From early humans wondering if this plant would kill them, to keeping track of which fat is the 'good fat' this week, the cultural connotations and value judgements we've attached to food can be a little daunting. But as we become more aware of what goes into what we eat, environmental, geopolitical or moral concerns, stave us off from eating certain foods. Here are ten foods that have stirred up a food fight in recent years.
10 Horse Meat
Horse meat has lower sodium and cholesterol than beef, and more iron and higher calories-per-serving, so there's nothing wrong with it nutritionally. And it's good: tender and low-fat. On the other hand, there is the image dissonance: we tend to see horses as friendly pets, not food.This sensitivity means that 69% of Americans are against killing horses for food (Public Opinion Strategies, 2006), with 71% feeling that as a part of American culture, horses deserve better treatment than a trip to the dinner plate. However, other parts of the world, including Central Asia and parts of Europe, do not have any stigma against horse meat, seeing it as just another meal. But in the USA, horse meat is a contentious issue, with all horse slaughterhouses being closed (sometimes forcibly) by 2007. 2011 saw the lifting of a ban on production of horse meat, reigniting the debate.
Absinthe is a high proof liquor flavored with anise, fennel and wormwood, famous for it's green hue. Well, the green hue and the perceived psychedelic side effects. The toxic thujone, found in the wormwood, was believed to cause hallucinations, seizures and in some, a disposition for violence. Absinthe was immensely popular in Europe (especially France) in the 1800s, but by the early twentieth century, it had been banned in many countries. The ban has slowly been lifting over the past thirty or so years, as new studies come out showing that the distillation process removes most of the thujone from the drink. The lifted bans come with laws on thujone content, where no more than 35 milligrams per liter is permitted. So, to risk thujone poisoning, you'd have to drink a half liter of absinthe, which is 90 to 148 proof, meaning you'd die of alcohol poisoning well before any thujone toxicity. While absinthe's image as the dangerous drink of French romantics remains, and can cause the occasional issue, the truth of the matter is that it's no more dangerous than tequila. Which is to say: it's very dangerous, drink responsibly or you'll end up singing songs while waiting for a bus at two in the morning.
8 Iberico Ham
The controversy here is all about importation. Iberico ham only became legal to import to the US in 2007, when it lifted its ban on Spanish pork products. The ban was due to fear of disease, after incidences of African Swine Fever. The ham is open-air cured for up to two years, a process that didn't do much to assuage fears of disease and bacteria.
However, it's that curing process that makes the Iberico ham special (and costly- it can sell for $300/kilogram!). After the pigs have been slaughtered, the meat is salt cured, and then aged in the open air. The meat sweats in the spring and summer, with the salt keeping bacteria at bay,and then cools down in winter. This breaks the fat in the meat down, and changes it from saturated fats into healthier mono-unsaturated fats.
7 Foraged Mushrooms
While trendy restaurants like Nota Bene employ a forager to bring in fresh, wild greens, other places are legislating against it. Foraged mushrooms have been popularized by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, but bylaws are attempting to stem the tide of imitators. In the UK, foraging is legal, but only if the land is not privately owned, or protected by law (such as Epping Forest, a site of special scientific interest), and foragers cannot pick protected funghi like the Hedgehog Fungus or Oak Polypore. Another problem people are trying to prevent is amateurs hurting themselves by picking poisonous mushrooms by accident. There are also worries about what increased interest in foraging is doing to the forest, worrying that foragers are damaging the ecosystem, both by trampling through it and by picking it clean of certain mushroom species.
The issue with veal is a simple one: lots of people are uncomfortable eating adolescent cows. Veal is typically raised on a mostly milk diet, and killed young (from a few days old to a year old). This means the meat is paler than other beef products as well as tenderer, since the animal has less developed muscle tissue.
There is also worry from animal rights groups about the housing of veal, since one type of housing involved movement-restricting hutches, which lead to less developed connective tissue, and thus tenderer meat. However, many Europe and the US have instigated crate-ban legislation, and with awareness of crate-methods, the demand for free raised veal, where calves are raised in pasture and allowed access to both their mother's milk and grasses, has risen.
