How Good is Your Food?

By Joe Romano, 

Marketing Manager

gummy-bear-invasionHe was a bold man that first ate an oyster.

— Jonathan Swift

For as long as there have been people there has been the question of how a person knew whether something was good to eat. Surely, people would see animals safely eat a plant and assume it was safe for them. Or maybe they would get some of their braver, less popular, or perhaps unwitting neighbors to try a food source first.

We know that testing food goes back at least to the ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire. Since the time of the ancient Pharoahs, those who had reason to be in fear of their safety, and who had the means, employed food tasters to ensure that their food was safe to eat.

According to John Emsley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge, a man named Halotus was the official food taster for the Roman Emperor Claudius. Halotus was not very good at his job, because Claudius was killed by poison in 54 A.D. Halotus himself was a suspect in the murder.

Obviously, the profession of food taster has historically been a precarious one. In ancient times it would have been performed by slaves, prisoners, or peasants. In Genesis 40:21, there is a plot afoot to poison the Pharaoh. The two main suspects are his wine taster and his food taster. These two people were responsible for the Pharaoh's life and acted as his security detail, tasting all of the Pharoah's food so that he would not be poisoned. In that story, it was divined that his food taster was guilty of plotting against the throne, and he was put to death.

According to Der Spiegel, danger might at anytime have been delivered to Adolf Hitler, in "something as simple as a portion of white asparagus. Peeled, steamed and served with a delicious sauce, as Germans traditionally eat it. And with real butter, a scarcity in wartime." While the rest of the country struggled to get staples like coffee, or had to dilute margarine with flour, Margot Wölk regularly dined on this type of expensive vegetable dish. Wölk was one of 15 young women who were forced to taste the Nazi leader's food for some two and a half years during World War II.

In an interview for Reuters, Wölk said that if she did not fall ill after sampling a food, it would be taken to Hitler at the Wolf's Lair, a military headquarters hidden deep in a wooded area of what is today northeastern Poland. "Hitler was a vegetarian so it was all vegetarian fare — it was very good food like white asparagus, wonderful fruits, peppers, and cauliflower," she recalled. While she ate better than most people of her time, Wölk lived in fear that every meal she ate would be her last.

Recently, there was some small uproar among certain journalists when it was brought to light that President Obama employs a food taster, even though all modern presidents have had tasters who tested the presidential fare before it was consumed. The Secret Service scrutinizes both the source and the preparation of food served to US presidents whenever they eat out of the White House to ensure that it is not tampered with.

Most of us don't need to fear being poisoned, but are concerned that we can be harmed by pesticides, chemicals and other dangerous additives and ingredients that are found in many modern foods. We also want to know more about our where our food comes from than the label may tell us.

What can the average person do to find out what is actually in their food? How can they make certain that a product has been safely and even ethically sourced and prepared? How can today's shopper know a product's impact on the environment?

We can't each spend the time to research every item we buy, nor, like the emperors, can we employ others to do it for us. We can trust products that are labeled Certified Organic, Fair-Trade, or GMO-Free, because a certifying agency has done the work for us. But how do we know about products that do not have these labels? And how do we know about other characteristics of our food that these certifiers are not interested in, like how many miles to market, or how a company's workers are treated?

Today's shopper wants to know how good a particular food is in relation to an assortment of standards. What are its ingredients? What are the growing methods? What about the labor standards and production methods? How is it stored and distributed? How are animals treated? A company's labor, community, corporate and environmental history, and impact also need to be evaluated before moving on to evaluate the impact of the food product itself.

No individual has the time to do this for every product, and while the staff at GreenStar has painstakingly done our utmost to find out as much of this information about each of our products as we could, the job of tracking every characteristic of every product we sell was simply overwhelming. Recently though, GreenStar has partnered with HowGood, an organization dedicated to answering the not-so-simple question, "How good is our food?".

Using over 60 indicators that cover a company's behavior over time, the provenance of ingredients, and the manufacturing process, How Good is able to compose a detailed, accurate picture of every product they rate. Every food product can get one of four possible HowGood scores: Not Good, Good, Very Good, and Great. Each score tells a complex story in a simple way — and it's a score you can trust.

The most complex work is establishing benchmarks for every common ingredient and product manufacturing process that can be found in a food product. They examine best and worst practices and the place of origin of ingredients, working out the product-specific impact of different ingredients and the way they're processed. They then assess corporate records to investigate a company's behavior. They will look at everything from corporate governance to specific issues like hazardous waste emissions.

Corporate analysis is actually fairly straightforward. Many American companies with supply chains that are largely inside the US have corporate citizenry records to be proud of, but if there are problems with the track record of their corporate practices, these problems are easily spotted.

HowGood will also rate company behavior in the context of their industry. So if a company's industry has naturally low carbon emissions, their emissions policy will carry a lower weighting — and vice versa.

After evaluating corporate practices, HowGood will then investigate the products' ingredients – and the company's procurement and processing methods. They test and analyze every piece of information to make sure it's both accurate and relevant. It's a long, complex process involving trusted university professors, growers, and manufacturers with ingredient-specific knowledge, USDA and FDA documents, agricultural organization recommendations, periodicals, and many other sources.

To evaluate a company's practices, they will check their annual reports, industry publications, and official labor union publications as well as their legal records. They will contact watchdog organizations, making sure there is sufficient evidence of their claims, and will search though government publications and data and SEC records to ensure whether best practices are being maintained.

GreenStar has begun posting HowGood ratings for individual products throughout our stores. In addition, our West-End store houses the world's first HowGood kiosk! It is now available for use near the customer service desk.

The kiosk features an interactive touch screen that houses the entire database of products found on GreenStar's shelves, with detailed explanations for the rating of each product. Shoppers can now search by rating, scan the barcode of products, create grocery lists, and read about HowGood's background and research while picking up groceries for the week!

GreenStar customers now have, at their fingertips, more information about their personal food choices than did all of the kings, queens and presidents throughout all of history combined. And they will also know more about its impact on society and on the planet. Look for the HowGood tags on our shelves and try the kiosk in our West-End store.

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