Should food writers and recipe developers inform readers about sustainable food choices and ethical eating practices in the hope of fostering responsible consumerism? It’s a question I ask myself every time I see a celebrity chef spruiking a recipe for swordfish or a food critic salivating over a yellowfin tuna number they’ve encountered on the menu of a trendy eatery.
Should recipe writers guide readers towards more sustainable options, discuss alternative species, and help the reader make a more informed choice? Should food critics wax lyrical about exceptional dishes they have encountered if ingredients are unsustainable or unethically sourced, or bite their tongue?
Food critic at The Age Larissa Dubecki attracted criticism recently after she sang the praises of a dish of yellowfin tuna at a Melbourne restaurant – even suggesting it could be a contender for “dish of the year” – yet acknowledging in the same sentence that yellowfin tuna was endangered.
“Yet another food writer admits that we shouldn’t be eating YFin Tuna while simultaneously promoting its consumption,” GoodFishBadFish creator Oliver Edwards said on Twitter.
Melbourne chef Paul Cooper replied: ”I think it’s up to Melbourne chefs to not have it as an option for reviewers to eat … with so many sustainable options, why would they support it.”
Edwards responded: “Chefs can no longer stick their heads in the sand. They must be role models & leaders. They start trends & drive change … certainly all who have the knowledge have a responsibility to share it and promote sustainable practices.”
I used to think there was a clear-cut answer to the question posited at the start of this post. Food writers and recipe developers had a responsibility – a duty of care, even – to inform readers about more sustainable/ethical food options. And shame on them for even publishing a recipe that contained dubious ingredients. I’m not talking about food writers ramming their beliefs down readers’ throats, just being responsible and starting a conversation.
In a discussion I had with Edwards on the issue, he argued this point eloquently.
“It’s my opinion that an educated person in a position of influence has a responsibility to promote the cause. I would say this is true of just about any environmental, or even humanitarian or other, issue.”
“I do agree though, it’s certainly not about forcing the message on consumers. The focus should be on educating consumers and providing positive reinforcement, not chastising anyone for doing the ‘wrong thing’. It could be a simple as raising awareness by mentioning the issue and referring readers on to further sources of information.”
However, the more I’ve considered the issue, the more I’ve realised it’s not as black and white as I first thought. Sustainable and ethical mean different things to different people. Some people consider all fisheries in Australia to be sustainable because fishing quotas are enforced, other people believe numerous species are threatened and over-fished.
Some people have no problem with ducks and geese being force fed to fatten their livers and produce foie gras, while others recoil at the inhumane practice of regularly shoving a tube down a bird’s throat and funneling food into it. Some consumers don’t blink an eye at buying barn laid eggs, whereas others will only purchase eggs from free-range poultry farms.
And where do you draw the line? Should recipe writers promote independent milk producers over cut-price supermarket brands? Or advocate the use of pork from free-range farms rather than those that keep pigs in sow stalls? Should they encourage us to buy organic or biodynamic produce, or let us come to our conclusions about the produce we buy and consume?
I came across a recipe that was shared on Twitter recently for chickpea, tomato and spinach rogan josh. I liked the sound of it, and clicked on the link. It took me to the Australian Women’s Weekly website. The list of ingredients called for non-GMO canola oil and organic chickpeas. Is that taking things too far?
The food director at the Australian Women’s Weekly, Fran Abdallaoui, said the recipe was a “one-off” and probably originated from a cooking show that aired on Channel 9 some years ago.
While the Australian Women’s Weekly editorial team strived to inform its readers on important developments in the food industry, such as new products, “we need to be careful not to preach our personal views,” she said.
“We care equally about the produce and the producer and understand that there are complex issues important to all sides involved in production. It is also a commercial reality that we must also be mindful of our advertisers, which can at times be tricky.”
Abdallaoui also said that in fish recipes the team usually recommended a species of fish such as barramundi fillets or other firm white fish fillet, “then the reader can make a decision based on price, availability and sustainability.”
“We also try to include items to inform our reader on our food news page regarding food ethics.”
But is that sufficient either? Are food publications and journalists copping out by not being more forthright with their words, and ultimately their influence?
I believe there is a fine line between encouraging readers and preaching to them. But, like Edwards, I also think that food authorities have a right to inform, encourage and spark discussion amongst the general public. How else will important food issues filter down to the mainstream if food writers and recipe developers don’t put them front and centre of the public debate?
So what do you think? Should food writers and recipe developers speak out – promote sustainable and ethical choices – or keep their personal beliefs and philosophies to themselves?