Health News Digest

September 20, 2010

Where Does Your Food Really Come From?


By  Michael D. Shaw

Certifying the regional authenticity of foods began in France, and now operates as the well-known Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), meaning controlled designation of origin. Among other things, products classified under an AOC must be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas. The products must further be aged at least partially in the respective designated area.

Before long, most of the other European countries developed their own regulations, and overall Euro guidelines are also in place.

A recent controversy, dubbed the “Gruyère War,” involved the famous cheese, and pitted France against Switzerland. Both countries had issued AOC marks within their own borders, although the two cheeses are different. The Swiss version has few if any holes, while holes are required in French Gruyère.

All would have been peaceful, but the French attempted to one-up the Swiss, and sought to have their embodiment of the cheese recognized with the even more prestigious Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP), issued by the European Union.

Naturally, the Swiss objected, pointing out that the name “Gruyère,” comes from a Swiss town, located in the Alpine foothills, and traced the cheese’s origin back to Roman times. Legend has it that in 161 AD, the Roman emperor Antonin the Pious died of indigestion after eating too much cheese from the Gruyère area.

In the end, the French lost, per an EU decision published in August. Maybe the Swiss also mentioned that Antonin is renowned for pioneering the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Here in the US, we have New York pizza, and Manhattan as well as New England clam chowder. Regional barbecue styles include Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, and Carolina, and there are any number of styles of hot sauce.

However, in this country there is little to prevent someone from effectively hijacking the prestige of authentic regional foods by labeling their ersatz versions as “New York Style” pizza, “Asian Influenced” noodles, or “California Inspired” Cuisine. To make matters worse, the counterfeit editions more likely than not will also forgo the use of all natural ingredients for additives and preservatives.

Focusing on California for a moment, long before the state became famous for movie stars, Silicon Valley, celebrity governors, bad politics, and even the Gold Rush, there was agriculture. At present, although agriculture is not the state’s largest industry sector anymore, its commercial value dwarfs every other state’s comparable figures by at least a factor of two.

Food marketers have learned that consumers will seek out agricultural products from California, and that includes everything from fruits and vegetables to whole grains and prepared dishes. But too many suppliers have no interest in developing the legitimate infrastructure that would support this, and resort to such designations as “California Inspired,” despite the lack of even the most tenuous connection to the Golden State.

Fortunately, there are also companies leading the charge to reclaim authenticity. One of them is Passport Food Group, the parent of Wing Hing Foods and Royal Angelus Macaroni Company, two brands with strong ties to their respective communities, as well as a nationwide following. Both subsidiaries can trace long histories in California. Royal Angelus happens to be the second oldest dry pasta manufacturing company in the United States, and the oldest west of the Mississippi.

You would think that official food purchases by the state of California would aim to support its own companies, but Passport CEO Dave Abrams tells me that the pasta it buys is made in Texas, from wheat grown in Canada.

Abrams continues: “If people buy pasta from our company, they support jobs in Chino, California, to make the pasta, jobs in Fresno to mill the flour, and jobs in the Central Valley to grow the wheat. It’s a shame that our state preaches job growth as being so important, then outsources purchasing to companies outside of the state.”

Finally, regional authenticity is key to the so-called locavore movement, which encourages the consumption of locally grown and produced food items. Many grocery chains recognize that consumers care about this, and are now identifying the geographic origin—and sometimes the name of the actual farm—on produce items.