From the mouths of food writers

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?

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34 Comments

Filed under Food Issues

34 responses to “From the mouths of food writers

  1. You’re asking really important questions, Rachel. I’m not sure at what point ‘right to free speech’ morphed into ‘right to say anything and listen to nothing’, but that’s how I often see this issue. People with a lot of knowledge on any topic should surely share what they know, even if they need to acknowledge they don’t/can’t know everything on the topic (which is pretty much true of everything…). But to pretend that those who are any kind of ‘expert’ or ‘authority’ on a topic are simply pushing an ‘opinion’ is deeply disingenuous, and we shouldn’t fall for it.

    I love this quote from Edwards: “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.” Knowledge and influence, in my view, come with certain civic responsibilities. One of them is to share what we’ve learned, and then be prepared to respond, defend, or alter one’s view based on feedback received.

    On sustainable/ethical food issues, I think it’s unconscionable for those who understand the environmental degradation, loss of species, and/or cruelty to animals to remain silent about what we know. If we don’t speak up, who will? That doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right, but knowledge is developed through interrogating common sense notions, worrying at them, making bold suppositions and then having the grace to acknowledge when we’re wrong. There’s no real grace in public silence. There’s just complicity.

    • Well spoken, Tammi. I think it’s all too easy for food writers/publishers to hide behind the safety of the “we shouldn’t preach” philosophy. And it can also be scary to say what you think … after all, what if you get it wrong? But as you say, sharing what we have learned opens the door to discussion, which in turn furthers our own understanding/education of the issues. It’s about being better informed ourselves, not just helping to inform others.

      I like your use of the phrase “civic responsibilities” – i think we need to face up to those more.

      Of course many food writers/recipe developers are hamstrung by publishers who don’t want to lose market share by taking a too social/political/critical stance of things. But that’s where bloggers can fill the breach. Well informed bloggers, that is.

      Thanks for taking the time to help unpick the issue, Tammi. Happy Sunday night to you.

  2. Tough topic! I haven’t delved deep enough into the issue myself – but I tend to think that the average ‘eater’ doesn’t even think about sustainable or ethical food choices when choosing off a menu or when they are putting items into a trolley.

    They are highly price driven first and foremost. I do think when it comes to fish, they are conscious of it’s countries of origin and making sure it’s fresh as hell. We turn a blind eye to whether it’s endangered or over-fished, trusting that there are laws in place to avoid that.

    We are very unaware of sustainable issues but when it comes to ethical food choices – the average eater is more informed and aligns the term ‘organic’ with ethical – so I think there is massive confusion here!

    I believe in a top down philosophy, where the leaders or influencers should demonstrate their views in order for others to follow – so yes, chefs, magazines, food writers, food critics should share what they believe in!

    • Thanks for delving into the issue. It’s a tough one as you say. And i think the very fact that there is confusion & oblivion out there about sustainable and ethical produce and standards is good enough reason for those who are educated, informed – and who care – to step in and help.
      I think recipe writers – in particular – should stop sitting on the fence.
      A note at the end of a recipe, a link to another website, a nudge in the right direction … that’s all it will take, initially.

  3. It’s a tough one. Even though I often I use organic or biodynamic ingredients, I rarely specify them in my recipe. Occasionally I do, if I think it will make a significant difference to the taste. I believe education on organic food should be in articles (like this one, for example!), not recipes. Once someone is informed about the topic, they can then apply their personal preferences to the recipes they read.

    Someone’s philosophy invariably shows through, though, once they have amassed a series of articles, recipes, or posts… a long-time follower of my blog, for example, would know that I like healthy food, but that I also occasionally indulge. They will know that I prefer wholesome ingredients over excessively processed food. They will see that I eat meat, but that I am also a huge promoter of vegetarian and vegan dishes. So in some ways I am sending out a message, even if it’s not entirely intentional.

