Vote First, Eat Later

The new documentary "Food, Inc." is the latest exposé of corporate food that aims to get us mad, disgusted, and running for the farmers' market. Even viewers who already knew about the sorry state of our food supply will likely wish they'd skipped the popcorn. But the filmmakers don't want us to lose our appetites for long. We have serious eating ahead. As the movie tells us right before the credits roll, we "vote to change the system three times a day."

Actually, no. Americans are used to thinking of themselves as powerful consumers; our collective purchases prop up the national and global economy. And consumers' concerns about their food have already transformed how many major suppliers do business. But eating is not voting. Equating these two vital activities devalues both, and won't achieve the needed changes. Worse, it vindicates the poorly regulated system that created the mess we're in.

Exactly what's wrong with the idea that we can fix the food supply just by shopping and eating better? A few things. First, it's an impractical and unfair burden on consumers. As the film shows, our supermarket shelves are full of products of dubious nutrition and safety, made by companies that mistreat farmers, workers, animals, and the environment. Careful label-readers can find apparent alternatives-often with hefty mark-ups-as well as a plenty of misleading information. The egg industry is notorious for plastering cartons with unregulated claims such as "cage free."

Stricter labeling laws are a start. Last year's introduction of mandatory country-of-origin labels for produce was long overdue. But only so much information fits on a label, and most consumers have only so much time and patience to read it. A trip to the supermarket should not require more background research than casting a ballot. We should not have to figure out which meat processors don't commit human rights abuses. We should not have to shop around to find products free of dangerous pesticides or factory filth. Our food regulatory system declined over the past several years partly because of administrations and corporate lobbies that celebrated consumer choice. Some choices we should not have to make.

Another limitation of market-driven change is that it only delivers changes that the market finds profitable. Take the organic label. It certifies products made without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or hormones. Originally it was supposed to promote more sustainable agriculture as well as a safer food supply. Once the market took off, major manufacturers jumped in.

"Food, Inc" shows part of the story of what happened next: big brands acquired small ones, organic labels spread from the produce section to the snack food aisles, and from the natural food stores to Wal-Mart. It soon became clear that some of the most popular organic products-milk, bagged greens-came from mega-farms that barely met organic standards, if that. Then local food became the "new organic." Now Wal-Mart offers more-or-less local options, and Frito-Lay boasts of processing plants that source potatoes from nearby farmers (for the record, this is nothing new).

More big food companies may leap onto the local bandwagon if it will cut their fuel expenses. This is fine. But as foods labeled organic and local become more available, it's worth remembering that these alternatives do not guarantee better working conditions for farm and packhouse workers. They do not touch the crop subsidies that fuel overproduction at home and hunger abroad. They do not fix the weak food safety laws that sent consumers searching for alternatives in the first place.

Lastly, to suggest that each dollar we spend on food is a potential vote for change is fundamentally undemocratic. For one, some consumers have many more dollars to spend. But food inequality is also geographic. It's easy to be a virtuous eater in those New York or San Francisco neighborhoods where the grocery options include farmers' markets, home-delivered organics, and a Whole Foods every few blocks.

Are the people without such choices, whether due to income or location, somehow lesser citizens? Certainly they have had less say about what changes our food system needs. It is ironic that many leading food activists seem untroubled by this fact even as they rightly condemn the moneyed clout of agribusiness.

The makers of "Food, Inc." do call for policy reform. Many groups are working to overhaul the USDA, strengthen farm workers' rights, and counter the agribusiness lobby. These activities deserve our support, yet tend to get overshadowed by shopping tips aimed at "changing the world with every bite." Wouldn't it be better if we did not feel obliged to do this? Informed consumer buying power is not trivial. It is also no substitute for political actions to empower everybody to worry less about their food, and enjoy it more.