The challenge of raising informed consumers

One hundred years ago when Canadians often butchered their own meat and pulled vegetables from their own gardens, they did not need to contemplate the source of their food. They could see it with their own eyes.

Today, our access to food is so easy that we need not contemplate the source either. There are far too many stories of people who think food production begins and ends in the supermarket, like the one a friend recently told me. A child he knew had explained how people used to eat animals in the “old days.” The girl thought we were lucky because now we didn’t eat animals. Instead, we ate food. I inquired as to the young lady’s age, surmising she would be at most five or six years. Imagine my surprise when I found out she was 10!

Perhaps this child was correct. Maybe in her family, no animals are eaten. They might be strictly vegetarian. Unfortunately, I suspect this is not the case. I fear it is more likely that the child is uninformed. I can imagine a mother or father not wanting to say, “That’s cow you are eating.” Meat is marketed as pork or beef, not pig or cow. Most of us are far enough removed from the process that we often don’t think of it as having once been a living animal. With all the media coverage on cases of suspected ill-treatment of animals in the food industry, is it any wonder people would want to forget where our daily fare comes from, especially when under the gaze of a sensitive child?

The power of the media is great and below a certain age and cognitive level, children cannot easily make the fine distinctions that adults do. Media promotions for the prevention of cruelty to animals are common and valid. They play a valuable role in a caring society. But what child wouldn’t think as a result of these campaigns that to eat any animal is cruel, even if that point is never raised in the promotion?

It’s commonly accepted that deliberately hurting an animal is bad. So wouldn’t killing a healthy animal be the ultimate in bad? For those people who follow vegetarian or vegan diets, the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” People should have the opportunity to choose to be a vegetarian, but you cannot make an informed choice without enough information.

Glut of information

Ironically, there is a glut of information aimed at consumers. Numerous sources provide countless conflicting theories on the best diet, offer charts with nutritional levels and warn about bad-for-you foods, as defined by whatever special-interest group. We are flooded with reports on problems in commercial food production from contamination, to misrepresentation of ingredients, to deficient data on labels.

Somewhere between this overload of information and complete ignorance of our food sources lies the median of basic facts. Producers need to add to this noise, but it should be “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

I used to think programs like Ag in the Classroom were overstating their case, especially when they offered presentations in small rural schools. Surely the majority of people who have never lived on a farm still know where their food comes from, especially in a small ag-based community. But the child who was thankful that we now eat food instead of animals lives in a small ag-based community. Many more just like her live in large cities.

Food security is a big issue in North American. It seems odd, then, that so many people don’t really seem to have a clue as to what their food actually is or where it comes from.

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