Top 10 most controversial food topics & the issues surrounding them


controversial food topics

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We hope you didn’t eat in the past hour — some of these foods and the ways in which they end up on your plate are hard to stomach. This list breaks down the top 10 controversial food topics that have stirred up the most controversy, whether it’s due to sustainability issues, animal welfare concerns, ethical dilemmas or sheer grossness. You may find yourself reconsidering your own food choices by the time you finish reading.


1. Foie gras
This pricey delicacy is the king of culinary contention, dividing consumers and restaurant industry professionals alike over whether the animal welfare issues surrounding it can be justified. Foie gras, a fancy term for cooked duck or goose liver, is produced by force-feeding the animals until their livers enlarge to about 600% their natural size.

Animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Legal Defense Fund condemn the practice because they believe it qualifies as cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. And not many would argue that shoving a gavage, or metal tube, down an animal’s mouth and stuffing it with food three times a day for 25 days sounds humane. However, a Serious Eats piece investigated the issue by exploring La Bella Farms, the second largest of the three largest foie gras farms in the United States, and found that the issue is often shrouded in misconceptions.

Before you start harassing me with comments, take a few minutes to read the article, which we found to be admirably objective. The ducks are actually provided with an expansive amount of space within a barn — though, the author noted, it could have used more natural light. They’re completely unconscious when slaughtered, and mishandling of the animals damages the liver, thus reducing the price they can sell for, so the farm has a good incentive to take care of the birds.

While we can’t imagine being force-fed through a metal tube stuck down our throats, you have to remember that these animals also are not humans; they’re built differently. Moulards, the ducks used at La Bella Farms, don’t have gag reflexes, and their bodies are built for storing excessive amounts of food — though not this much — to prepare for migration. While it still can’t be comfortable, it may not be quite as horrific as some make it out to be. And the article also pointed out that the farm isn’t wasteful; they use and sell all parts of the duck, except the head and feet.

However, not everyone believes these reasons justify the treatment ducks and geese receive. On July 1, a piece of legislation known as SB 1520 will go into effect, and foie gras will be banned in the state of California.


2. Veal
Baby cows may be cute, but plenty of carnivorous people would also agree that they taste delicious. Most of the debate surrounding veal has nothing to do with the cow’s age at the time of slaughter, though. Instead, the problem for many people lies in the way the animals are raised.

According to an eye-opening story by the New York Times, veal sales dropped drastically in the 1980s after photos were released showing veal calves tied to crates so small they they could barely move. The impact of society’s reaction to these photos was so extreme that the average American’s yearly veal consumption plummeted from 4 pounds in the 1950s and 1960s to about half a pound in 2007.

Today, the American Veal Association has set a plan to eliminate the use of crates by 2017. They’re already banned in Arizona, Colorado, California, Maine and Michigan; and the European Union put an end to the use of crates back in 2007.

If you enjoy veal but don’t want to support inhumane treatment of livestock, you can find veal that’s “certified humane” by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization that certifies the humane treatment of animals raised by meat, poultry, egg and dairy producers. For certification, producers must adhere to strict guidelines, such as raising calves without confinement, in small groups, tether-free and on a wholesome diet that satisfies basic nutritional needs, including iron and fiber, which are often excluded in the feed used by other producers.

Popular veal packer Strauss Brands is one company that adheres to more humane animal welfare standards; on Dec. 31, 2008, it became the first U.S. veal packer to raise all veal calves in groups and without tethers.


3. Unsustainable seafood
Sometimes it’s not the treatment of animals that causes controversy but the environmental effects prompted by hunting or fishing them. This is the case with unsustainable seafood, which Monterey Bay Aquarium describes as seafood that is “caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.”

On its list of seafood to avoid — to name just a few — are Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod, king crab, octopus, Atlantic salmon, sharks and skates, and yellowfin and Bluefin tuna (among other kinds). According to Monterey Bay, Chilean sea bass populations have been depleted in some areas because of unreported and unregulated fishing. Plus, the way in which they’re caught often accidentally kills thousands of seabirds each year, including the endangered albatross. Spicy octopus might be your favorite sushi roll, but Monterey bay says it should be avoided because of heavy fishing pressure, habitat damage caused by the fishing gear and a lack of fishery management.

