Category: Food


The Right to Food

hunger.jpg[Another dispatch from Rome.]

Yesterday, we visited the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), based near the Circus Maximus. The FAO’s legal staff was gracious enough to give Temple’s students and faculty a presentation on their work, along with tips on how to get into international legal work.

The presentation and idea I found most interesting was the FAO’s advocacy on behalf of the (so-called) human right to food. The FAO (and the considerable scholarship on this topic) derive the right largely from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), particularly Article 11:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent . . .

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

In response to a student question, the FAO’s lawyers acknowledged that this right is not presently internationally justiciable. Instead, in the words of the FAO’s strategic plan, advocates for the right should “support initial national implementation of the right to food and the Guidelines.”

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Appropriating “Organic”

It appears that the titans of the food industry are having their way with the USDA and the feds may soon approve a list of 38 non-organic items that may be included in foods marked “organic.” All of this interesting regulatory play is inidicative of the fact that organic foods finally hit the big time, and thus became worth of Big Food’s attention. We see a several different things happening here.

1. The public is becoming more concerned about the contents of its foodstuffs.

2. With more interest in organic food, Big Food decides to buy into to the industry.

3. Once bought in to the industry, making money off of the public’s (perhaps legitimate) fear of the current foodsupply (that Big Food created and aggressively markets), industry immediately sought to make organic foods cheaper, more attractive, or tastier (or perhaps all three) by adding non-organic ingredients.

4. With its meaning diluted (and I’m not taking a position on whether this dilution is meaningful – whether these 38 ingredients make items more or less healthy), the term organic may slowly lose its value as an indicator that a food product is distinctively more natural.

5. This will open new opportunities for creative small food marketers to create new language signifying the concept that “organic” once conveyed.

In the end, Big Food is simply doing with “organic” what it does with so many of the food products it markets: taking the underlying item (usually things like wheat, but in this case the word organic), processing it until it is a first cousin to its natural state, and serving up this not-quite-real but plenty alluring product to a waiting public.

Is this an example of markets working? Or of the vices of regulation? I’ll leave that question for people who actually spend money on this stuff. And I’ll have a Snickers and a Coke.


Ashes and cannibalism

I enjoyed a fine dinner yesterday evening with some colleagues and a visiting speaker, the famous author John Scalzi. Inevitably, the conversation turned to cannibalism.

Specifically, we wondered: If a person — let’s call him Keith Richards — snorts cocaine that is mingled with the ashes of another person, does that constitute cannibalism? (Or is it merely another quirky effect of being British?)

As John notes on his blog, the argument doesn’t seem to clearly lean either way. On the one hand, one is snorting the cocaine with intent to ingest the stuff. Does that intent then extend to the ashes? If so, then Richards is seeking to ingest the ashes of another person — and that sounds like cannibalism.

However, on the flip side, how much ingestion actually takes place through the nasal passages? Is there any evidence that Keith Richards derived nutritional value from snorting the ashes? Doesn’t cannibalism imply digestion? Is a blood transfusion cannibalism? (My understanding is that Jehovah’s Witnesses take just that view, but most of the rest of us don’t). So, maybe it’s not.

Alas, I’m sad to say that my legal education didn’t prepare me all so well for discussions of cannibalism. This is clearly a blot on law schools everywhere. However, I’m sure that Co-Op readers can fill in this blind spot. What do you think, readers? Ashes and cocaine — cannibalism, or merely being British?


Wal-Mart And The Cost Of Life (Cereal, That Is)

Before I moved from Birmingham to Philadelphia, I expected certain things to cost more – particularly items with large local labor components (day care, for example) – and others to cost the same. For example, I figured that clothes at the Gap and food from the supermarket would be roughly the same price. But the upward spike in supermarket food costs (and the downward spiral in the quality of the shopping experience) have really been striking.

Local labor costs may be embedded in supermarket prices to a substantial degree. I suspect that union workers are checking me out in Philly, while the Alabama staff at Publix or Brunos were probably not organized. And real estate is surely pricier here. But I’m starting to suspect that the big difference is market pressure. The existence of Super Wal-Mart food shopping (and to a lesser, but substantial extent, Super Target food markets) creates clear market segmentation. If you want food at low prices, you leave supermarket chains entirely and shop at the Super stores. On the other hand, when you want a pleasant shopping experience, the middle to upper end large chains (think Publix) deliver a far nicer experience than any place I’ve shopped in Philly. Remarkably, though Publix was distinctly pricier than Wal-Mart and Target, on most food items, it was still cheaper on many items than all the markets in Philly. And Publix stores were consistently nicer than any supermarkets I’m finding in the Philly area.

