In very poor taste

<strong>Eating: what we eat and why it matters</strong>

Peter Singer and Jim Mason <em>Arrow Books

Bad food is not just a matter of taste. It is a question of morals. Writing in 1820, Frederick Accum attacked the many poisonous adulterations that then affected London food. "It really is astonishing," he wrote. "The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the highway is sentenced to death; while he who distributes a slow poison to a whole community escapes unpunished." In fact, Accum was out of date; capital punishment no longer applied to petty theft in 1820. But his essential point remained. To adulterate food was not just an economic act. It was a crime: an offence against morality.

Peter Singer and Jim Mason are concerned with a different kind of food ethics: not the crimes perpetrated against consumers so much as those where consumers are the unwitting aggressors. They suggest that eating can be as relevant to ethics as "stealing, cheating, lying, hurting people". Their book traces the dreadful consequences set in motion by the everyday food choices of ordinary shoppers. Singer, a philosopher and human-rights advocate, and Mason, an environmentalist, use case studies of three American families to illustrate how most of us collude in a food system that creates untold suffering and environmental damage.

This is profoundly disturbing, all the more so for the quiet, unhysterical style of reportage in which it is written. Having recently read numerous works in the burgeoning genre of food politics, I thought I was beyond being shocked by such a book. I was wrong. Many of the stories here have been told before - the barbarous practices in "factory farms" of debeaking chickens and cutting off pig's tails without anaesthetic; the depletion of marine life by overfishing; the monolithic power of supermarkets - but they are given a new sharpness and horror. I defy anyone to read the section on "a day in the life of a turkey inseminator" without feeling deeply unsettled, as much for the poor workers whose job it is to "break" 600 birds an hour - which in effect means raping them with semen-filled guns - as for the birds themselves.

Singer and Mason are careful not to pass smug moral judgements on the people they are writing about. They even attempt to sympathise with the life of an intensive pork farmer - they "don't think he's a bad guy". Their first family eats a "standard American diet" - lots of packaged goods and intensively reared chicken, bacon and eggs purchased from Wal-Mart - but Singer and Mason do not present them as malign individuals, just busy and slightly unquestioning ones. Most of this family's food choices are made on economic grounds. Yet Singer and Mason also bring out how the way they eat is governed by social norms. "Doesn't all of America shop at Wal-Mart? How can it be wrong to do as everyone else does?"

The second family is described as a bunch of "conscientious omnivores", who buy mainly organic greens and "certified humane" meats and eggs. One of the book's best twists is the way that this family's food choices turn out to be not as ethical as they imagine. Their "organic" eggs come from hens treated little more kindly than caged birds, the sort of supposedly "free-range" creatures that never actually go outside. Their salmon is "intensively farmed" and their shrimp is "a dubious environmental choice, at best". Even their preference for "local" food is not as purely virtuous as it sounds; Singer and Mason argue that, on some occasions, it is better to support poorer third-world farmers than those nearer to hand, despite the food miles.

The only family whose food choices are wholly blameless, in the eyes of Singer and Mason, is a vegan couple with two home-schooled daughters, who recoil from tofu that has the smallest quantity of non-organic soy, and whose idea of a treat is a disgusting-sounding "mint marble fudge" non-dairy dessert. It was at this point that the authors lost me. Sometimes ethics can be so perfect that they make you inhuman. Just because eating is a moral affair doesn't mean that it has nothing to do with taste.

Bee Wilson is writing a book about the history of adulteration

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act