Monday, February 22, 2021

On unknown consequences

There's been a spate of recent stories about the change in butter quality arising out of the use of palm oil as feed for cattle - with attention being paid both to the effect on product quality, and the environmental damage caused by palm oil as an input.

But there's another line of spin which particularly highlights the problem with major changes to food inputs in the absence of any apparent awareness of the consequences:

Dairy Farmers of Canada released a new statement on Feb. 16 following the Journal’s report about the “open secret” within the industry, saying that it was “aware of the recent reports regarding fat supplementation in the dairy sector.”


“Dairy farmers in other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia also use this supplement. They can help provide energy to cows and no undesirable effects have been identified arising from its use in cows’ feed rations.”

Or put even more starkly by another industry spokesperson:

(W)ithout significant study into the source of the milk used to make that butter, there’s no way to know if it’s the addition of palm oil in a cow’s ration or simply other forage and supplement options that bump the level


I have directly spoken with several farmers in at least four provinces and all of them say the same thing — if customers voice a concern with milk or butter, it needs to be researched fully (some of which is already happening), and if there’s a change needed at the farm level, they’re willing to take that on, too.

Needless to say, these statements raise serious questions as to why research isn't being done until what we eat changes to the point where it provokes consumer backlash. 

It's surely fair to figure that if a change in feed goes so far as to produce noticeable differences in the observable properties of the resulting product, there's a reasonable prospect that it's also causing other changes which aren't so easily discovered. 

A responsible plan to deploy that type of change would then figure to include some meaningful study as to what it actually does. But the response from the industry which has gone about changing what we eat without our to place the responsibility on us to push for research needed to determine how it will affect consumers.  

In other words, the industry response is a typical application of an anti-precautionary principle: that businesses are entitled to change what they want to without notice, that consumers who can't sniff out the altered products can be conscripted as guinea pigs to find out what happens when their food is altered, and that the only way industry will accept any regulation is if a specific change (which it's concealed) is subsequently proven to create harm.

To be clear, that philosophy has been entirely normalized among far too many types of business - not to mention among right-wing governments devoted to reframing health and safety regulations as "red tape" to be summarily slashed in the name of corporate profits. But we should demand more both from our elected officials, and from the producers of the basic food products we rely on.

No comments:

Post a Comment