Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.


A Bright Side

Is American Cheese the new American Wine? Is the faltering dollar good for the domestic artisanal food industry — or at least those parts of it which don’t rely on imports?

What has been good for wine has been good for cheese. The rising wealth and strong dollar of the 1990s sent Americans flocking to Europe, returning with a new understanding and appreci­ation of continental eating. Food has emerged as hip entertainment, with its own vibrant press, TVnetworks, and rock-star chefs. Movies about food and wine have found large, sophisticated audi­ences (“Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” “Sideways,” “Big Night,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Ratatouille”). Increased concern for health and a growing sus­picion of conventional agriculture, spurred by crises like mad cow, bird flu, and tainted spin­ach, have focused the nation on small-scale local farming and the sustainability and traceability of our food supply. Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market has planted 263 stores around the country (many through acquisitions of regional chains) since the first opened in 1980. And who could have pre­dicted the French Paradox—the notion, according to a bestseller about the eating habits of France, that you can eat plenty of fat and stay slim? Or Dr. Atkins urging eager dieters to eat pork and but­terfat? More recently, the flaccid dollar and robust euro have made American wines and cheeses seem veritable bargains.

I have for a while maintained that there is more excitement and energy in the U.S. artisanal cheese industry than there is in European cheese. In part, this is surely due to our having farther to go: try speaking, reading, or typing the words “American cheese” without picturing something gummy, preternaturally orange, oversalted and individually wrapped.

However, I also suspect that european cheesemakers and regulators have done the industry a disservice in the long term due to the AOC/PDO/DOP/DOC system of trademark regulation. (Each of these terms, in a different language, stands for “Controlled Name of Origin” and I shall refer to them all under the term “DOP” for simplicity’s sake.) The DOP system sets characteristics that must be met if a product is to be referred to under a traditional name; i.e., if you want to call your blue cheese Stilton you have to use milk from these sorts of cows, and make it into wheels this big and age them for this long and so on. In a number of cases, qualification is tied to a region: you can’t call your blue cheese Rocquefort, for instance, unless you have made it from sheep’s milk and then aged it in caves in the department Aveyron, where they will be exposed to the airborne, naturally-occurring penicilium rocqueforti that lives there. This system allows for the same sort of protection that individual firms get through trademark law, but enables the protection to be shared by every firm that makes a product meeting the qualification.

However, there are times and occasions in which the DOP system can backfire. Because the definitions are backed by law, it can be difficult to adapt them to new circumstances. Last year, Newcastle Brewing Company ran into this problem. Newcastle had successfully petitioned for the creation of a DOP defining “Newcastle Brown Ale” as ale that was, inter alia produced in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. When the brewco decided to move its operations across the river to Gateshead, it was required to petition again to expand the legal defintion of “Newcastle Brown Ale” so that ale produced in its new facilities could be marketed under the same label.

As another example: the DOP for Stilton was written some years ago and requires that “Stilton” be made with pasteurized milk, despite the fact that pasturized Stilton is a historical latecomer, and that the cheese had been made with raw milk for centuries prior to industrial cheese production. When Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson revived the traditional stilton recipe, they were prohibited by law from calling the product “Stilton” and instead have had to market it under the name “Stichelton”, which is the Middle English name for the city of Stilton.

DOP protection has done some good in protecting quality standards for traditional food products, and I certainly do not oppose its use. However it seems to me that, absent DOP protection, artisanal cheesemakers in the U.S. have more opportunities to innovate in their cheesemaking techniques which are driving quality and variety in American artisanal cheesemaking. I have little doubt that if the DOP system were introduced into the U.S., it would in short order be co-opted by industrial producers, and thereby used to constrain this innovation, and I have some fears that European cheesemaking, which enjoys DOP protection, doesn’t have the same opportunities to innovate.



Opting Out

Guest-Blogger Erin over at Crunchy Con raises an interesting point that is tangential to the notion that feminism and locavorism are in tension. For readers who are not familiar with “Crunchy Con” it is a blog ordinarily written by Rod Dreher, who wrote a book called Crunchy Conservatives, identifying a hitherto ignored part of the political spectrum: conservative Republicans who, disgusted with the disposable commercialism and spiritual bankruptcy of the present consumer-capitalist system, have taken it upon themselves to “opt out” by, e.g., homeschooling their children; repairing rather than replacing their clothes; growing their own food or even just cooking from scratch; getting rid of the television, and so on.

