I live in Winchester, Ont., the kind of town where churches outnumber hair salons and where the community itself gets better looking the more you get to know the people in it. Winchester’s two main restaurants reflect the local palate: Mary’s dishes up two-inch-thick hot beef sandwiches; the Country Kitchen sells five kinds of steak. Our meat-and- potatoes family fits right in.
My two-year-old son, Isaac, pronounced his first clear word, “Yuck!” over cauliflower and demands “butter and ’toes” at most meals. My five-year-old, Aidan, has a hard time sitting adjacent to a vegetable, much less eating one. Although my husband, Mike, chokes down my vegetarian entrees, he’d trade them for a bloody steak any day. He shrugs off my fear that raising animals for consumption exacerbates global warming and could deplete global water supplies. “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, God wouldn’t have made them out of meat,” he grins.
But seriously, what would God have us eat?
When it comes to food, ethical questions seem as endless as the aisles in the new mega-grocery stores. I’m breaking into a sweat just thinking about buying groceries for dinner tonight. The ethical food movement has me convinced that I am what I eat in a moral sense. So I’ve accepted the challenge to plan, cook and serve an ethical meal, but I know it isn’t going to be easy. In fact, I’m stumped before I get out the door. Where should I shop?
Just off the highway, a sprawling addition has been built on Mike Dean’s SuperStore, which now carries bath towels, children’s toys, high-end cookware, as well as food. In town, Andy’s Foodland has less selection and parking is a little more difficult, but the staff members carry your bags to the car and Andy generously supports local endeavours. I couldn’t tell you about employee benefits in either business, though they should probably factor into my decision.
So should food miles — not just how far the food has to travel to get to me, but how far I have to travel to get to the food. Foodland is a mere five blocks away. I hang up the car keys, reach for a toque (it’s January, after all) and give myself an ecological gold star for walking.
One hundred and seventy-one steps later, I arrive at Foodland and drift into a sea of colourful produce. The white flags reading “Mexico” “Costa-Rica” “Israel” and “U.S.A.” offer little help in navigating through the ethical quagmire: Was it grown sustainably? How were the producers treated? How did it get here?
I soon discover that there’s organic salad dressing, but nothing organic to put it on. “Organic doesn’t sell much around here. It’s too expensive. If you go to Ottawa, you’d see aisles of it. If you tell me what you want though, I’ll get it,” Andy offers. A fellow shopper overhears our conversation. “The stickers are window dressing. You never know what you’re getting anyway,” she says.
She’s partially right. Labels such as “natural” and “Earth-friendly” have no discernible meaning, while others, such as “free range,” refer to practices that vary widely. “Organic,” however, is becoming more regulated. Michel Saumur, the national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s organic office and an organic farmer himself, says that pressure from European trade partners coupled with a desire to protect the public from misleading claims have led to a new federal industry regulation that will come into effect in December. “We’re trying to gain consumer confidence,” says Saumur.
But ethical-sounding labels don’t always lead to the most ethical choice. The only vegetables labelled “free from herbicides” at Andy’s are three of bright peppers sitting on a Styrofoam base, wrapped in heavy plastic and imported from Israel and Mexico. But compared to the pricier Ontario peppers beside it, the price is right. Or is it?
Next door to Winchester is the village of Chesterville, home of Canada’s first Nestlé plant. The factory not only sustained the local economy, but the community itself, sponsoring sports teams and maintaining the water reservoir dam. After 80 years, Nestlé skipped town. My brother, his fiancée and almost 300 other employees lost their jobs. Food production is cheaper in Mexico.
I forgo the peppers and move on to seasonal fare. Anticipating a full-scale revolt if I bring home cabbage, parsnips or squash, I settle on carrots, flip open my cellphone and call Gambles Ontario Produce Inc., the food distribution centre in Toronto whose name is on the package. Eventually, I talk to Richard Rose, vice-president of chain accounts, who assures me that the carrots were grown in Canada. “Bradford Marsh, Ontario, to be exact. We switch to U.S. carrots after June, but as long as the package says ‘Product of Canada,’ it was grown in Canada. We’re very proud of our produce. Enjoy your carrots.” “I think I will,” I say.
Turning the corner to the refrigerated meat display, I notice that some of the packages have “Product of Canada” stamped on them. But while the same label on my carrots refers to where they’re grown, Paul Clarke, a meat-processing specialist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says that on meat, it might only refer to where it’s processed.
“So, for example, an imported half loin that remained unchanged in appearance would have to have the country of origin label on it, but if the loin was cut into chops in Canada, the label could read ‘Product of Canada,’” Clarke says.
Labels are confusing, but retailing rules can rack up food miles, too. There is a provincially inspected processing plant 15 minutes from Winchester, but Andy can’t purchase his meat there. Sobeys Inc., Foodland’s corporate parent, much like other large grocery chains, only sells federally inspected meat “because federal regulations are more strict than provincial ones,” says Andy. “It’s for food-safety reasons.” As such, the beef at Andy’s travels as livestock from farms in Ontario and Quebec to Better Beef Ltd., a processing plant in Guelph, Ont., and is routed to a Sobey’s distribution centre near Toronto before arriving in Winchester — a minimum 492-km trip.
Whether federally inspected processing plants are indeed safer, and whether or not there are enough of them to keep small farms that can’t shoulder heavy transportation costs viable is hotly debated in the industry. Abandoning the meat section at Andy’s, I make a mental note to find out where the meat sold in the local butcher shop I’ve been avoiding comes from.
Following the refrigerated aisles, I wind up at the cheese counter. Should I buy my cheese here or down the road? Winchester, the “cheese capital of Canada,” is home to a Parmalat factory. Since the plant is a bit of a hike, I call before braving the snow. “I’m sorry,” says the receptionist over the phone. The factory “isn’t open to the public. We make cheese in 640-pound blocks and ship them [235 km] to Belleville for cutting. But if you buy Black Diamond, that’s ours.”
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