Subway, the colossal sandwich chain, recently received the type of press that really puts the old “No such thing as bad publicity” adage to the test. An internet furor that appears to have begun in earnest thanks to a petition on the “Food Babe” website drew attention to the fact that Subway’s bread contained a chemical called azodicarbonamide. What’s the big deal about azodicarbonamide? Well, in addition to popping up in Subway bread (at least until the company reacted to the uproar by announcing that it was removing the chemical, though it claims the move was in the works long before the story broke), the chemical can also be found in nonedible products like shoe soles and, most memorably, yoga mats. The Food Babe petition is illustrated with an image of lettuce and tomato tucked in the middle of a rolled up yoga mat. The text of the petition reads, in part, “It (azodicarbonamide)’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter.”
But if azodicarbonamide really isn’t “supposed to be food,” Subway is far from the only company that apparently didn’t get the memo. The Environmental Working Group recently announced that the controversial chemical “has turned up in nearly 500 items and more than 130 brands of bread, stuffing, pre-made sandwiches and snacks.” The EWG report goes on to provide a concise description of how the chemical ended up in so many food products and why so many people are now concerned. It reads in part,
“ADA [azodicarbonamide] is a synthetic substance used by plastics makers to generate tiny bubbles that make materials light, spongy and strong…In 1956, a New Jersey pharmaceutical and engineering firm discovered that ADA could be used as a ‘dough conditioner’ to make bread that would rise higher, stay soft and resilient and form an attractive crust. The federal Food and Drug Administration approved its use as a food additive six years later. The World Health Organization has linked ADA to increased risk of respiratory problems and skin irritation in workers handling large volumes of the chemical. The additive has not undergone extensive testing to determine its health effects on humans.”
Sounds pretty disturbing, huh? Thank heavens we have the Food Babe to draw our attention to this sort of horror. But an NPR story complicates the narrative. It quotes Penn State food science professor John Coupland as questioning “whether these tiny concentrations in bread are toxicologically significant.” Beyond the specific matter of azodicarbonamide, the NPR story acknowledges the fact that many of the foods we eat contain ingredients that also have other, less appetizing uses. “Take, for instance, sheet rock, or gypsum,” NPR’s Allison Aubrey writes. “It contains calcium sulfate, which is also used as a food additive. In fact, it’s used to make tofu. Hmmm. A vegan favorite contains the same compound that’s used to make drywall. Who knew?”
Who indeed? Certainly not the vegetarian writing this post. Much of what we eat likely contains ingredients that, if we knew about them, might make us angry or disgusted even if they don’t make us sick.
But if they don’t make us sick, why should they make us angry? To me, the expression of outrage over azodicarbonamide in bread seems analogous to the specter of comfortable middle-class Americans expressing outrage over the fact that people they’ll never meet are experiencing suffering in a far-off place. That which doesn’t hurt or otherwise affect us directly can still violate our sense of justice and morality. Much of this suffering remains unknown to us in terms of its specifics, but occasionally some sort of moral entrepreneur will bring the specifics of one particular case of injustice to our attention. The Food Babe is an example of such a moral entrepreneur in terms of the food world. In the broader system of morality I’m using as a comparison, an example might be Jason Russell, the man behind “Kony 2012.” Just as the Food Babe plucked one particular unsavory chemical out of anonymity to get people riled up about, Russell picked one case of broader injustice – the crimes of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony – to try to pull out of the morass of unknown suffering and bring to popular attention.
But the trouble with bringing a specific affront to justice to mass awareness – whether as small as a chemical in bread or as vast as a violent warlord in Uganda – is that the increased attention will inevitably bring skepticism regarding whether this particular affront is worthy of receiving so much more attention than the other injustices still fighting for recognition in the vast sea of anonymity. Why the yoga mat bread chemical as the focus of public outrage instead of the drywall tofu chemical? Why the warlord in Uganda instead of the warlord in, say, Sierra Leone? To invest huge sums of attention in one injustice may well be to render other injustices even less likely of gathering the public attention which some might argue that they deserve every bit as much as the “flavor of the month” deserves the attention it’s currently getting.
All these issues could be overcome with a more systematic approach to tackling injustice, but of course, launching a systematic assault on injustice is a far more difficult undertaking than is targeting an individual case of it. Until then, are we doomed to tackle injustice on an ad hoc basis? The difficulty of, first, facing up to that with is unpleasant or unjust and, second, deciding which injustices are the most pressing and worthy of immediate attention seems to explain why so many people make the explicit or implicit choice to “check out” – to eat their food with no concern for possible unpleasant ingredients or to live in the world with no concern for broader injustice.