Sometimes these animals are only marked as unsustainable in certain areas where they’re being over-fished, so it’s important to be aware of what to avoid and where to avoid it. For more information, check out this easy-to-read pocket guide of what to avoid in your area or nationally. Monterey Bay also has an incredible app for your smartphone. Check out our review here.


4. Placenta
Yup, you read that right. Placentophagy is the practice of saving your own afterbirth and consuming it. It’s often eaten dried like jerky or in the form of supplements. See what we meant about some of these being “hard to stomach?”

A placenta usually weighs about 1 to 1.5 pounds, and while American hospitals usually dispose of it, traditional Chinese medicine has encouraged eating it for centuries. And now it’s catching on in the United States as well.

So why would anyone ever do this? Because some people — by “people” we do not mean scientists — swear that it does everything from improve lactation problems to alleviate postpartum depression. Fanatics of the trend point to the fact that most mammals chow down on their own afterbirth to explain that there must be some good reason to do so.

Mark Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Buffalo, is the country’s leading authority on placentophagia. Here’s what he had to say in a New York Magazine piece: “Every ten or twenty years people say, ‘We should do this because it’s natural and animals do it.’ But it’s not based on science. It’s a fad.” Kristal also stated in a USA Today article that withholding the placenta from an animal mother after birth hasn’t led her to withdraw from her offspring or become depressed; he said this would suggest that animals don’t consume it to alleviate or prevent postpartum depression.

It is possible that there’s some sort of placebo effect happening, so some proponents of the practice say it’s worth it even if the effects are only psychological. But is it, really? We’re fighting a gag just thinking about it.


Photo: Wikipedia — originally posted to Flickr by Marshall Astor

5. Balut
If we had to choose, we’re not sure if we’d rather eat our own placentas or balut, a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. (Sounds like a “Fear Factor” challenge.) The egg is a staple in Filipino street food, is considered a high-protein snack in China and is commonly served with beer in some Southeast Asia countries, including Cambodia and Vietnam.

The egg is developed for about 17 to 21 days — to the point where it definitely looks like a baby bird but it doesn’t have any beak, bones or feathers yet. In the Philippines, they’re seasoned with salt and/or chili, garlic and vinegar; in Cambodia, they’re eaten plain while still warm in the shell; and in Vietnam, they’re eaten with salt, lemon juice, pepper and Vietnamese mint leaves. How do they eat this, you ask? They sip the broth surrounding the embryo before peeling the shell, and then eat the yolk and the young chick inside. Yum!


6. Dog meat
It’s true: Max and Rover serve more purposes in some countries than just being man’s best friend; they’re also eaten. Humans consuming dog meat dates back to ancient China, ancient Mexico and ancient Rome and still continues today in Switzerland, China, Vietnam and Korea. The Chinese believe the meat promotes bodily warmth in the winter, but the country is in the midst of a campaign to end the sale of it. Legislation was drafted just two years ago to ban consumption of cats and dogs due to animal cruelty issues, but it’s still currently legal.

The South Korean dog meat industry involves about 1 million dogs, 6,000 restaurants and 10% of the population, according to Slate. And the country is not pleased with other nations, like the United States, that try to tell them this is wrong.

But is it? Wrong, we mean? Look — we’re huge fans of dogs, and we can’t imagine our furry best friends being killed for food. But is the fact that we consider the animals pets enough of a reason for them to not be consumed — anywhere? Dogs actually weren’t even raised as pets in Korea until recently, so the animals didn’t play the same role in their society that they do in ours.

Korean food writer Hwang Go-lk argued that other societies’ attempts to tell them what’s morally right and morally wrong to eat is rooted in ethnocentricity or almost a type of racism. “I believe that the dog meat controversy is a part of the new strategy — to highlight their superiority by looking down upon what others eat. … They seek to categorize moral humans and immoral ones on the basis of whether one eats or does not eat dog meat. This is how they reconfirm to themselves that they are on a morally superior position.”

This is one of those tough ethical dilemmas that makes it difficult to eschew our own personal feelings toward the issue and instead focus on what’s fair. Let’s not forget: We kill and eat animals too. Who has the right to decide — and how do they decide — which animals can be eaten and which can’t?