    • Subliminal messages … maybe they’re the key! I like your points and i agree, it’s difficult to promote some ingredients, such as organic or biodynamic produce. This is where the issue starts to become a little grey. Where do we draw the line? But recipes may be some people’s only food media consumption – so i believe recipe writers have an educational role to play, too. How to do that without lecturing or sounding judgemental is the tough part. And not one i have the answer to, i’m afraid.
      And not everyone is comfortable with educating/informing the reader in this way, and that is entirely their call. Oliver Edwards made a good point, he said it “shouldn’t be forced on the journalist”. Equally, a writer’s views shouldn’t be forced on the reader.
      It’s a balancing act, for sure. But as an industry (food media), i think we’ve got a long way to go.

  4. Lindi Sheehan

    You raise some very valid points that are well worth a serious conversation. Well done

  5. Thanks Lindi. It’s an interesting conversation, so far. I hope i have some answers by the end of it!

  6. What a great article!

    Lots to think about, well balanced and full of important points.

    One thing I think Melbourne can be proud of is the fact that visiting farmers’ markets has really taken off in the last couple of years. And rightly so: they support local suppliers who are all too happy to talk to customers about the provenance of the produce they are purchasing.

    Living in an epicurean-focused city means that information on what is sustainable eating and what isn’t is readily available. It’s all a Google search, a food blog or a simple question away. While there are some well known chefs and personalities who advocate sustainable eating, at the end of the day it is the individual’s responsibility to decide what goes into their mouth and where it comes from.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it is the individual’s responsibility to decide what goes into their mouth and where it comes from.
      But while we live in an epicurean society and farmers markets are all the rage and information on sustainable and ethical food issues is only a mouse click away, some people really just eat to live, they get little more satisfaction out of it than that. They will not go off in search of the information, because the issues aren’t even on their radar. There is nothing wrong with that. Each to their own.
      If the recipe that they tear out of the food magazine in the doctor’s waiting room, or the recipe they find on Google touched on some of the wider issues, that might be the first time they’ve even considered the issue, or heard that there is a problem around a certain food supply.
      Just because we are well versed in some of the issues, doesn’t mean that wider society is. A very small proportion of Australian society attend farmers markets.
      I think the mainstream food media – which touches the lives of millions of people every day – could play more of a role in bringing some issues more into the public consciousness.

  7. Zoe

    Where an animal is endangered, or an agricultural practice is cruel I think there is an obligation to speak. The importance of remembering to keep listening was right pointed out by Tammi;.the trick is how to do it without coming across as a knowitall wanker!

    • Indeed, journalists are not always known for being tactful! It will be a learning curve for many, i’m sure.
      But i find the more you write about subjects/issues, the more you learn. And sometimes you have to admit that you were wrong, or misinformed in the first place. As Tammi says, we should be prepared to alter our view depending on the feedback we receive. Life-long learning, isn’t that what it’s all about?

  8. Ed

    Well done. These topics have been ignored for too long by food writers.

    The question is; Is the food good?

    The story is: the origins.

    Fin.

    • Thanks for your comments and i agree the food media industry has ignored the issues for far too long.
      We’re all guilty of not stepping up and contributing to the debate at times.
      I think the mainstream press should be the leader.

  9. Indeed this is a very interesting and important topic, Rachel and I agree with all of your thoughts and the responses above. You raise some good questions and have drawn some excellent responses.

    I feel those of us who have blogs are, therefore, in a position of promoting or spruiking and we do have a responsibility to our readers to inform them about sustainable and ethical choices. Like Leaf, I think that the messages will come across in the work of a writer who has a strong theme.

    Myself? I prefer not to preach, I would rather introduce these via links and logos, per the Good Fish Bad Fish and Target 100 on my sidebar for e.g.; and snippets that inform my readers about supporting growers and producers, which in turn leads back to sustainability and ethical food choices.

    Does this make sense? I hope so. (It’s early and I am in need of coffee).

