I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buttery

The quick trip to the grocery store was pathetically mundane.  I was simply there to pick up the ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies, but at the egg case I found myself caught in a morass of conflicting humane, ethical, economic and nutritional decisions.  I normally reach for the standard Grade A large eggs, but this time paused to consider the different egg options, which included the following:

  • Vegetarian – presumably to appeal human vegetarians who have extrapolated their sensibilities onto chickens, who when given the opportunity, are actually carnivorous grub eaters.  This strategy may also appeal to those who are fearful of mad cow disease in chickens forced to eat icky meat byproducts. 
  • Organic – appealing to those who believe healthier chickens will lead to healthier and tastier eggs.  Organic eggs come from chickens that have not been exposed to pesticides or antibiotics, either personally or in their food. 
  • Cage Free – While the term “cage free” is self explanatory, the deception is that the chickens are still tightly confined into a coop.  While cage free may appeal to our humanitarian sympathies, it still sounds like a very grim existence.  The chickens may never see the light of day and live in filth and an overwhelming stench, but at least they can stand up and possibly walk around.  One carton proclaimed that not only were the chickens cage free but the eggs were “laid in nests.”  The carton had a drawing of a chicken that looked downright comfy in a nest of straw.  Generally suspicious by nature, I began to wonder whether the drawing was a gross exaggeration and if there was a standard definition of a nest.  
  • Free Roaming/Free Ranging –  It turns out the that the US Department of Agriculture has a standard definition of free range, but it falls woefully short of the pleasant concept of chickens frolicking in a farmyard, to wit: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  The key word here is “access,” meaning that the chicken must be highly motivated to seek out the door, which may be way across the pen, which may not be visible and which may only be open periodically.  And of course, what is the nature of outside – specifically is there any nature outside?  Does the door lead to a blazing hot parking lot; is there any food out there or other enticements?   Why would the chicken cross the pen to get to the other side? 

One carton of eggs noted that the chickens got “lots of exercise.”  I was curious about this notion and thus called the 800 number printed on the carton.  I got a surprisingly frank answer from the customer service representative who said, “Lots of exercise – that’s more propaganda and hype than real exercise.  The chickens just have to walk to get their food and water since they are not in individual cages.” 

Another carton of eggs noted that the chickens had “access to clean water.”  There’s that pesky word “access” again, suggesting that it is the chickens’ own damn fault if they don’t have the sense to take advantage of the luxuries that are provided to them.  Besides, it also seems to me that access to clean water is a uniquely human requirement that may have little appeal to a chicken.  Wild animals drink whatever water – muddy, silty, dirty – that is available to them.   

After some deliberation, I selected Phil’s Farm Fresh Eggs, which showed a drawing of friendly Phil wearing thick black glasses and a porkpie hat, cradling a chicken in his arms.  These organic, vegetarian, cage free, nest laid, American Humane Association monitored eggs were $3.56 per dozen, about twice as much as the cheapest and presumably cruelest eggs, but less than some eggs that were merely organic.  The middle of the road is usually a reasonable place to start.

As you may have guessed, overthinking (particularly about words) is a favorite pastime on an otherwise do-nothing afternoon, so when I got home, I spent some time researching the rules of product labeling and “standards of identity.”  While poultry and meat are under the purview of the USDA, processed foods are the responsibility of the FDA. With advent of cheap products and inventive advertising in the 1920s, the FDA sought to provide standard definitions for common products, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  For example, consumers were duped into buying jelly that was basically nothing more than sugar, food coloring, and a splash of token fruit, the amount of actual peanuts in peanut butter was all over the board, and bread became the testing ground for all sorts of additives.    

