Foie gras: In order to make foie gras, ducks and geese are force fed through metal tubes inserted down their throats to enlarge their livers to about 600 percent of the normal size. This animal-cruelty has made foie gras a source of controversy among chefs and consumers alike, and it was even banned in Chicago from August 2006 to May 2008. It is currently illegal to serve foie gras in the state of California, as well as in India, Argentina, and other countries.
Recommendation: With so many other delicious options on the menu, if you see foie gras offered make another, more humane choice.
Veal: Back in the ’80s, The New York Times ran photos exposing veal calves tied to crates that allowed them almost no room to move. Consumers reacted so strongly that veal sales plummeted over the next two decades. Producers took notice, and the American Veal Association created a plan to eliminate the use of crates by 2017. Crates are currently banned in seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, and Rhode Island) with pending bans in New York and Massachusetts. The use of crates for veal farming in the European Union has been illegal since 2007.
Recommendation: If you enjoy veal but don’t want to support the inhumane treatment of livestock, look for meat that is “certified humane” by Humane Farm Animal Care. In order to earn this seal, farms must adhere to strict guidelines such as raising calves in small groups, tether-free and without confinement.
Green has been the new black for years. Recycling, using paper not plastic, and other eco-friendly practices are now commonplace. However, even if you purchase carbon credits after a long airplane flight to offset your footprint, you may not be aware of how to seek out sustainable options on packaged foods or at restaurants.
Sustainable agriculture involves methods that are ecologically and ethically responsible, meaning they don’t use up or destroy natural resources, there are proper safeguards for human health, animals are raised humanely, and fair treatment is provided to workers.
Seafood: There is a lot of confusion around ordering fish or other seafood, due to a combination of health and environmental reasons. Some of the practices used by commercial fishing boats can harm marine life and also injure or kill thousands of seabirds every year, including the endangered albatross. Add in the issues of unregulated, polluted waters, overfishing, and habitat damage from boats and machinery, and it’s clear that our choice of entrée has many repercussions.
Recommendation: Always avoid Chilean sea bass, king crab, shark, yellowfin and bluefin tuna, octopus, Atlantic cod, and Atlantic salmon. If ordering salmon, be sure it is wild-caught and not farmed.
Palm Oil: The palm oil industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that in order to make way for palm oil production, every hour the rainforest is destroyed at a rate equivalent to the size of 300 football fields. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction. Findings show that if nothing changes, species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next five to ten years, and Sumatran tigers in less than three years. Palm oil, sometimes called palm kernel oil, is in many products you may not have imagined, including toothpaste and potato chips. In fact, according to Rainforest Rescue, an organization committed the preserving the world’s rainforests, “around 50 percent of the goods we use every day contain palm oil.”
Recommendation: Look for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) on product labels. The certification standards are based on eight principles including a commitment to transparency and environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, according to advocacy group the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Once you know the truth, you may never go back
It’s common knowledge that companies use health and environmental trends in their marketing strategies to make us feel good about buying their products. However, if you don’t ask questions about those sometimes “too-good-to-be-true” buzz words you may unknowingly contribute to hurting the environment or not receiving the nutritional benefits you thought you were.
Grass-fed: Many restaurants put “grass-fed” beef on the menu, when in fact the meat is “grain-finished,” which means that similar to traditional facilities, cows start out eating grass and move on to consuming grain towards the end of their life. Once a cow eats grains, the meat is completely different in terms of its health benefits and nutritional value. To earn the American Grassfed Beef certification, in addition to other criteria focused on the health and well-being of the cows, “animals must be fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest.”Be sure to ask if the meat is “grass-fed, grass-finished.” Chef Marcus research has revealed that in many cases the restaurant’s staff may not be clear about the distinction, so it can be valuable to find out where they buy their meat, and go directly to the source for more information.
Wild-caught: Most of us know that wild salmon is safer to eat and contains less contaminants than farm-raised salmon. However, Chef Marcus says that unless you ask more questions about the salmon’s origin, you may be getting mislead. Pacific wild salmon is only available fresh in season, and Atlantic wild salmon is endangered. If a restaurant can’t tell you the source of their wild-caught salmon, skip it.
Chocolate: More than 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from West African countries, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, child labor, trafficking, and slavery runs rampant in the cocoa industry of that region. Buying fair trade chocolate generally means that you are safe, but it has been hard to monitor in the cocoa industry. The safest thing to do is avoid purchasing any chocolate sourced from Western Africa.
Coffee: Sadly, many of the same issues with chocolate apply to coffee, too. Regulations against child labor do exist in coffee-producing countries, but economic pressures make authorities in these regions reluctant to enforce the law. Fair trade certification, while a step in the right direction, cannot solve all of coffee industry’s issues. Even with multiple organizations working on behalf of human rights, corruption is prevalent. Giving up coffee may not be an option, but when you are purchasing your beans, be sure to go through a trusted source, such as Equal Exchange, an organization that takes the time to research the origins of the products it sells.
It’s all too easy to order off a menu or walk into a store and pick up something in a pretty, sealed package and not think twice about it. But as consumers, our dollars are pretty much the only communication we have with these food suppliers. These days, it’s more important than ever to put your money where your mouth is.