The trouble with food culture: Why we need to get political about injustice in the food industry

OPINION: Workers are exploited from farm to table, writes Corey Mintz. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?
By Corey Mintz - Published on August 7, 2018
A cooked shrimp.
Slavery is rampant in the shrimp trade. (iStock.com/kirisa99)

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This is the final instalment in a five-part series about the problems with contemporary food culture.

“Nobody cares,” said Derek Chan.

We were in a small theatre in Toronto. For the past hour, Chan had performed the one-person play A Taste of Empire (written and directed by Jovanni Sy) in Cantonese, while a screen above him projected an English translation for the audience. Chan, playing a shell-shocked, abused cooking apprentice, actually prepared the Filipino dish rellenong bangus on stage — deboning, stuffing, and cooking a whole milkfish — while delivering a monologue layered with digressions about the labour abuses inherent in the growing, harvesting, manufacturing, and shipping of food.

Just a few minutes before the play’s climax, the translation machine broke. In front of a packed house, Chan soldiered on in Cantonese. I don’t speak Cantonese, so mostly I just watched Chan’s physical performance — his shoulders slumped after he’d finished his exhaustive cataloguing of the exploitation in the food system. And then he dropped the single line in English: “Nobody cares.” And there was no need for translation.  It slugged me in the gut because I’ve been running up against the same brick wall of indifference and inaction.

In the past few years, we’ve heard so much outrage about injustice in the food system — and seen so little change.

Thanks either to new reporting or to a sudden surge in public interest, a host of long-simmering ethical conflicts have leapt to the forefront of our dialogue about food: slavery in the shrimp trade, predatory sexual behaviour by famous food personalities, wage theft and pay discrepancy in restaurants, lack of clean water for Indigenous communities, rampant food waste.

“Four years after damning revelations of chattel slavery aboard Thai fishing boats linked to seafood exported and sold by major retailers around the world, a report says that rights violations in one of Thailand’s major export industries continue unabated, including forced labour and widespread human trafficking.”

That’s from a recent follow-up to the Guardian’s 2014 investigation about forced labour and how it contributes to our shrimp cocktails and cat food.

The chefs and restaurateurs called out for sexual misconduct are all biding their time, waiting until it’s safe to make a comeback.

Mario Batali was the subject of a friendly how-to piece in the New York Times that outlined his possible pathway to redemption.  

Ken Friedman still owns his restaurant, which includes an area nicknamed “the rape room” by staff.

In Ontario, many restaurants have stopped carrying Norm Hardie’s wines. The LCBO initially stated that it would continue to stock Hardie’s products. But after public pressure, it changed its tune (this is a huge deal, and we’ll get back to it).

Clean drinking water was an election promise from Justin Trudeau, one abandoned as quickly as Liberal pledges for electoral reform. We don’t lack the technological means to provide every last community in Canada with drinkable water — only the political will to spend the money.

We still waste a third of the food we produce, about $31 billion worth every year.

I’ve written about how little cooks are paid (commonly inversely proportionate to the status of the restaurant and often half of what servers earn), wage theft at Oliver & Bonacini restaurants (a leader in the industry), the push to eradicate the tipping model (which enables harassment and a disparity in pay), and the hardships faced by migrant agricultural labourers (necessary to keep our food prices low). After these stories, there’s always a spike in the conversation.

But nothing has changed.

Readers ask me what they can do, where they should eat, from whom they should buy their shrimp or lettuce, to make a difference. But, unfortunately, the public’s ability to vote with their dollar goes only so far.

Back in May, I had the opportunity to speak with Nico Roozen, who co-founded Max Havelaar, the world’s first fair-trade coffee brand, in 1988.

Roozen is now executive director of Solidaridad, a civil-society organization that promotes social responsibility in commodity supply chains, such as cotton, tea, sugarcane, gold, cocoa, and coffee.

He told me that ethical purchasing accounts for about 3 to 5 per cent of a given market — never more.

The needle won’t move further, Roozen told me, without policy change. That means governments taking action. And this is why the LCBO’s reversal is so significant.

Large companies can weather scandals. The public has a short memory (see: Mike Tyson, Mel Gibson, etc.). Follow-up stories, interviews with people eating at Batali’s restaurant or drinking at Hardie’s winery, suggest that the overwhelming majority don’t know or don’t care.

And while consumer choice from a minority of the market can help extend the conversation, systemic problems require systemic changes.

The LCBO’s move to cut off Hardie’s access to distribution represents that kind of institutional change.

After reading and reporting on the Thai shrimp trade, I couldn’t buy cheap shrimp anymore. But I’d have more of an impact if, instead of switching to “clean shrimp” (which in my case would mean buying shrimp only a couple of times a year, as I can’t afford the price jump from $8/lb to $30/lb), I focused my attention on grassroots political action. It would be a more effective use of my resources to continue buying slave shrimp but also to spend an hour each week lobbying my MP (who happens to be the minister of foreign affairs) to push for reform as part of a trade deal.

Trying to create political change on my own seems hopeless. But the attempt has a greater chance of success than does my choice of how to spend my personal shrimp budget.

It’s not fair to say that nobody cares. But industries that depend on indifference in order to profit through exploitation can treat this level of caring — and the small percentage of people who are willing (and can afford) to vote with their dollars — as merely an annoyance to be ignored.

Feel-good stories — about the restaurant that adds a 25-cent surchange on beef and lamb dishes to buy carbon-offset credits, the restaurant eliminating tipping, the restaurant converting a quarter of its menu into vegan dishes — may give us the impression that change is happening. But these stories (and I’ve written some) are about a tiny minority of operators and consumers. They’ve done their part by getting the dialogue started with diners. The next part is up to us. Because unless we make something politically important for our elected officials, they have no incentive to make change.

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