    • Links and logos are an excellent source of information for your readers, Lizzy. And i applaud you doing so.
      I think that’s often all it takes – a pointer, as it were, to somewhere to retrieve more information on an issue if a reader so wishes.
      There is nothing worse than having information you don’t want – or don’t agree with – pushed at you.
      The reader has a right to take or leave what they want. I think links and logos are a great way to provide more information, if a reader wants to go down that path. Great work!

  10. Some great comments. I like Lizzy and Leaf’s suggestions about ways to inform obliquely, and reckon many food writers could exploit these opportunities more than they do currently. For example, in recipes involving pork, what’s ‘wankerish’ or ‘preachy’ about saying ‘free range pork’? Is it really so elitist to consistently advocate for ethical animal husbandry?

    Those here who are familiar with my writings know that I am a relentless champion for true free-range animal farming, and that my work tends more to food politics than recipes (though I do the latter as well), so perhaps it’s an easier line for me to know where I stand. But anyone who is familiar with the conditions of industrially farmed animals, as surely most food writers must be, should, in my view, promote free-range animal products (pork, poultry and eggs, in Australia, and even beef and increasingly lamb in the US).

    But perhaps I’m just being preachy? If it improves animal welfare, so be it.

    • Agreed, Tammi. Nor do I think it’s preachy to add a small note at the end of the recipe to say you’ve found a lovely source of free range pork from X farmer, who supplies to Y & Z outlets and has an online service. You’d kill two birds with one stone … inform the reader about where to source ethical/sustainable produce & promote the independent farmer/producer. Many of the food blogs I read have a chatty, informal style that lends itself to this kind of “for your interest” endnote or link!

      • Both good comments, Rachel and Tammi… my way of pointing my readers to reliable sources is via my Market People page… and I sometimes link from my recipe to the source of my purchase.

      • I think linking to the sources of your purchases in recipes is an excellent example of how this can be done.
        I don’t often include recipes on The Food Sage, but I will try to provide links to where I sourced produce from – such as the Free Range Butcher @ Orange Grove market where I can.
        Keep up the good work Lizzy!

  11. Richard

    Great article, thank you!
    I agree with Gook that most people still jsut dont’ even think about what is on their plates past how it tastes and looks.

    The majority of ‘celebrity chefs’ and food bloggers i’ve come across do little to bring attention to these issues either, which is a great shame as they have huge reach and influence – particulary chefs. Some do more harm than good.

    In contrast to the UK animal welfare and sustainability of various food sources, like fish, seems Australia doesn’t really worry about these things. Not sure what it’s like in the US?

    Not really sure what the solution is (for now I just try to make sure I eat sustainaby and ethically) but I would think writers bringing these issues to the attention of their audiences more regularly can’t hurt.

    • Thanks for joining the conversation.
      I think we are seeing more celebrity chefs becoming more vocal on issues of sustainable eating & ethical food issues – but it’s inconsistent & on the whole they could certainly do more.

      And as you say, writers bringing these matters to the attention of readers more regularly can’t hurt … As long as they’ve got their facts straight (which is another matter entirely!)

  12. I think writers have a respsonsiblity to share their knowledge – the facts – with the general public. People can then become informed & make their own moral and ethical choices based on what they are learning. I wish there was more out there on factory farming – but it’s like people aren’t asking the questions, or they just are too afraid to write about it. How else do we learn about “the big issues”.

    • Exactly – food journalists have a responsibility to help educate the reader. They’re only one strand, but a very important one, in a broad educational landscape.
      I, too, wish more was written about some of these issues in the mainstream press.
      I don’t know that journalists are scared to ask the questions, but I do think that they’re stymied by what their editors & publishers want.
      The food media culture here is very different to what it is like in the UK for example, where there have been many exposes of factory farming atrocities, and the like.
      We’re a younger industry, I guess, and getting there … Slowly.
      There are some food writers in Australia who delve a little deeper … We just need more of them!

  13. Thank you for writing such a thought provoking article. I have sparked some really interesting conversation at college today – studing to become a chef ;)

    • Good luck with your studies. And i’m glad the article sparked some discussion. I’ve enjoyed hearing what other people think about the issue. And it’s made me think more deeply about it too. Thanks for dropping by!

