This is an explanation of why I’m voting yes on Proposition 37, the California ballot initiative that would require a lot of foods to disclose that they contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But I don’t want to start off talking about science, food activism, or even the California initiative process itself. Instead I want to talk about Al, a guy who hustles boxes of frozen meat around my neighborhood in Oakland.
Al drives a pickup with a freezer compartment fitted to the cargo bed—it’s got longhorn steers painted on the sides. He says he sells to fine restaurants, though I don’t know any chef who’d buy frozen New York strips out of a random guy’s pickup. But Al’s nice. He hustles, and I like that. For months, he’s been trying to get my husband, Perry, to buy a box of meat. In the vintage furniture shop Perry runs, Al lays out a pitch based on quality (“These are steak burgers, man!”). Perry always says no.
Then, last week, he said yes.
Now our freezer is filled with pork chops, tenderloins, and the fattest, pinkest hot dogs I’ve ever seen. There are no markings on any of the Cryovac packages, no serial numbers in blue ink, nothing to say where this pork came from. It is, literally, mystery meat.
Most of us eat on trust. This is the existential condition for anyone who buys food: a state of enforced trust in a blind system. Those chops in my freezer were probably sliced from an animal that endured a brutish, dirty span of existence before being forced along a gangway to meet the stunbolt’s shock between the eyes. I can imagine it, and yet I can’t know how or where it lived, not without taking the time to dig. This is the reality of eating in an age of mystery food.
If it passes, Proposition 37 will not turn blast lights onto a shadowy system. Some food labels will be required to state that the food within could contain genetically engineered ingredients. “May be partially produced with genetic engineering”: that phrase would create more transparency than exists now (when it comes to GMOs, there's none), but it wouldn’t exactly take a sledgehammer to Big Food's factory walls. And not all foods touched by genetic engineering would even have to rise to Prop. 37’s low standard. Liquor would be exempt. So would cheese. And if Al’s pork is from animals that were fattened on genetically engineered feed, it would not have to state that on the label (well, if it had a label).
As Prop. 37 opponent Adam Merberg wrote in his blog, Say What, Michael Pollan?: “For all the talk about a right to know, the initiative won’t really make much more information available to consumers.” I think that's true. That’s one reason the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times told its readers to vote no (that, and the assumption that passage would result in manufacturers raising food prices—that sounds less like an inevitability and more like a scare floated by the opposition).
Proponent-in-chief Michael Pollan thinks enacting Prop. 37 will be seen as a no vote for Big Food. The fight is a national referendum on the age of mystery food itself, Pollan argued in The New York Times Magazine. Passage would deliver a powerful, partly symbolic message to Monsanto, DuPont, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (three of labeling's major opponents) that they’d better start revealing more about the food chain.
Now, I’ve got a problem with the assumption that greater transparency is going to save us from Big Food. I agree with Julie Guthman (a professor at UC Santa Cruz, author of Agrarian Dreams), who thinks government regulations with teeth would do more to kill the age of mystery food than putting the burden on consumers to research what they’re buying—we need public policy solutions, not ones that rely on individual choice in an underregulated market.
We live in a nation that doesn’t worry much about mystery food—even in Oakland, California, home to Novella Carpenter and one of the nation’s most active urban farming communities, Al seems to be making a pretty comfortable living selling his boxes of frozen steak burgers.
But even though I think Prop. 37 is both weak and clunky, I can’t bring myself to vote against it. So what if it sends a mostly symbolic message—it’s a powerful one. Voting, like buying food, is usually an act of compromise. Just like you go to war with the army you have or eat the hot dogs your spouse has packed the freezer with, on Election Day you send messages with the candidates and the ballot measures you have.
Top photo from the Park Slope Food Co-Op, Brooklyn, from the Non-GMO Project / Facebook; image, above, from Chefs' Petition In Support of Prop 37 / carighttoknow.org