Deciding on dinner

Americans have more food choices than ever, but they're often confounded by them.

What will it be tonight? Organic chicken or regular? Imported asparagus or locally grown baked apple? A quick bite at Chipotle or Burger King? In the fall of 2007, Americans have more food choices than ever, but they are often unhappy with them or don't trust them.

Mass-produced food is turning off many people. They don't like its effect on the environment (all that fossil fuel for transport; all that run-off from feed lots). They don't like how animals are treated, and they question the benefit for humans.

At one end of the spectrum, individuals are taking these decisions into their own hands. Literally. They till the soil, as Barbara Kingsolver recounts in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," which chronicles the year her family ate only what they grew or raised, or was produced locally.

And have you heard of "Freegans" – waste-not, want-not individuals who dive into dumpsters for perfectly good veggies thrown out by stores and eateries? Newsweek reports this week that they're "a presence in most American cities."

More power to people who radically change their lifestyle for the benefit of the environment and other reasons, but most Americans probably can't follow in their footsteps. It's hard to imagine single parents or busy two-career families taking up animal husbandry.

The marketplace, though, is responding to these new tastes and concerns, as it usually does. Farmers' markets, organic-food stores, and locally-grown sections in supermarkets are multiplying. The compromise for shoppers is price and variety, but they still offer convenience – a must in today's world.

The other end of the spectrum is government deciding what's for dinner. A Los Angeles councilwoman wants to ban fast-food restaurants in South Central Los Angeles. The idea is to fight obesity and follows a New York City ban on trans fats used by restaurants.

But who is government to decide where, or what types of food, to eat? Fast food is affordable and convenient. And the marketplace is responding to demand for changed menus: apple slices at Subway; McDonald's has invested $360 million in fresh food Chipotle.

Government's role is to help individuals make their own choices wisely and to ensure safety, but it's not doing its job very well. Consumers are more skeptical of food, which is increasingly imported. Last year, consumer confidence in food safety declined dramatically – by 16 percent, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. Tainted spinach, pet food, and other scares shook their trust.

To restore it, government needs to work with industry to promote more and better labeling – of menus – and country-of-origin, for instance. That might prompt knee-jerk reactions (food from China: bad), but not if government and industry work much harder at food oversight and inspection.

The adapting marketplace and a better-performing government can help Americans navigate today's vast food landscape. But consumers themselves need a more level-headed approach to their choices.

Forgetting the caution that life is more than food, they allow themselves to be stirred by fads (no bread!) and marketing campaigns. If they're not careful, they'll be as mixed up as a scrambled egg. Hmm, would that be organic or not?

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