Erin identifies a social support network that has arisen among homeschooling moms, in which they are able to meet and share resources and techniques and success stories and give one another material and emotional support, the same is not true of the fathers who remain at work.

Some men find it necessary to keep the information that their wives “don’t work” very private, because some of them have learned to their detriment that they will face attitudes ranging from derision to open contempt and hostility from their co-workers who have made different choices. Add to this information the fact that your wife is homeschooling your children, and you might as well show up for work in Amish attire, as out-of-touch and otherworldly as your choices will seem, to many, to be. Even if a man is lucky enough to work in an environment where his colleagues are relatively laissez-faire about his family’s choices, many of the socialization opportunities his co-workers engage in will be closed to him: for instance, though he may not particularly mind sports bars, the odds that he’s going to want to spend several hours in one after work when his priority is to spend time with his family is pretty low.

I thought that was interesting, and, particularly to the extent that “crunchy con” values intersect with locavore values (probably not a perfect intersection, but certainly not negligible) I think Erin’s comments illustrate that the greater and more important tension may not be between feminism and locavorism but between work and home.

Industrial agriculture and fast food enable both parents to work outside the home, yes, but it increasingly seems as if the economy in which industrial agriculture and fast food are possible requires both parents to work outside the home. Which requires in turn that we overproduce and overprocess our food.

In another post, Erin writes about the recent phenomenon of the ready-made Thanksgiving dinner as an indicator of misplaced values, work over home particularly. If we’re not working to enable ourselves to make dinner for our families and the ones we love, on Thanksgiving of all days, then why are we working at all? Is the job really its own reward? Has it made you a stranger in your own kitchen?

I can understand, and I certainly don’t judge, people who buy Thanksgiving dinner whole because they have emergencies and can’t spare the time. But if your emergency is not being able to afford not to work on Thanksgiving, then something is terribly wrong: our economy is overshadowing your humanity.

Moreover, the problem creates a feedback loop: the more people have to work on Thanksgiving, the more demand there is for provision of goods and services on the actual day of Thanksgiving. The more demand, the more workers are expected to work on Thanksgiving.

I was also struck by a quote from Rod’s book: “Every one of us can refuse, at some level, to participate in the system that makes us materially rich but impoverishes us spiritually, morally, and aesthetically. We cannot change society, at least not overnight, but we can change ourselves and our families.”

And on that note, I hope that you are able to make time for your family, that you travel safely and can leave your day-to-day pressures behind. I hope, instead of shopping on Friday, that you read a book to yourself, or to a child to whom you are related. I hope you are well. Happy Thanksgiving.



Exam, and Thanksgiving
19 November 2007, 5:33 pm
Filed under: Ethics of Eating, Food Meanings

Posting will be light this week as I have an early final (which is nice, because I get it out of the way) followed by the biggest food holiday on the U.S calendar. It seems to be a characteristic of food bloggers that we a) started doing our own Thanksgiving in college for ourselves and our friends who couldn’t go home, and b) had so much fun doing it that we’ve kept it up, and your humble author is no exception. I started my Senior year of college, when I finally had a house and a kitchen, and I’ve kept it up every year since, and loved it every time. This year I’m cooking for a small number of law students staying in town, after which we’ll probably play Trivial Pursuit or Taboo or something.

Life happens, and the people you wind up cooking Thanksgiving dinner for are rarely your own closest set of friends. Usually it works out that it’s the stragglers and strays, the ones in your community you know but aren’t close to, acquaintances and colleagues. The mood is better somehow for being less jocular, less familiar than cooking dinner for one’s friends; it is more hospitable, in what I think is the true sense of the word, which is making people feel at home. And everyone walks in the door ever so slightly bittersweet and melancholy for the family they’re not sharing the holiday with.

Kate writes, rightly, that food is about “that too brief moment when your brain is flooded with endorphins and takes you out of your head into an ethereal body of ecstasy.” It’s also about sharing that experience with others, even strangers. It is no mistake that the breaking of bread together has cultural and religious significance throughout the ancient world, or that those significances persist in cultures more directly tied to the old world: sharing a meal is one of those things that makes the world seem a little less bleak and unfeeling, a little warmer.

Okay, back to work. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’ll write something a little more Law For Food and a little less autobiographical for Saturday.