Unlabeled and unbranded food: how safe are they?

Variations of the fish, squid and shrimp balls are all over the supermarkets. They come in so many shapes and flavors and you can buy as little as 100 grams so you don’t need to worry about buying more than you can consume. It’s especially useful if you just want to try a particular item. I first saw them in SM Hypermarket (see the mushroom balls entry); now, Shopwise has them too. I bought a hundred grams of sharksfin balls on trial, added them to the home made chicken noodle soup I had for breakfast a few days ago, and they were pretty good.

casaveneracion.com How safe are unbranded and unlabeled food products?

The thing is, these frozen food items are unbranded and unlabeled. Customers are not told where they come from (I’m 99% certain they are imported) and who the manufacturers are. With the recent scare over the Sanlu milk scandal, the question arises: Just how safe are unlabeled and unbranded food products?

The truth is, long before repacked, unlabeled and unbranded milk products, Filipinos have been consuming food products with unknown origins. I’ve been doing the marketing for ages and I used to buy my unlabeled and unbranded tofu in the public markets. Never got sick eating them despite persistent rumors that they contained plaster of Paris.

Perhaps, the real issue is not so much the safety. There have been so many exposes about the lies in food labels — that corned beef is actually from carabao beef is just one example. There have been issues too about the unsanitary handling of food sold in public markets. If you’ve seen the inside of a slaughterhouse, you might think twice about buying pork or beef.

Perhaps, the real issue about unlabeled and unbranded food is that should a consumer fall ill, there is no legal recourse because he won’t know whom to hold responsible. He won’t know whom to sue and whom to charge with hospital and medical bills or, in a worst case scenario, the funeral expenses and damages for loss of income of a family member.

The best practice is, of course, to know exactly what it is that you’re putting inside your mouth. But in a world of advertising lies and gimmicks, that’s easier said than done. Brand and label do not necessarily spell S-A-F-E. We really do not know the real circumstances under which branded and labeled food products are made. Food manufacturers rarely allow the public inside their factories. In fact, no one is even sure if the ingredients listed in food packages are comprehensive or whether they exclude items which can make a consumer recoil from buying them. Businessmen will never volunteer information to the public that will make their products less attractive.

Brands and labels only mean we know whom to run after in case something bad happens to us after consuming certain food products. Whether we can really make the manufacturers pay is subject to debate. We know how big businesses are. They have a battalion of lawyers who will present technical laboratory reports saying their clients’ products are safe. Naturally, they will not admit, unless cornered like injured whimpering animals, that most of these reports were prepared at the behest of the clients themselves.

In a way, it’s a price we pay for what we like to call “progress.” Many of us are hardly in a position to raise our own cows, pigs, chickens, fish and vegetables to really ensure that what we eat are safe. We rely on food producers who rely on wholesalers and retailers, and between the source of the food in their natural state and the condition we find them in in the markets and supermarkets, we really do not know what they have been subjected to.

21 Comments

  • peevee says:

    you hit the nail right on the head… just try watching Imbestigador every Saturday and you’ll see how totally unsanitary and yucky most of our favorite food is being prepared… now I’m at a loss at what to buy whenever I am at the market or even the supermarket… sometimes I just want to shun eating and even watching tv altogether!!!

  • Even restaurants — the condition of the kitchens of some restaurants are terrible!

    • peterb says:

      Really can’t know what is safe unless you know where they come from and how they are prepared. The only thing we can do is just check the ingredients (if there’s a list), check where it’s made (if it’s indicated). For items like, fishballs, ham, squidballs and those other things you use for a hotpot, you just have try it. If it looks clean, smells fresh then probably it’s safe. For restaurants, it’s all about appearance. What the customer’s see should be clean. I once ordered take out from a restaurant that served a really good sizzling spicy chicken, but while i was waiting…..i counted more than 10 small (1/4 inch) cockroaches crawling all over (walls, counter, etc.). I hated to think that there was probably more in the kitchen. Last week i was in Serendra in one of the restaurants there and i saw a big tail behind the curtains. I waited, and eventually saw a big rat crawling from the ceiling and hiding behind the curtains. I informed the waiters and they immediately closed off the area. Ratatouille? ;)

      • sage mum, I’m one of those people who believe that humans being at the top of the food chain, killing of animals for food is part of nature. Claims of pro-animal rights groups about the manner animals are killed is a political issue, more than anything else. Why should the killing of sharks be more objectionable than say, the raising of tilapia and bangus only for the purpose of killing, selling and eating them? Have you seen a bangus harvest? They die –slowly — in their own blood after they are placed in a vat full of ice. I have photos.