7. Horse meat
This one’s been in the news recently since the 2012 spending bill passed on Nov. 18 lifted a five-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections — which means technically U.S. slaughterhouses could produce horse meat. If you haven’t heard about this yet, check out our coverage of it here. Surprisingly, PETA actually supports the decision to lift the ban because they would prefer horses be killed humanely in the United States than be shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

While eating Black Beauty is taboo in English-speaking countries — including the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, English Canada and Australia, as well as in Brazil and among the Romani people — it’s enjoyed in Central Asia and Europe. In 2005, the five biggest horse meat-consuming countries were China, Mexico, Russia, Italy and Kazakhstan, according to the “Alberta Horse Welfare Report.”

Horse meat, like dog meat, tends to get people riled up because of their place in our society as pets. Again, it’s a tough call when trying to determine what’s right and what’s wrong here.


8. Whale
If you ever visit Japan and don’t recognize a dark red meat on your sashimi plate, ask. It just might be Baby Beluga — or Free Willy, take your pick. Whale is eaten in Japan, Norway, Iceland and the Arctic in a variety of ways: cured or marinated, eaten raw as sashimi or dried and made into jerky.

The controversy here mainly involves sustainability issues with commercial whaling. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling worldwide in 1986, but a plethora of loopholes allows the practice to continue. For example, according to The Atlantic writer David Nakamura, Japan has continued whaling for “scientific research” purposes, though “anti-whaling groups have called the program a thinly guised method of restocking grocery and restaurant supplies of edible whale sashimi and cured whale ham.”

TheWorld.org — a “global perspective” news source from the BBC, PRI and WGBH — quoted marine scientist Stephen Palumbi, who explained that yes, the moratorium on commercial whaling has done a lot to increase whale populations around the world. However, “it’s difficult to know … whether that increase is going to continue with global climate change cutting into the food supply of a lot of whales.”


9. Dolphin
Americans love dolphins. We watch movies about them, pay money to see them do flips, pay even more money to splash around in the water with them and, if you’re a teenage girl, get tattoos of them — which is why it was so upsetting when the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove” revealed in 2009 that the beautiful creatures were being hunted and slaughtered in Japan.

In the Japanese town of Taiji, where the filming took place, shoppers can buy cans of dolphin meat on store shelves. According to the documentary, 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are slaughtered in Japan each year through commercial whaling.

An Associated Press article quoted Taiji’s mayor saying: “We will pass down the history of our ancestors to the next generation, preserve it. We have a strong sense of pride about this. So we are not going to change our plans for the town based on the criticism of foreigners.” The only problem with this argument, Time magazine pointed out, is that hunting whales for their meat on a mass scale didn’t really start until after World War II.

Dolphins aren’t endangered, so it seems like the main argument fueling the controversy is that, like dogs and horses, dolphins are cute and awesome and we love them. Is this enough of a reason? It’s doubtful that many people would ever promote the way the animals were slaughtered in “The Cove,” but if it was done in a humane way, would it be wrong?

Even if it’s not unethical, there’s another reason dolphin meat shouldn’t be consumed: High mercury levels often make it toxic to humans, and according to “The Cove’s” website, the levels of toxicity even exceed Japan’s own health recommendations. “Much of the dolphin meat sold around Japan is actually mislabeled or sold as counterfeit whale meat, which sells for far more money than dolphin meat,” the website stated. “Hundreds of samples of dolphin meat tested from around Japan has all been shown to be toxic.”


10. Shark fin
Another creature of the sea is the target of much consternation among animal activists: the shark. In China, shark fin soup is a delicacy and is served for special occasions like weddings. It has almost zero flavor but is valued for its chewy texture. Traditional Chinese medicine believes shark fin boosts libido, improves skin, increases energy levels, prevents heart disease and lowers cholesterol.

Animal activists want the specialty food banned because of a practice known as “live finning” or “shark finning” in which fishermen chop off a shark’s fin and throw the shark back in the water, bloody and injured. The prevalence of this cruel practice is highly debated. In the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Giam Choo Hoo, a member of a United Nations body on endangered species, cited research stating that 80% of the 73 million sharks killed each year are actually caught accidentally — and mostly in developing countries, where “mostly poor” fishermen will eat all of the shark.

Other researchers disagree with these findings. Fisheries expert Shelley Clarke conducted a 2006 study that found that around 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. And the International Union for the Conservation of Nature stated in the Washington Post that nearly one-third of open-ocean sharks face extinction.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium placed shark on that “Avoid” list that we mentioned earlier when discussing sustainable seafood. “Although shark finning is banned in some countries, including the United States, it still occurs in many fisheries worldwide and is a major factor in the decline of shark populations,” the website stated.