Shopping for food is a fraught experience. There is so much information to process – nutritional label, brand, certification logos, cost, and the latest studies of health effects. I like to simplify the process of food buying.
First, there are two broad categories of information to which I try to pay attention: 1) healthiness of the food and 2) effects of how the food was produced, including effects on the environment and effects on the welfare of animals. It is easy to get these confused so I try to keep them separate with some simple decision rules.
Nutritional labels are helpful for the first of these issues. The rules I try to follow are a simple list of things to avoid – high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, salt, added sugar, and, in my particular case, wheat, rye, or barely. (My “gluten free” diet is not by choice and I would happily give it up in a heartbeat. Alas, that is not happening.)
Buying food with animal welfare and environmental effects in mind is more challenging. There are so many issues in food production and many of them are reflected in product packaging label claims. The specific food production label claims include: USDA organic, no artificial growth hormones, climate friendly, local, grass-fed, GMO free, cage free, free range, and other aspects of the ethical treatment of animals.
Organic is one of the older label claims. I am always puzzled when I read news reports about studies that find no nutritional benefit from organically produced foods. I never chose organic foods because I thought they were nutritionally superior. Rather my preference for organic foods was because I thought they were less likely to have adverse side effects in their production. They might avoid more of what economists call externalities. This is where our behavior in markets, the purchase of food products in this case, leads to unintended consequences for other people or the environment. For example, there is good evidence to suggest that the use of herbicide-resistant corn plants has contributed to the decline of monarch butterflies in North America. So when I buy corn products produced in a certain way, I am contributing to monarch butterfly population declines. This is an unintended yet real consequence of my purchase, an external effect in economic jargon.
One issue that is getting increasing attention in the medical world is the growing resistance of some bacteria to antibiotics. So-called “super bugs” have evolved to survive treatment with even the most potent, last-resort antibiotics. Some scientists believe a contributing factor in this growing antibiotic resistance is the routine use of antibiotics in the production of beef, poultry, eggs, aquaculture fish, and even lobsters that are kept in pounds. In some cases this antibiotic use is to treat or prevent bacterial infections. But sometimes antibiotics are a routine addition to the feed given to the animals. For reasons not fully understood, routine antibiotic use in low doses makes animals gain weight faster, getting them ready for market sooner, enhancing profits. These low dose uses of antibiotics allow bacteria to evolve resistance, partly contributing to the larger human health issue.
So my new decision rule for meat, eggs, and seafood is, buy food that is produced without antibiotics. I am not worried about ingesting antibiotics from the meat, eggs, or seafood I eat. The medical issue with “superbugs” is not that I personally become resistant to the benefits of antibiotics. Rather the issue is the resistance that bacteria develop in the broader environment resulting in these new “super bugs.”
One benefit of this purchase decision rule is that livestock need to be kept in healthier and perhaps more humane environments if the producers are going to avoid using antibiotics. So a no antibiotics rule might result in better treatment of the animals that feed us.
Will I pay more for eggs, beef, pork, poultry, and seafood raised without antibiotics? Certainly. That will always be the case when externalities are built into the market like when I adopt my decision rule. I am happy to pay more knowing that when I eat these products I am not contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance.