Labels that Lie?

One of the most difficult things about the Eat Local Challenge is deciphering the labeling of products. I shop for all of my veggies at the farmer's market, where you can actually talk to the producers of your food and there are some regulations about the type of food that can be sold there and where it was grown, but even this has it's own issues because some of the markets are so incredibly busy that the vendors simply have no time to chat. The bustling of the markets is both good and bad - good because more people are visiting and buying from farmer's markets but bad because we're losing one of the best things about farmer’s markets, being able to form a relationship with the farmer or producer of the food you are going to eat.

However, none of the farmer's markets on the windward side that I can go to have meat or fish readily available. When I can make it to town (Honolulu) on Saturdays, and when it is available, I can get free-range chicken from Greg Yee at Blue Lotus Organic Farm or grass-fed beef from North Shore Cattle Company. NSCC also has meat available on the windward side at the Kailua Farmer's Market, but they often run out before either market even begins (many people go early and buy before the bell rings to begin the market, then go around and pick up their bags after it officially "starts"). We actually buy our beef wholesale (1/8 a cow) through an arrangement between Puu’o’Hoku Ranch on Molokai and the Slow Food group here on Oahu instead of NSCC in part because of availability, but also price and because we support the way the farm is run.

The fish counter at Whole Foods in the Kahala Mall -
they actually tell you where their fish is from, but most of it is not from Hawaii.

With the new labeling laws in effect, I've been seeing more countries of origin on the labels of some meats and fish many of the grocery stores I've recently visited. But while it does tell me the country, the label “Product of the USA” does not tell me where in the USA it is made or caught or produced. And it most certainly does not tell me whether it was caught or raised in Hawaii. The fish has been the biggest surprise. Even though this is an island with it’s very own fishing fleet, much of the fish is still shipped in from all over the worldeven things we can, and do, fish for here (Ahi, Opah, Opakapaka) and have farms for here (tilapia and prawns)!
Keep in mind that there is a paucity of local products in the grocery stores in general, even at Whole Foods, who actually makes it part of their "mission" to get as many local products on their shelves as possible. When it opened about a month ago, only about 1/4 of the fish selection and none of the meat selection at Whole Foods was locally caught or raised.

The windward side is even worse than Town – we have one vegetarian natural foods store with very few locally grown produce options and one non-vegetarian natural foods store with absolutely no local meat. While it is sometimes helpful to talk to the people at the meat or fish counters at other grocery stores, they often have no idea where the food or fish or meat is from either. Some stores have their own “local” labeling buzz words: "Island Produced," "Locally Grown," "Island Fresh," or some other variation on these phrases, and that’s primarily what I’ve been looking for and relying upon to make my grocery selections.

"Island Produced Pork" from Foodland: The label in question.

You might remember my story about the first day of the Challenge, wandering around Foodland, picking up anything I could scrounge for dinner and breakfast those first few days because I wasn’t quite prepared and the farmer’s market was still two days away. You might remember I picked up a pork leg steak under the “Island Produced” label. While I wondered to myself what “Island Produced” meant, I figured it would do as a local product for the day. I went home, grilled my steak and enjoyed it for dinner. For this, the second week of the Challenge, I went back and bought myself an “Island Produced” pork belly – figuring it would be fun to make my own bacon or roast it with veggies since this isn’t a cut that I see very often.

Then I opened my email this morning and found this story. Then I read this story. And watched this video. While the claims in the story haven’t been “verified” by state and local pig producers, which doesn’t surprise me, pork produced under this label are raised in Montana or California and shipped the 2,400+ miles to Hawaii in very inhumane conditions. They are then brought in, kept and slaughtered here on Oahu in similarly inhumane ways. Read the stories or watch the video if you want the full grisly details. Suffice it to say that I’m appalled and disgusted and there is no way I’m eating that pork belly now, nor buying from this label ever again.

