corrupted by a can of soup
By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
BIG BROTHER is about to step in and make my life — and the lives of a tiny handful of others — better by imposing broad regulations that will probably cost the food industry billions without benefiting the overwhelming majority of Americans one whit.
And I’m fine with that. But the fact that I’m fine with it does make me a tad uncomfortable.
I’ve never wanted to be part of an interest group. That’s why I throw away those membership solicitations from AARP (even though I sometimes feel a wee bit envious of the discounts my wife, who lacks such scruples, enjoys).
For one thing, it’s a liability in my business. Even though I write opinion these days rather than “objective” news, I value detachment. Like the human computers called “mentats” in Frank Herbert’s novels, I prefer my judgments to be generally untainted by “feelings” or self-interest.
I can be passionate about issues, but they tend to be fairly abstract (say, government accountability) or involve groups to which I don’t belong — such as poor, black, rural children who get the short end of the stick on educational opportunity.
I cling to the great self-delusion of the Average White Guy, which is that I don’t belong to a group. If there’s a group trait among us white guys, it’s that we don’t see ourselves as having group traits, or interests in common. I look at a rich white guy and don’t celebrate his success (he’s not sharing it with me). And when he goes to the slammer for insider trading or whatever, I’m as likely to feel Schadenfreude as a member of any other ethnic group.
You can’t even characterize me as a WASP. I’m a half-Celtic mutt, and I’m Catholic. But I refuse to feel aggrieved when secularists (vicious, slanderous dogs that they are) attack the Church. I tend to snort at whiny releases I get from the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights (“Yahoo! Displays Bias Against Catholics”), and sneer at politicians’ ham-handed efforts to corral the “Catholic vote.”
Not that bias against Catholics doesn’t exist. It’s just that I refuse to join the pity party.
But there are limits to my detachment. I’m no mentat, but a three-dimensional human being, and to fail to recognize that is to fail to see the world accurately (as any mentat would tell you).
I think it would be great if somebody really did do something about the trains that keep me and others who work on Shop Road from getting downtown and back in a timely fashion. And as an asthmatic, I welcome all the restrictions recently placed on smoking in public places.
But I can rationalize those. Eliminating train delays would also benefit football fans (a group to which I definitely don’t belong), fairgoers, Farmers Market shoppers, folks trying to get to I-77, and the residents of Arthurtown, Taylors and Little Camden. And everyone is harmed by cigarette smoke; those of us who suffer more immediately are merely the canaries in the coal mine.
But this latest thing I just can’t rationalize away. On Thursday, I finally became corrupted by the unoriginal sin of narrow interest. That was the day I read in an article (it wouldn’t let me link directly; search for "Zhang" and "allergens") from The Wall Street Journal that a new federal food-labeling law taking effect Jan. 1 will not only cause packagers to highlight the presence of milk, eggs and wheat (to which I am allergic, in the first two instances to a life-threatening degree) and other major allergens, but it will go to the next level — letting the less-savvy know that “whey” and “casein” mean milk just as surely as do butter and cheese. (I was an adult before I realized why I was getting sick from consuming “non-dairy” products containing traces of sodium caseinate.)
Best of all — and this is the really sweet part — some manufacturers are going so far as to simply eliminate the allergens from their recipes, when they are not key ingredients. You may ask yourself why the allergens were even in there if they were not essential. If so, congratulations! You have finally thought to ask a question that has driven me nuts my whole life. I have to remove my bifocals and press labels against my nose to read the fine print on every packaged product I consider consuming. And more often than not, I find that some innocuous-sounding product such as beef-vegetable soup, or an oat-based cereal, has been inexplicably poisoned with whey or another form of dairy. It doesn’t look creamy, and you can’t taste it, but it’s there.
And there’s no acceptable explanation for it; the soup or cereal would taste fine without it. As often as not, a competing brand right next to it is made without the offending materials, and with no damage to quality.
So how to explain it? Why would a food processor go to the expense of buying mass quantities of an irrelevant ingredient, arrange to have it delivered, and put it in the product? Other interest groups have their paranoid conspiracy theories, and here’s mine: This country has for decades been run from behind the scenes by the dairy industry. Don’t try to “reason” with me on this; no other explanation satisfies.
Yet the iron grip of Big Cheese must be loosening. How else could the FDA be getting ready to enforce these new regulations? How else could Campbell Soup Co. — an outfit that produces a gazillion products, of which I can safely consume about four — be on the verge of purging its products of unnecessary allergens?
In any case, it’s wonderful news. To me. Suddenly, grocery store aisles are going to seem a lot less like minefields. To me.
And there’s the rub. I just can’t get around the fact that in this case, I am a member of a hyper-narrow interest group. Sure, millions have “allergies,” in the sense that they get seasonal hay fever, or suffer a little rash when they eat strawberries. But not that many of us have real allergies, in the sense of a clear and present danger of going into deadly
anaphylactic shock from exposure to a common food. Oh, everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who has “this bizarre thing about peanuts,” but that’s about it. The Journal article says about 150 people die from food allergies a year. So in one sense, the entire food industry is going to be retooled to save about one in every two million people.
And I think that’s great.
So I’m human. Sue me. But don’t try sneaking any of your spoiled bovine secretions into my tucker. If you do, Big Brother’s gonna getcha.