5 Wild Beluga Caviar
Made from salt-cured fish eggs of sturgeon found in the Caspian and Black sea, caviar's a definitive 'luxury' food. The most valuable sturgeon roe is the beluga sturgeon's, because of it's large, soft eggs.
Of course, the Beluga Sturgeon, a large, slow maturing fish with a lifespan of up to 118 years, is also critically endangered. Over the past twenty years, Beluga Sturgeon populations have plumped by over 90%, meaning it's probably time to slow down on the caviar. The US banned the import of Beluga Caviar in 2006, after its was listed on the US Endangered Species Act. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has expressed concern over the fact that Beluga Caviar quotas are virtually unchanged from 2007, meaning population decline may not be being halted, or even slowed.
4 Shark Fins
Shark fin is the main ingredient of Shark Fin Soup, as well as being used in multiple 'traditional cures'. The problem people have with shark fins isn't so much the eating as the process of shark finning, where the shark's dorsal fins, pelvic, anal and the bottom portion of the tail fin are all removed, while still at sea, and the rest of the shark, who is often still alive, is put back into the water. The shark's mobility is greatly impaired, and it often suffocates or is eaten by other predators shortly afterwards.
Beyond that? There's also worries that sharks are being overfished, something that their slow maturation rate makes them highly susceptible to. People also worry that overfishing will effect the environment, since sharks play a part in keeping their ecosystem balanced. And there are high amounts of mercury found in shark fins, leading to worries about how healthy it is to consume.
And on top of all this? When prepared, shark fin's apparently pretty tasteless.
3 Northern Bluefin Tuna
Prized by sushi chefs, Northern Bluefin tuna prized as some the best sashimi in the world. However, eating it is attracting controversy as it is heavily over fished and on the seafood red list. ICCAT, the body regulating tuna-fishing has had its recommended quotas ignored. In 2009, ICCAT stated it's 2010 quota was 13,500 tonnes of fish, and that if stocks were not restored by 2022, it would close some fishing areas off, to allow the populations to recuperate. In 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided not to list the northern bluefin as endangered, but is reconsidering their endangered status as of 2013.
2 Ortolan Bunting
The Ortolan Bunting is found in Europe and Asia, and weighs in at 20-25 grams. The controversy surrounding the Ortolan bunting is twofold: it's endangered and the traditional method of preparation.
The traditional preparation of the bird involves capturing it live, feeding it millet to fatten it, and then drowning it in armagnac. Then it's roasted, and you eat it whole, with a napkin over your head, so that none of the aroma escapes (also so that your dinner partners don't see you crunching down a whole bird).
Eating Ortolan buntings is still completely legal, and gourmands rave about it being one of the best tasting dishes in the world. However, since they've been declared endangered, it has become illegal to trap or kill them, so it's pretty difficult to get it on the menu. In September 2013, the German-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) filed an official protest in France, claiming that officials were not enforcing the zero-tolerance regulations of the European Commission in regards to the Ortolan bunting.
1 Foie Gras
No controversial foods list would be complete without Foie Gras. Made from duck or goose liver, after the animal has been specially fattened, foie gras is a French delicacy, where the buttery liver is sold whole, or prepared into mousses, parfaits or pâtés. The controversy arises from the method used to fatten the animal. While it is possible to fatten the goose or duck through traditional feeding processes, the liver then does not meet the French legal definition of Foie Gras. To reach this definition, many use the gavage process, wherein a feeding tube is inserted into the animal's esophagus. This allows for a precise amount of food to be delivered to the goose or duck, ensuring the appropriate amount of fat in the liver.
The outcry against this is backed by the EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare, which found in 1998 that modern force-feeding practices were detrimental to the overall health of the birds. To combat this, there has been a move back to more traditional preparation means, namely shifting slaughter times to winter, when the animals' livers have naturally fattened up.