[INTERVIEW] Hey this is crazy, but label me, maybe? UC Berkeley Prof. Addresses Labels for Banned Foods

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Professor Van Houweling in her UC Berkeley office

In her sunlit office at Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, behind a stack of loose papers and hardcover textbooks, Professor Molly Van Houweling discussed a recent ‘ah-ha’ moment she had at a Starbucks. In line with the chain’s efforts to consciously label calories and nutritional values under its glass displays, Van Houweling said she noticed their food items growing more and more miniature. Vanilla-frosted cupcakes and decadent cookies were now bite-sized. It wasn’t an immediate reaction, she added, but one that garnered her attention after facing the display over several visits.

My conversation with Professor Van Houweling, who co-taught a course on food law, emphasized that labels are all the rage in the food world at the moment. As part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, restaurants with 20 or more chains were required to provide calorie and nutrition information. On November 6, Californians will have the chance to alter the market for genetically modified foods through labeling, with Prop 37. So, you must be wondering, how do labels tie into the topic of food bans?

Once considered something of an individual responsibility and concern, menu and food labels are now a matter of public health. It’s evident that shoppers want more information on how their food is made and where it comes from. We see this not only at chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s, but also at Chipotle, where their “food with integrity” is labeled as free of hormones and antibiotics.

The push towards greater access to information on food, like menu labeling, can be applied to the ban of foie gras. With local organizations, or chef/foodie coalitions in this case, holding greater power in the discussions concerning the ban, localities can now challenge the understandings and responsibilities of the state. Pimbert calls this an “emerging food sovereignty movement.” Although the structure of top-down regulation on foie gras farming and consumption operates at the state-level in California, consumers and eaters now bear the information to respond and offer suggestions in a new and more open manner.

An array of calorie-counted pastries at Starbucks (photo by Karen Blumberg)

Could there be an alternative to bans considering this break in the relationship between public knowledge and government responsibility? With access to information about content (the duck/goose liver itself), farming procedures (gavage), and consumption, is it conceivable to create a transparent foie gras industry and repeal the ban?

Public efforts can replace the tasks of the state or corporation, altering the movement of information from top to bottom. In speaking about Starbucks and menu labeling, Professor Van Houweling said she believes that once content is revealed, consumers will become more attentive, allowing them to “shame” or provide feedback to companies. Today, the same can be done for the foie gras industry. Rather than flat out ban the product, the influence of public reinforcement can sway producers to farm in a more “humane” and responsible way.

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4 thoughts on “[INTERVIEW] Hey this is crazy, but label me, maybe? UC Berkeley Prof. Addresses Labels for Banned Foods

  1. Great lead in, got right to the point, and really interesting to9hear an academics viewpoint on these shifts in food culture. Your links were helpful and made me want to explore your blog! I need a bit more context on why foie gras is significant, is it one of the few foods banned? Should it not be banned?

  2. Really enjoyable read, and very informative! Might consider using the one third rule and cropping the top picture.

  3. Great post, really enjoyed reading this…made me think about the whole debate going on over Prop 37! Current and topical issue for sure.

  4. I really enjoyed learning more about the debate over labeling. I agree with Professor Van Houweling in that there seems to be an impetus for consumers to pay more attention to the labels on their food. I thought the argument over foie gras was a great hot topic to focus on. I do believe though that while many consumers in areas such as the San Francisco Bay area are conscious over labels that there may be a great deal of the population that shops without much attention to the labels and instead focus on cost and branding. So unless the branding can emphasize more humane practices like those advocates for “organic/non-organic” labels have done for their products, then items such as foie gras, may still be purchased without a movement pushing companies towards humane practices.

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