Blogs & Comment

Ethical complexity in food choices

Both consumers and producers of food products face a number of weighty choices.

(Photo: Oriel/Wikimedia)

As I pointed out a few days ago, shopping ethically is hard. Right on cue, a flurry of news items followed to drive home that point.

First, a story about how—say it ain’t so!—local food isn’t always ethical food. Apparently, some agricultural workers in southern Ontario (just a short drive from where I live) report suffering from a range of ailments they attribute to the chemicals to which they are exposed. So, yes, there’s more than a single dimension to food ethics. If (or rather when) local is actually better, that’s got to be an “other things being equal” sort of judgment. Local might be better—so long as local farm workers aren’t being abused, and so long as growing food in your local climate doesn’t require massive water and fuel subsidies, etc.

Next, a Valentine’s-themed bit on how to buy ethical chocolate. The short version: you’re supposed to look for local, organic chocolate that’s certified free of child-labour, and sold in a shop that dutifully recycles and composts. Of course, such chocolate isn’t necessarily cheap. And if you’re spending that much on chocolate, then you might want to think about what other things you’re scrimping on as a result, and who might be affected by that scrimping.

Finally, a short item in industry newsletter Food Navigator USA notes that food company Mars is set to ‘help’ consumers by narrowing their choices: the company is aiming to put a 250-calorie limit on all its chocolate bars by 2013. Interesting question: Is this a matter of helping particular customers by encouraging them not to over-indulge? Or is it specifically a matter of social responsibility, an attempt by a food giant to respond to (or at least to limit its contribution to) the social problem of obesity? And—speaking of value choices—should food companies aim first and foremost at pleasing their customers, or serving society as a whole?