Eating might be the most political activity we partake in every day. Every food choice we make has broad implications for the health and well-being of our environment, as well as our community. If you’re eating organic, are you eating local? If you’re eating meat, is it “all-natural” (but then, what does that even mean)? You’ve gone out to eat, but does that restaurant give its workers paid time off or provide a living wage?
Product packaging in a retail store doesn’t make it any easier. Natural, free-range, hormone/antibiotic free, minimally processed, antioxidant, gluten-free, humane certified. The list of buzzwords and terminology is endless. Some can mean very real things, but others, such as “natural,” are worthless. Yet all of them fight for our attention on the same shelves, or even on the same packages. No wonder consumers are confused. Couple that with ever-evolving nutrition research, and eating healthy begins to feel like a game of Whac-A-Mole.
The latest confusion comes to us in the form of quotation marks around a food to signify an approximation of an actual food item. Particularly concerning to me are the co-option of the words meat and cheese. These are animal products that have been consumed for thousands of years and whose identities are being undermined by vegetarian and vegan imitators.
Problems arise when the brand (for lack of a better word) of a well-crafted product is diminished by an imitator. When we call fermented cashews “cheese,” we ignore hundreds of years of tradition. If we call wheat proteins “meat,” we chip away at our connection with actual meat and actual farmers. At a moment when we need greater understanding of where our food comes from, these faux proteins muddle the story.
In Europe, there are governmental designations in place to protect the identity of food products. DOP in Italy, AOC in France, and PDO for the European Union are three acronyms applied to protecting the specific quality and integrity of foodstuffs. This means that if you pick up a wheel of Camembert, a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano or a bottle of Champagne, you can be guaranteed that it actually will be what it says it is.
This sort of designation not only helps the consumer identify a certain level of quality but also works to protect, in many cases, hundreds of years of craftsmanship. It’s one thing to infringe on, say, a trademark of a brand. It’s an entirely different degree of encroachment to say you’re making a cheese like Cheshire, which has a history that can be traced back over 900 years. Traditional cheese-making is a venerable craft filled with rich, complex stories. It deserves respect and protection.
Meat consumption has reached a point where most consumers have absolutely no concept of how a given cut has reached their plate. Decades of industrial agriculture have separated us from farms and farmers. As a result, animals have suffered, the environment has suffered and our taste buds have suffered.
In this context, small meat producers have had to fight to communicate about what good husbandry and humane treatment actually mean. But when wheat protein is described as “meat” and is coupled with the word “butcher,” it erodes the progress that has been made. Butchering is an art — it takes time and care to honor an animal by using every part of it. The conversation needs to be about what meat should be and how it should be done — not about whether it’s real or not.
To be clear, this is not a polemic against vegetarians, vegans or the foods they eat. A plant-based lifestyle is potentially preferable to one that depends upon irresponsibly sourced animal protein. There are many valid reasons to consume less animal protein, ranging from the environmental to the ethical and even to taste. Substituting an alternate form of protein is not the issue here.
What is at stake (no pun intended) is the future of how we eat. Short of a world devoid of animal proteins, what should our menu look like? Fighting for consumption of responsibly produced food is already complicated and difficult enough without the incursion of impostors.
Benjamin Hillel Roberts is general manager of food operations for France 44.