have a "big buy" aisle. You get more food, and the landfill gets less trash.

    PROS: You can save money by buying in bulk and there's less wasted paper and plastic. Plus, you never know when there will be an earthquake or a hurricane, and then you'll be glad you bought 10 pounds of peanut butter.

    CONS: Can you eat that gallon of mayonnaise before it goes bad? And where am I supposed to store all this stuff in a studio apartment? And buying in bulk will make for an initially expensive shopping trip, but you'll save later in the month.


  9. lightLight bulbs. Traditional incandescent light bulbs are going the way of the video cassette. And forget those incendiary halogen lamps. The latest and greatest in lighting technology are the spiral-shaped compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). These light bulbs cost a bit more than regular light bulbs, but use way less energy and last much longer. They use about 80 percent less power, which will cut your electric bill a lot and has a huge environmental impact. And they last more than 10 times as long as a traditional light bulb, which means you don't have to buy as many and don't have to get the ladder out as often. And unlike the fluorescent bulbs of yore, they are able to produce warm white, yellow, and blue shades of light, instead of that sickly vibrating greenish hue we all know from the office. In some countries, CFLs are becoming more than a good idea—they're becoming the law. Australia, for one, has legislated that incandescent bulbs are to be phased out of the country by 2010. Even everyone's favorite corporate whipping boy, Wal-Mart, is getting into the act by promoting CFLs to its enormous customer base. Some electric companies are offering discounts and rebates to entice their users to make the switch.

    PROS: Uses one-fifth the energy of a traditional bulb and lasts 10 times as long. This means less financial cost, and a gigantic environmental impact as the pollution from electricity production goes down as we use less power.

    CONS: A lot more expensive up-front, although they save money in the long run. If you want to switch to CFLs, but don't want to shell out the big bucks it would cost to replace all the bulbs in your home at once, you could just replace them as they burn out. Every little bit helps! The lights do take a couple of minutes to warm up to full brightness. And the larger base of the CFLs won't fit into all light fixtures.


  10. Plastic BagsPlastic bags. Swedish retail giant IKEA recently announced that it was going to begin charging a few cents per plastic bag on its way to phasing out plastic bags entirely over the next few years. The reason for this is because of the decimating impact plastic shopping bags are having on the environment. Americans, on average, get at least one plastic bag per day. That's 300 million bags per day and the vast, vast majority are not recycled. It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of sea and land animals die from eating discarded plastic bags every year. Also, the bags take about 1,000 years to decompose, and their decomposition isn't pretty either. They are not biodegradable and they break into elements that are toxic for soil and water. IKEA will begin selling more expensive (less than a buck apiece), reusable bags to customers to replace the plastic bags, so you won't have to drive home with an armful of stuff. And others seem likely to follow suit. Bangladesh has banned the bag after bag-clogged drains contributed to monsoon flooding and Ireland has levied a hefty consumer tax on plastic bags to decrease consumption.

    PROS: Saves the environment. Won't have plastic bags cluttering up your house.

    CONS: Reusable bags are more expensive and you have to remember to bring them to the store with you.

All of these topics are only scratching the surface. For additional reading, we recommend Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

There's a lot to consider when making your shopping decisions, and it's pretty overwhelming trying to avoid all of the pitfalls for your health and the environment that exist at every turn. But even changing one or two habits can make an enormous positive impact. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

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