A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling

2014 Peter Laufer

Whiny. The author teaches at the University of Oregon. The book starts with a can of Natural Directions black beans from Bolivia sold at Market Choice, and walnuts from Kazhakstan sold at Trader Joes, both supposedly organic. The author's idea of "investigation" is to pester authorities to tell him stuff, and get self-righteous when they don't. Lots of judgment, not a lot of looking. He does travel to Bolivia to meet an organic bean farmer (following a verbal trail), but doesn't track the walnuts, no observation, just kvetching.

After 50 pages of going nowhere in particular, I skimmed, until I got to the Bolivian farmer meeting near the end. That was interesting.

Investigative journalism of physical objects involves looking at objects - scientific examination in the lab, watching trucks and factories, etc. Organic is a physical characteristic, but for many it has become a ritual and a movement, a reason to sort people into "bad guys" and "not yet bad guys".

Yes, there is little transparency to the food supply - that protects business secrets, sure, but it also protects the food from attack. I suppose if the author had actually made the observational effort to follow trucks, meet drivers, watch fields, build a model of the food chain and write about it, some "terrorist" would use his description to poison a food shipment.

Travelling to Kazhakstan to look at walnut fields and packaging plants would be risky in a country that does not treat reporters well. But the author did not even save his bag of stale walnuts for investigation; a botanist might have been able to deduce something about growing conditions, and a chemist with a good mass spectrometer could identify pesticides, contaminants, growing season, watering schedule, etc. If walnuts show something like "growth rings", it might even be possible to correlate those to rainfall records.

But organic is not about science, or the physical objects we eat, it is (sadly) about perceived intent, apostasy versus adherence to ritual. Making money is ipso facto suspect. If you want to practice the organic liturgy, this book will serve. If you want to learn the nuts and bolts details of the processing and delivery chain for nuts and beans, look elsewhere. There are probably trade journals for this stuff, annual reports for publically traded food processing and import/export companies that would be more illuminating than this book, and I hope another author uses them as a starting point for actual observations.

OrganicBook (last edited 2023-12-14 22:17:56 by KeithLofstrom)