Sigh. There’s also a “50th State Brand” chicken producer here. I’ve been staying away from it because the label says only that the chickens are “Processed and Packaged in Hawaii,” which to me indicates the chickens are not born and raised here at all…and now I’d question how they arrive here too. Not that the mainland has any more scruples than Hawaii though. I’ve read the books, I know the drill: the state of food production in the USA is horrible. LB and I typically buy organic or humanely raised meat and eggs and from small farmers when/if we can find it (in Eugene, this was easy), but even corporate organics, where we get our meat now, has its issues too. And there are no small, family farms shipping their organic goods to Hawaii. At least we have a few good beef and chicken producers here, and I think I’ll be sticking to them for my meat the rest of the time I’m here.
Grass-fed, organic Puu'o'hoku Ranch beef burger on Bale Bakery bun
with fresh, backyard guacamole, local veggie pasta salad (leftovers from a potluck) and warm okra salad.

To read more about the challenge, and find more local products, see these posts: 1, 2 and check the Eat Local Challenge website for updates on what's happening both locally and nationally.

18 comments from you:

Debinhawaii said...

Another great and thought provoking post! I am learning a lot and getting more bummed the more I learn. You are amazing!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

You have really put yourself into a challenge. I think I've caught up with all your posts. Trickery has a new meaning with this one I can see. An island always sounds romantic but can be a challenge to be self sustaining. I think another place that has some similar difficulties would be a place like Barrow Alaska where the ground is frozen tundra. There I remember seeing one scoop of ice cream on a menu for $9.

cookiecrumb said...

It's horrifying. Good for you, doing the research.
The good news is, the revolution is under way.

Natashya said...

Amazing that so little of the fish was from there.
I am suspicious of labels too.
Even though we have Canadian oats from our own prairies - they ship it to the States to be packaged and then ship it back. Drives me crazy.
You are doing a good thing - helping people become aware of what they eat.

Michelle said...

Hi Deb, I know - it's depressing, isn't it! But I also try and remember about all the wonderful things that we DO have too and how lucky we are in so many other ways ;)

Hi Tanna, It's been an eye-opener for sure. I think you're right about Alaska! I didn't even think of that, and my dad even lives up there (though not in Barrow). Then again, we do have lots of sunshine and beautiful beaches, so it's not all bad!

Hi Cookie, A good reminder! Thank goodness...

Hi Natasha, thanks for stopping by my blog! We get that too - with beer among other things (or so I have heard...). Drives me crazy too!! I think one of the best things is not only educating others (like friends and family who would never look) but mostly about educating myself too!

Nate-n-Annie said...

Ah, they've opened up Whole Paycheck in Kahala Mall finally.

I didn't know that about the "Island Pork" product. So, all the pork is shipped in from the mainland? Dang. That sucks. No more manapua, pepeiau, char siu, siu yoke...

Chee, dis locavore challenge is plenny pilikia!

Zoomie said...

I'm hoping that as you make more Hawaiian friends, you'll learn about more sources of good, local, organic produce and meats. I'll ask my brother (an avid fisherman) where to buy local fish on the Windward side. He lives in Kailua.

Christie @ fig&cherry said...

That's very interesting (and upsetting) about the seafood products! We often see the same thing in Australia with the fish markets bursting with seafood from other countries which seems outrageous considering the size of our 'island' and promximity to the ocean - not to mention how far it has actually travelled to get here!

Zoomie said...

Talked to my Kailua brother and he says that local supermarkets will have Hawaiian fish. He recommends the following species: papio or ulua (jacks);uku (grey snapper); mahimahi;ono;yellow fin or big-eye/albacore tuna. He says there's a moratorium locally on fishing for opakapaka, hapapuu, onaga, gindai and kalekale - if you see any of those in local markets, they are imported from elsewhere. Most of the recommended fish are pelagic species that roam the open ocean - it's the local bottom fish that are threatened and currently illegal to catch. Hope this helps you to find local fish - I've tried most of these and all are delicious!

