The other day my wife sent me to the supermarket to buy some eggs. You should try this yourself: go into the supermarket to buy just one semi-generic item (eggs, milk, orange juice) and you too might be paralyzed by the overabundance of choice. (and no, the USDA Egg Buying Guide doesn’t help)
I had the option of buying a dozen eggs for $1.99, $2.99, $3.99, and $4.99. Organic, cage free, no antibiotics, vegetarian feed…or just plain old-fashion industrial-supply eggs. A 250% price differential between the least and most expensive option, and lots of claims on the packaging and pictures of farms I’m pretty sure don’t exist any more in the U.S.
I consider myself reasonably informed about food and I care a lot about getting good, healthy food for me and my family. I know a least a little about industrial food production and how terrible it is, and I worry appropriately about antibiotics and growth hormones and conditions for livestock. I’ve even read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (both worth reading).
But what I know still isn’t much use in the egg isle. I’m pretty sure that the “all natural,” “organic,” “free range” and “cage free” labels have enough marketing lies to be untrustworthy. And I feel like a fool simply buying the most expensive option and assuming that it’s somehow the most natural and the best.
It strikes me that this matters because there’s an accepted wisdom that consumer’s decisions – and a growing preference for “greener” and more socially responsible products – will lead companies to behave more responsibly. The egg-buying conundrum exposes the fallacy: while I’m relatively informed about egg production, I still don’t know enough to differentiate at the product level, and since all marketers are liars, I can’t rely on the information on the packet to make informed decisions.
There’s been a recent upsurge in demand for “better” products – organic food sales skyrocketed from $1B to $20B from 2000 to 2007 – but this doesn’t mean that companies don’t still have a ton of wiggle room. Consumers just cannot know enough at the margin, which means that outside of egregious corporate behavior, companies that want to do the minimum can and will get by.
Put another way, change is going to come from personal leadership from within companies, with outside consumer pressure providing a general direction but never really being enough to separate the wheat from the chaff.
P.S. Any advice on the egg question is welcome