  • peterb, I think there should be a law that restaurant kitchens be transparent to the public. As in glass walls. So that customers can judge if the food handling and general sanitation are safe enough for them.

    Re Ratatouille: I had a similar experience in a coffee shop in Sta. Lucia East Mall. Worst part was that I saw it when we were already paying the bill. And you know what the cashier said? Alaga daw nila yun. Shit. I’m sure it was a joke but what a bad joke.

  • sage mum says:

    You mentioned “sharksfin balls” — I don’t know if this comes from real shark’s fin, but did you know that many shark species are endangered or on the verge of being endangered, mostly because of the popularity of shark’s fin soup and shark’s fin in traditional Chinese medicine? Also, they way they kill sharks is just heartbreaking. They’ll slice off the fins while it’s still alive then throw it overboard where it sinks to the bottom and eaten alive by other fish! It also throws the marine ecosystem off balance because sharks are at the top of the food pyramid.

    I had no idea of any of this until I watched a documentary called “Sharkwater”. I urge you to watch it too, or at least visit their website: http://www.sharkwater.com/education.htm.

    p.s. I recently got interested in baking and tried your corn muffin recipe. They were really good!

    • Michele says:

      Extreme animal activists have been known to annoy me, but come now. My ability to survive is in no way linked to my ability to enjoy delicacies like shark fins. Animals need not die an unduly awful death to appear on my dinner table, and I likewise need not go after endangered species to put food on that table. I’m not a vegan, not a vegetarian, and I’m going to keep eating meat. But if it’s a jungle out there, I’m not proud of it, and I’m definitely not proud of using ‘top of the food chain’ to justify any range of behavior.

      Animals have to die before we eat them. Death isn’t pleasant. That’s reality. But many commercial slaughterhouses do nothing to blunt the pain of death — indeed, they exacerbate it — and what’s worse, the animals in question often live painful lives as well. I’m sure there are animal activists who think killing an animal by any means and under any pretense is wrong, but they are extremists. Most of them object to the means of death and the quality of life.

      But whoa, too serious for a food blog, right? I assure you I don’t make a habit of stalking food blogs and crying, “You eat meat you terrible person, you terrible, terrible unethical person!” It’s just that I was startled to see animal death characterized as a political issue. Certainly it gets /used/ in politics and as a political issue — most things do — but in essence it is a moral issue. It becomes a political issue only because people are troubled by it (or aren’t), and care about it (or don’t), otherwise it would not be much of an issue at all.

      • Ulap says:

        I ate meat until 11 years ago. My reason was purely personal: I wanted to stay healthy.

        My father wouldn’t stop eating meat even if it gave him hypertension, headaches and gout. You’d think that being cut open twice due to kidney and gall stones would finally do it?

        “Top of the food chain, baby, top of the food chain,” he would say.

        Ten years ago, payback came in the form of an aneurysm. During surgery, he suffered a devastating stroke. He couldn’t talk, his right side was paralyzed, and he would pee and shit uncontrollably.

        Today, he is but a shadow of his former vibrant self — living in a fog of prescribed drugs and regrets.

  • Sam says:

    The alaga bit had me rolling on the floor! Truly Pinoy humor!! I could almost see your precious expression when the restaurant staff uttered those words. There used to be a time where a brand is a public commitment to a product’s integrity, and I share your frustration at how greed and a penchant for fast cash takes over.

    I defend my position in the food chain. If it takes root, crawls, swims,flies and does not talk or argue about the merits and dangers of living on top of the evolutionary heap, I have just a recipe on hand to seal its fate. I have faith that somehow, I would glean a way to deal with questions of karma. ;)

    Have a great weekend!

  • Sam, re “If it takes root, crawls, swims,flies and does not talk or argue about the merits and dangers of living on top of the evolutionary heap, I have just a recipe on hand to seal its fate.”

    LOL I love that way you put it. On the serious side though, it’s sickening sometimes how these animal rights advocates get overzealous — as though animals’ rights are paramount over humans’ right to eat and, ergo, to survive. We may live among high rise buildings and all the technology but the truth is, it’s still a jungle out there, and the first and only rule is survival.

