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.
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.