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A hunter-gatherer mother sits stirring a pot of stew over an open fire.  Her young son, eagerly anticipating the evening meal, approaches the pot and asks, “What are we eating?”  “Not sure.  Meat, I think.  Probably some other stuff,” she replies.

Okay, I made that up.  The preceding exchange would never occur between hunter-gatherers.  Or horticulturalists.  Or pastoralists.  Or most of the other subsistence systems that anthropologists study.  The mother, and usually the son, would know what was in the pot because they took part in hunting, gathering, raising, growing, or processing the ingredients.  And that’s pretty much the way it’s been for the vast majority of human history.

So how did we end up here?  An Alabama law firm is suing Taco Bell, claiming that the meat used in Taco Bell’s products does not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of “beef.”  In fact, the lawsuit alleges that the company’s meat filling is only 35% beef, with the remainder comprised of non-meat ingredients such as water, oats, modified corn starch, maltodextrin, etc.

Taco Bell asserts that their products contain 100% beef.

That’s a big difference in percentages.  Someone’s not telling the truth, or is at least being very disingenuous.  Thankfully, we humans have an established method for evaluating evidence-based claims…SCIENCE!  Yes, I can turn anything into an advertisement for science, and I hope the legal proceedings rely on solid data to resolve this dispute.

From an anthropological perspective, this issue highlights the wide, historically-unprecedented, gap between food production and food consumption in 21st Century developed nations.  We’re all food consumers, far fewer of us are food producers.  The production of our food most often occurs out of sight.  Michael Pollan [In Defense of Food and the film Food, Inc.] argues that much of what we eat is not even food in the strict sense, but rather “food products,” manufactured from food and the “other stuff” I mentioned before.

Many people seem repelled by the idea of unidentifiable “meat.”  But, like our Paleolithic ancestors, we crave fat, salt, and sugar [Martin JonesFeast: Why Humans Share Food and Richard Wrangham‘s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human].  Fast food provides massive quantities of all three for a low, low price.  I had Taco Bell a few days ago, so I understand the allure of quick, cheap calories.  How we got to this point is a fascinating story, well-covered by anthropological research (please see included links and share your own in the comments).  Since we are so removed from the production of our own food products, I think it’s reasonable for consumers to know what’s in the pot – even if laboratory analysis is required to figure out the ingredients.  What do you think?

- Jay Fancher