5 myths about your ethical foods

Choosing local, cage-free or organic foods can make us feel like upstanding citizens, but are we assuming too much about some of our fave feel-good foods?


Think you’re cheering on the local food economy – and trimming your carbon footprint – every time you buy a locally grown tomato or apple? You are, but as Min Sook Lee, the filmmaker behind the new documentary Migrant Dreams (screening at Hot Docs May 8) will tell you, Canada’s temporary foreign worker program is empowering brokers and growers to “exploit, dehumanize and deceive migrant workers.” Lee says the program abets a “shockingly feudal system” that traps workers on farms where they’re unable to change jobs, earn overtime pay or seek redress for abuse. Many she interviewed are in “debt bondage,” paying back illegal recruiter fees for years. Justicia for Migrant Workers is calling on the feds to offer permanent residency to migrant workers so they’ll have better access to fair working and living conditions. Sign the petition at harvestingfreedom.org


Organic farms have got to treat workers better than conventional farms somehow, right? Yes, workers aren’t exposed to carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals, which is a major health advantage. The trouble is migrant workers on organic fields face the same systemic injustices and abuses found on conventional farms (see item #1). Canada’s organic standard offers no worker welfare provisions above and beyond weak provincial laws. On the bright side, Wayne Adams of Canadian Organic Growers says farm labourer welfare should be assessed during the next revision of the Canadian organic standard, but that’s not until five years from now. In the meantime, support both organic and fair trade seals on produce like coffee and chocolate, and tell your MP to support greater rights for migrant workers on all farms, organic or not. 


You eat meat, but you want those cows, chickens and pigs to have a happy, free-roaming existence. So you spend more to get it from the guy at the farmers’ market who has pictures of livestock grazing or from suppliers making promises of more humane conditions. The thing is, there are no federal standards about what “consciously,” “traditionally” and “humanely raised” actually mean. And the reality is that they’re all (even those sold at the farmers’ market) going to the same slaughterhouses as conventional meat. At least certified-organic Canadian meat producers have to meet some recently beefed-up animal welfare standards, including recommendations around minimizing transport time to slaughter. But the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals notes that organic rules still follow Canadian transport codes that allow animals on trucks for up to 48 hours (unlike max 8-14 hours in Europe). BC’s SPCA-certified seal doesn’t yet include standards for more more humane slaughter, but the U.S.-based Certified Humane seal does.


You’d think cage-free eggs would be a no-brainer, feel-good choice. But lacto-ovo vegetarians will be stunned to learn, as I was, that chickens are indeed killed to get us our eggs. Since the industry breeds different chickens for laying and for meat, 200 million male chicks of the laying variety are offed at American hatcheries alone, macerated in high-speed grinders, gassed, suffocated or electrocuted, and very often sent off for pet feed. Yes, this is true for certified organic eggs as well as free range and free-run eggs. Germany was poised to put an end to male chick culling by using technology to detect a chick’s sex before birth, but the move was voted down by its parliament in March. 


On fish sustainability ranking sites like seachoice.org, you’ll see farmed salmon almost always gets a bad score, which is why more Canadians are looking for the wild variety. Too bad nearly half the so-called wild salmon in grocery stores and restaurants is farmed Atlantic salmon. Large grocery chains are less likely to lie about that, and fishmongers and restos simply say “wild salmon” rather that coughing up specifics like wild chinook, coho or king salmon. Oh, and be extra-leary of cheap sushi joints. Enviro org Oceana found that 74 per cent of them mislabelled fish, with unsustainable Atlantic halibut often sold as Pacific, stomach-irritating escolar as tuna and tilapia as red snapper, though that last one isn’t a bad swap, since farmed tilapia is generally considered a greener choice than snapper.

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