Life cereal has been a litmus test for me. At Wal-Mart and Target, a 21 ounce box typically costs between $2.50 and $2.80, not on sale. At Publix, a 15 ounce box might run $4.50 or so – substantially more. But at Genuardis here in Philly (owned by Safeway), you might pay as much as $5 for that box. Starbucks coffee follows a similar pattern: $7 at Target, $8 at Brunos in Alabama, and $10 at Acme in Philly. (Warning: all these prices are rough, based on memory.)

What gives? My guess is that in a world without Wal-Mart, there is less of a market divide between “fancy” shoppers who demand a nice store and “value shoppers” who will ignore a little dirt and clutter. The result: fewer nice stores, less competitive prices. Everything is kinda mediocre. In a world with Wal-Mart, even the fancy Publix stores feel serious price pressure. Charge too much and even the BMW drivers will head to the Super Store. At the same time, Publix builds destination stores that leave you happy to drop an extra few dollars at the register. I’m not making the case for Wal-Mart as the best thing since sliced bread. I see the various social problems caused, directly and indirectly, by the retail titan. But I also see the consumer side. If everyone pays a little less for food in a Wal-Mart world, and poorer people are able to pay signficantly less, that’s a social benefit that can’t be ignored.


Murumba & Sebok on “Brooklyn Style Pizza”

real Brooklyn pizza.jpg

Sam Murumba and & Tony Sebok of Brooklyn Law School have a nice post up at Findlaw entitled:

Should the Law Regulate Whether and When Corporations Use Locality-Based Food Designations Such as “Brooklyn Style Pizza”?

The Significance of Appellations of Origin

The post relates to issues raised in recent Concurring Opinion posts by Kaimi Wenger and Christine Farley. Kaimi considered why New Yorkers would ever opt for a Domino’s “Brooklyn pizza” over a real NYC pizza. And Christine raised the possibility of regulating locality designations in the context of African artisans.

hat tip to Jason Mazzone of Brooklyn Law School for the cite.

The fabulous Brooklyn Law School, by the way, is my old stomping grounds. And I must include a shout-out to “My Little Pizzeria” on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights … best pizza I’ve ever had in my life!


Domino’s in the City

Over at Volokh, David Bernstein asks, “Really, in New York (outside, perhaps, Manhattan, where the pizza situation has become dire) you are rarely more than a few blocks away from at least decent New York pizza. . . . Why would anyone in Brooklyn, ever order the dreck they sell at Domino’s?”

It’s a good question. (There are indeed Domino’s and Pizza Hut outlets in the city.) A similar question arises here in San Diego. There are approximately fifteen thousand really good Mexican food joints in San Diego. There is an abundance of small mom-and-pop places, some high-end restaurants, and authentic chains like Rubio’s. Yet amidst this land of plenty, I also see the occasional Taco Bell, as well as its bastard cousin Del Taco.

What’s going on? Two things, I suspect.

First, there is some population that actually prefers Domino’s over real pizza, and Taco Bell over real Mexican food. What can I say? There’s no accounting for taste.

Second, though, is this legitimate concern: Domino’s and Taco Bell may set a pretty low bar, but it really can get worse. Both Domino’s and Taco Bell are consistently bland, uninteresting, uninspired. On a scale of one to ten, they’re a two, or a three at best.

But some of the mom-and-pop shops — the bad ones, not the good ones — can be truly awful. On a scale of one to ten, they’re worse than a mere two. They’re a one, or a zero, or into the negatives. I’ve had bad pizza from more than one corner pizza joint in New York that was truly nauseating — substantially worse than Domino’s. And I’ve had bad Mexican food here in San Diego that was similarly worse than Taco Bell.

Given that backdrop, the presence of Domino’s or Taco Bell provides a minimum baseline of quality — uninspiring, but unlikely to be truly, nauseatingly awful. If I have limited information about the restaurants in a location, and if I’m risk averse, I might rationally choose the relatively safe (but uninspired) option.

Say that I end up in an unfamiliar part of New York City. On one corner, I see a sign for Bernstein Pizza; on another corner, Wenger Pizza; on a third corner, Solove Pizza; on the fourth corner, Domino’s. I have no information about any of these restaurants, other than Domino’s. Chances are that one or two or even all three of the other options will be good pizza, and if they’re good, they’ll be much better than Domino’s. But one or more of them might be awful, and I don’t have a way to know which that might be.

Now I’m personally not all that risk averse, and most likely to simply try my luck on one of the corner delis. (Hence my cache of stories about bad food.) But I won’t begrudge the risk-averse actor in that situation her decision to limit potential losses by choosing to eat at Domino’s.