    • Casi says:

      Although I understand that we are on the top of the food chain I believe that we do not fit the natural order of things. Humans have a responsibility to nature. Farming and eating endangered species is a blatant disregard of it. It is not how it dies, since after all everything in nature is vicious. Its how much of it we kill. Unlabeled food is an unsure way of what is being killed. As consumers it is our responsibility to keep track of it. This isn’t just with sharks. Eating food is a way to either save or end a species. Sadly it is becoming an end to sharks.
      I also disagree that because we can buy from a supermarket we deserve to control the fate of a species. It isn’t a jungle out there. Not for us.

      • Trosp says:

        Pahabol lang.

        Naalala ko tuloy yung Greenpeace. They are being called as eco terrorists but more often as Environment Liberation Front.

  • Susan says:

    Hi Connie & Peterb

    Wala yan sa experience namin sometime in 2005. We had a german visitor and we want him to try filipino food, my boss decided that we have dinner in a filipino restaurant along EDSA (near SEC). They have singers who sings in every table. You know what we saw in the buffet table for desserts, di ba separated un, were 2 big rats and they were jumping from one dessert plate to another. Yucky talaga! me and my officemate wanted to vomit with what we saw. Pero wala na ngayon yung filipino restaurant na yun dun sa area

    • Scuba Diva, re “But morals aside, shark meat is dangerous to eat; because they’re apex predators, they consume all the toxins already in the fish they eat.” Now that is an argument worth taking note of.

    • Ulap, illness like your father’s is always a result of a combination of things. Hypertension is more closely related with a stressful lifestyle (eg., job) than anything else. And then there’s old age.

      Have a nice week, Sam!

      Thank you, Trosp. :)

  • Michele, re “It’s just that I was startled to see animal death characterized as a political issue.”

    It isn’t just a political issue; it’s a financial issue as well. Activism has become a profession. NGOs make millions fighting for just about any right they want to.

    It’s a moral issue? Whose moral standards apply then? Only the zealots insist that they and they alone have a right to set a universal moral standard.

    And this isn’t a food blog, by the way.

    Casi, in the natural order of things, every specie becomes extinct at one point or another. Even humans will be extinct, we just don’t know when. It’s called evolution. And it is part of nature.

  • Scuba Diva says:

    I notice a lot of readers here ore of the opinion that we are at the “top of the food chain.” We are not: as a matter of fact, sharks are classified as apex predators and are absolutely necessary to maintain a healthy ocean. That’s why it’s wrong to murder them by slicing off their fins for an expensive bowl of tasteless soup.

    But morals aside, shark meat is dangerous to eat; because they’re apex predators, they consume all the toxins already in the fish they eat. Several reports I’ve seen recommend that women and children never consume shark, and men eat one serving or less a month.

    So you see, I’m not preaching morals here; on a practical level, if the sharks die off, so do we. That’s all.

    • betsy04 says:

      Mercury is a big concern for fish consumption. The US EPA and FDA have info pages about it here: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/advice/ (“1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.” )

      and here: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html “Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish”

      • sam says:

        Hopefully,as a final note to this post,I do not view my meaty dietary preference as an affirmation of my position in the food chain, but also a wonderful opportunity to exercise my deft talent with fire and heat, an established human skill. For some, consumption of meat may conjure gruesome and revolting images. i respect that revulsion and contempt, though I may not be truly sold on the idea.

        Take what you may handle. Exercise discretion, but avoid damning others who live to exercise their choices, however disagreeable to one’s personal beliefs. Diet is only one of the many risk factors associated with certain health conditions. I believe excess is more dangerous than mere choice. Excess is deadly, and it is strangely familiar.

        Right now, images of nicely grilled flank from my favorite Argentinian churascarria are dancing on my head, as are tender bits of lamb loin slowly twirling on a grill. I love happy cows and carefree lambs,which roamed the green plains in their lifetime, they just taste awesome. Happy Tuesday!

  • Trosp says:

    Hi Sass – your comment:

    “Michele, re “It’s just that I was startled to see animal death characterized as a political issue.”

    It isn’t just a political issue; it’s a financial issue as well. Activism has become a profession. NGOs make millions fighting for just about any right they want to.

    It’s a moral issue? Whose moral standards apply then? Only the zealots insist that they and they alone have a right to set a universal moral standard.

    And this isn’t a food blog, by the way.

    Casi, in the natural order of things, every specie becomes extinct at one point or another. Even humans will be extinct, we just don’t know when. It’s called evolution. And it is part of nature.”

    The above is one of the reasons for me to say that I’m not wasting my time visiting your blog. He he he…

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