  14. Such good food for thought- I’ve been musing over exactly the same thing in the last week or so. In the draft of my book is a recipe for ‘poke’; a Hawaiian sashimi dish that’s traditionally made with tuna. I’ve left tuna in, but put a note about sustainability and suggested other more sustainable fish as substitutes- it’s a tricky one.

    • Now that, Tori, is the kind of responsibility i’m talking about. In my opinion that is the best way to tackle this tricky situation. I think it’s important to acknowledge a recipe’s traditional and authentic ingredients, and if they’re unsustainable suggest alternatives, and leave the perhaps more educated reader to make up their own minds.
      Good luck with your book & the baby bucket list!

  15. Rachel, this post was has been such a great read!

    Personally, I would err on the side of keeping my personal beliefs and philosophies to myself, mostly because I don’t think my own choices are very consistent and I don’t necessarily want my blog to be about me preaching about what I think is “right”.

    I recently posted a recipe for a fish curry and thought it would be helpful if I informed my readers that I used Pangasius, mostly because the variety of fish available in my area is quite limited and not all fish is suitable for Asian cooking. Well, the number of private emails I got afterwards warning me about farmed Pangasius fish!!!

    At the end of the day, I think each person needs to make an informed decision about the food they buy and eat. Food writers can go some distance in educating about sustainable/ethical choices, but as you mentioned, these terms have different meaning to different people. Another point is that most food bloggers (like myself) would not consider themselves to be food writers; most food bloggers write as a hobby and would probably be quite alarmed if they suddenly had responsibility in terms of what ingredients they should be promoting or denouncing. I would probably never get around to posting! ;-)

    • All good points, especially the one you make about many food bloggers not considering themselves to be food writers, and therefore possibly alarmed at the idea of being responsible for promoting or denouncing ingredients. Many of them don’t seem to be alarmed about promoting or denouncing the restaurants they review, or free products they receive (yourself not included Thanh)!
      However, i totally get where you are coming from and it highlights a tension between food writers and food bloggers that i hadn’t really considered.
      I guess my points were targeted more at mainstream media – the food critics and recipe writers or “food authorities” behind magazines like the Australia Women’s Weekly and newspapers like The Age, given the reach they have. Professional writers should be knowledgable about their topics, provide accurate information and if an ingredient is unsustainable i think they should at least divulge that and offer alternatives.
      But bloggers – be they professional writers or hobbyists – can also have an extensive reach and i think they too have a responsibility to inform & educate wherever possible. I suppose it’s about taking responsibilities for your words … something we all have to think about.
      I’ve enjoyed our discussion Thanh. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Your post has been very thought provoking for me, Rachel. It never really occurred to me that I might have some responsibility attached to my hobby as a blogger, that I could simply write about what I like and dislike. But I guess that is very narrow-minded of me and I will certainly write with more awareness now! At least I am the right track for most topics; for others, I am still finding my way. For example, a common dilemma I face is whether to buy local (i.e. from Switzerland &/or EU) or organic which might be far-flung, especially if there is no local-organic option. It’s difficult in a country like Switzerland where nearly everything is imported …

  16. The comments from yourself and others have certainly made me think more deeply about the issue. It’s not as black and white as it seems, is it?
    Anyway, i’m glad you got something out of the debate, as i have too.
    speak soon

  17. Rachel, this is a great post. When I was living in the UK there were certain chefs on TV (Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, etc) who were very proactive on promoting issues of sustainability, local food and fewer chemicals. But, it seems like those who are willing to be vocal are few and far between, which is a shame. Having said that, I never really considered my own role as a food blogger in the larger conversation about sustainability. You’ve certainly given me something to think about.

    • Excellent Sarah Kate,
      That’s all i wanted to do – give people, particularly food writers in all shapes and forms – something to think about. Myself included!
      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall is certainly an inspiration on this front.
      Hope you are enjoying your travels.

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