Among the first standards were those defining jams and jellies, but how to distinguish them?  A popular song at the time of this debate was Glenn Miller’s, “It Must Be Jelly ‘Cause Jam Don’t Shake.”  While this would seem to be a reasonable standard of identity, the FDA adopted an only slightly less subjective approach – i.e. consulting old family recipes dating back some 200 years, and determined that jam had to contain 45% fruit.  Public hearings regarding the peanut content of peanut butter took 20 weeks and produced 8,000 pages of transcript.  The “bread wars” were fought over the use of softeners in dough.  Some bright marketer had discovered that consumers judged the freshness of bread by how soft it felt though the packaging, hence the use of softeners, which had nothing to do with freshness.  Was this deceiving the public?  My theory is that the bread softness expert realized that his skills were transferable to the toilet paper industry and began working for Charmin to deceive customers with their “squeezably soft” ad campaign.  I think softness of toilet paper as assessed through the wrapper may be entirely due to how tightly the roll is wrapped, and may have nothing to due with the softness experienced by our most sun-deprived anatomy.

Once a standard of identity has been set, the manufacturer probably assembles a swat team of linguists to start dissembling.  (It is likely that these linguists also moonlighted for Bill Clinton to instruct him on the subtleties of the definitions of “is” and “sex.”)  For example, many standards of identity apply to nouns – like butter and chocolate –  but there is no standard of identity for the corresponding adjective, such as buttery. So if a food is labeled “buttery,” this specifically means that it is not made of butter.  One brave company decided not to play this silly game anymore and boldly named their product, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”  Perhaps the next generation product will be called, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buttery!”   Same for chocolaty – chocolaty foods are not chocolate.  Also the word “fudge” is not formally defined and is often used as a surrogate for chocolate that is not chocolate.   By the way, the current standard of identify for chocolate is the midst of a heated debate.  The FDA has proposed that the cocoa butter in chocolate can be substituted by other cheap vegetable oils and diverted to more lucrative uses.  Waikiki beach may be one possible destination.  I went swimming their once and the place reeked of cocoa butter, and there was oily sheen in the water from all the tanning lotion sloughed off into the water. 

A rule of thumb for the savvy consumer is to suspect any claim that is very specific.  Bill Clinton was the acknowledged master of this type of legerdemain semantics.   For example, Clinton stated that he did not have a 12 year relationship with Gennifer Flowers, but his denial only applied to the length of the relationship and not whether it existed or not.   The most egregious example was his statement that “there is no relationship with Monica Lewinsky.”  When this misstatement was offered as proof of perjury he responded by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” If ‘is’ means is and never has been . . . that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.” 

Now let’s apply the same concept to Subway, who advertises that their bread is “baked fresh.”   While it sounds like there is some minion in the back kneading dough, the word “fresh” only refers to the timing of the baking, but not the freshness of the dough itself.  So even though the bread may be no longer than a day old, it can be made from ancient frozen dough.  Similarly, the word “taste” can be adorned with many oxymoronic adjectives, such as “home made” or “farm fresh” taste.”  For example, home made taste means that the product is not made in anyone’s home, it just tastes like it could be.     “Fresh frozen”  is another puzzling concept, but when applied to fish, means that the fish is frozen shortly after it has been caught, as opposed to sitting around for a while before it’s put into the deep freeze.  

The other day I heard a McDonald’s ad on the radio for a new Southern style chicken that that when served with a biscuit was a breakfast item, and when served with a bun was a lunch or dinner item.  The biscuit was described as a “fluffy home-made tasting biscuit.”  Fluffy is a throw away adjective (see discussion of toilet paper above) and home-made taste is also meaningless.  The bun was described as “an oh! so steamy buttery tasting bun.”  Buttery tasting – another degree of separation from real butter – the bun does not have to be made from butter, and also does not have to be buttery, it just needs to taste that way. 

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, and spot) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the words will rhyme with the preceding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

You may think of baby chickens as cute and endearing

But one look at the cramped cages will leave an image tragic and *******.

 You’d like to free these hens from this cruel farm juggernaut,

 But cheap eggs for your omelet has a way of ******* this thought.

 So chickens will have to defer their dream of a free range paradise

 Until our country ******* a better balance between ethics and price.







Answers:  searing, erasing, regains

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