Storming the Court House for Beans?

Storming the Court House for Beans?

Lard-less pinto beans

Between counting calories and reading ingredient lists dominated by substances that can’t possibly be food, nutritional labels can be overwhelming. For vegetarians and vegans,reading food labels is often mandatory: have you ever found yourself standing in the aisle of your neighborhood grocery store studying cans of refried beans to find out which one doesn’t contain lard? What about that vegetable soup–was it made with chicken broth? Does that box of crackers include cheese among its list of ingredients? There are animal products hidden in many foods, but when we read the labels, we expect the truth, so we can make autonomous decisions based on our dietary preferences and ethics. In a restaurant, even a quick-serve chain, I expect the same level of disclosure.

As part of the U.S. national healthcare reform, chain restaurants across the U.S. will be required to post the calorie counts for their menu items, beginning in 2012. This change has already taken place in several states, including California and New York. However, a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of 269 foods tested at 42 chain restaurants, a fifth had 100 or more calories than the number declared in the restaurant’s nutritional guide. With such questionable calorie counts, should consumers have faith in the ingredient lists?

This month, Chipotle–a popular fast food chain that serves massive burritos (and has been popular with some vegetarians and “foodies”)–admitted that their pinto beans contain pork fat. This information could be found on the Chipotle website, but it was not written on their in-store menus. Although Chipotle was quick to alter their menus after Seth Porges, a senior editor for Maxim magazine, raised awareness of the issue via–you guessed it–his Twitter page, it’s unlikely that a consumer without celebrity status would have elicited such a swift response What about the average eater who is just trying to grab a bite without transgressing his or her cultural, ethical, or health-related dietary predilections?

Over the years, I’ve had some meaty blunders: I’ve bitten into a sandwich to find unexpected sliced turkey and consumed some soups that were probably not made with vegetable broth. However, these mistakes have mostly been my own. While being a vegetarian or vegan often involves asking the right questions, restaurants need to be forthright with their answers. How many vegetarians unknowingly ate meat while enjoying an otherwise veg-friendly burrito at Chipotle? And what can we do about it? Right now, a class action lawsuit is in progress against ConAgra for marketing Wesson cooking oils–which contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)–as “100% natural.” This kind of deceptive marketing is not too far from Chipotle’s deceptive menu-ing. Once again, it’s giant corporations vs. consumers: is it time for vegetarians to storm the courthouse?

Photo by Dan Klimke