Give me good food, not labels

How do you decide what’s for dinner? Besides the fact that you know you’re going to have some delicious pork cut, or at least something with bacon on it, what truly is the determining factor behind what you find on your plate when you sit down to sup?

Being a person who eats to live, rather than one who lives to eat, I often find myself in that dilemma. When my wife asks, “What do you want for supper?” my usual reply is “I don’t care, what do you want?” The old tagline for Ritz Crackers, “what are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for” is a common thought process in my head.

When I truly do have a hankering for something, it is usually based on taste, something that I crave. Apparently that process of arriving at a food choice is barbaric — making food choices based on what I hunger for on a previous mouth-watering experience.

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston recently sought to discover if people put more thought into their dining choices than what merely tastes better. Three separate studies were conducted to determine if dining choices are influenced by the manner in which the meat end-product they were eating was raised.

In the first study, participants were given two identical samples of organic beef jerky. The only difference was that one sample was labeled “humane farm” while the other was labeled “factory farm.” According to the abstract of the research, “In Study 1, we tested the hypothesis that beliefs influence eating by manipulating people’s beliefs about two identical meat samples: people were led to believe one sample was raised on a ‘factory farm’ (negative belief) while the other was ‘humanely raised’ (positive belief). In Study 2, we used a control condition to test whether negative or positive beliefs were more impactful. Finally, in Study 3, we tested an even more compelling possibility: can beliefs influence basic sensory properties of flavor, such as perceived saltiness or sweetness? In all three studies, participants first read the descriptions, then consumed real meat samples, and finally reported on their eating experience.”

In the case of the first study, participants rated the “factory farm” samples looked and smelled less appealing compared with the “humane farm,” and the “factory” raised jerky tasted worse, creating a less enjoyable eating experience for the “factory farm” product. Furthermore, participants were willing to pay 21.82% less for the “factory farm” jerky, and participants reported being less likely to eat it again. Participants also ate 8.18% less of the “factory farm” sample.

Participants in the second study were given identical roast beef samples, but this time a control group was added with no indication of how the animals were raised. Researchers also changed their labeling, creating a “factory farm+” description, highlighting the benefits of what they label a “factory farm.” Study 3 looked at deli ham, and participants each received three samples — first the control group with no origin description, and then “participants sampled ham paired with either the factory farm description or the humane farm description (order randomized) and then sampled ham paired with the remaining description.” The second and third studies showed similar results to the first study, showing favoritism to the “humane farm” product.

Do these studies create a ringing endorsement for producers to change their production system? That would be a resounding, No!

There are a couple intricacies of the studies that need to be considered. First of all, and I am not exhibiting regionalism, but look at where the research was conducted — Boston, Mass. I’m not picking a fight with Bostonians; I think that researchers would have achieved similar results if they had conducted their research in New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. Conversely, the results would be considerably different if participants had been tested in, say Pierre, S.D., Ames, Iowa, or Broken Bow, Neb.

Though I despise the term “factory farm,” because no one can truly define it, it does have different connotations to different people. That is especially true when paired with the other choice of “humane farm.” If those are your only two options, it would make sense to fall in line with human nature to be subliminally pulled to the “humane” side. Just using the two classifications it implies to the study participants that the “factory farm” animals are not raised humanely, thus create a negative vibe.

We all know that all hog producers strive to raise their pigs as humanely as possible, regardless of the production system employed on their farm. Some will even argue that hogs raised in confinement barns of modern swine production are raised in more humane conditions than those raised in outside lots and exposed to extreme weather and predators.

We also know that pork coming out of both production models can be of the highest quality, and people are foolish to pay more for the product out of one system over another. The American consumer has been fooled to believe that if they pay more for a product that it must be superior to a product of lesser cost.

Neiman Marcus, an upscale department store, hopes to cash in on that notion — the more you pay the better it will taste. If that’s the case, the 12-pound stuffed pork crown roast they offer better get you to dining nirvana — if you’re willing to fork over $410. Yes, that is not a typo. That is over $34 per pound, but it can serve up to 24, for more than $17 per serving. Still pretty steep for my liking.

Regardless how you decide what you will sit down to eat (or how much you will pay for it); keep in mind that you will sit down to eat, as will most of your fellow Americans. As we pompously determine our dining habits by the way animals are raised, keep in mind that millions in this world will not have the luxury of an evening meal or a bedtime snack. They will go to bed hungry. They hunger for real food, and could care less what facility the pig providing the pork chop in front of them was raised in. More than likely that U.S. pig was raised in better conditions than what they live in in their Third World country.

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