RONW said...

....not meaning to get off-topic, but it's like those "atlantic salmon," they are atlantic-stock, however raised in fish pens on the West Coast.

heybrah said...

Just found your blog, Michelle. I've long been a supporter of Buy Fresh, Buy Local. The unfortunate aspect is that the wholesalers won't give the local product a premium to cover their costs of production - with them it's all about cost. Until we have a consistent supply and grocers who'll give the farmer what they need to survive - eating local in Hawaii will always be difficult.

I'm with CTAHR and write CTAHR's blog on Sustainable Agriculture:

I hope you'll give it look.

Anne said...

Definitely a really important issue to be talking about. We need bloggers who'll shake many consumers out of their "Uhhh... it's on the shelf, so I guess I'll buy it and eat it" mentality. (Not to sound accusatory or condescending - I'm been guilty of doing that myself, so it's nice to be reminded of why you've got to think about what you're putting in your mouth.)

Debinhawaii said...

Hope the move is going well. When you come up for air I left an award and of course an attached meme/tag for you on my blog--but no pressure! ;-)

Sortin'ItAllOut said...

This was such a good read, thank-you!

My mother has been searching around for local grass fed beef, and it got me to thinking. We are in the NorthEast--how can you grass feed a cow in the winter?

Does anyone know how that works? Her main concern is that the cow not eat any corn..maybe they butcher them before winter? Or feed them hay and no corn in the winter?

I also, can't believe they sell you fish from out of state. In Hawaii??? But it was a good point made that some fish are not allowed to be caught.

Thank-you for a great blog,I'll be coming back. The wheels are turning and soon I'll be on the local foods wagon , too. (If I can afford it!)

Christie @ fig&cherry said...

Michelle! Where have you gone darling? Hope all is well! Christie x

Nerissa said...

Oh god... I am so woefully behind in reading your posts. I think that, despite your unfortunate situations, you are doing a good job for yourself and Hawaii. I wish it was as easy for me to find local stuff as easily as you. But for the fish, crabs or prawns you might occasionaly get from a local person, nearly nothing is from this area. EVERYTHING is shipped in. You can occasionally score some blackberries, salmonberries or crab apples for free. I just try to do my part buying the veggies I can find that are grown in BC, Canada. And that is if I'm lucky.

Michelle said...

Ack! Sorry about the delayed response everyone!

Nate-N-Annie, Well, not all of it is shipped ALIVE from the mainland, which is the big problem...I guess it's best to ask which pork you're eating! Having the whole paycheck is nice - even if expensive!

Zoomie, thanks for the tips on local fish to avoid - also very important!! But they even sell Ahi tuna from Vietnam and other places, and it CAN be caught here, it's just also caught other places and sold here too, so you really do have to ask where it is from.

Christie, I feel the same way!! And thanks for wondering about me...I feel loved ;)

RonW, so true! And scary!

HeyBrah, I completely agree! It's so complicated, balancing all these different aspects of things. I'd really like to try and help get the word out locally. Thanks for the link to your blog! I'll add it to my list and go explore it!!

Anne, yes it is! But it's true - we're all guilty of it. I think so long as the large majority of our choices are good ones, then we're doing a good job. Everyone is entitled to a mishap every now and then.

Deb, thanks! I'll get to that one of these days now that the move is over!!

Sortin' - that's a really good question. I could answer it here in Hawaii!! But there? no. My husband's father raised grass-fed cows in the Berkshires, so I'll ask him and get back to you here (might take me a week - we call them on the weekends! but check back!). I can't wait to see your own locavore adventures chronicled on your blog!

Nerissa, I know...I feel for you. I sometimes forget how lucky we are here, even with the difficulties. I think you should just come and visit and eat locally in Hawaii with me ;)

foods to lower cholesterol said...

Consumers should inquire more than just buy and buy. Be concerned with what you eat, people. Nice blog!