June 20, 2019

Just the other day, I attended a special caviar tasting organised by Caviar Colony, a Singapore-founded caviar brand whose paramount interests involve making quality caviar accessible to a wider range of discerning customers. It fitted neatly into my piece that I had been pondering about for a few days now. Studies have shown that a growing number of consumers are claiming to be concerned about ethical consumption while only 3% of the market is devoted to the production of such ethical goods. Why the disparity? Let’s be honest: because companies and supply chain organisations often link ethical and sustainability efforts to reducing cost and improving brand image. The motivation is one handicapped by monetary bottom lines. We’re talking multi-million dollar upheavals here, you can’t blame the big boys for their low inertia (ethical shoppers, it might be a good idea to patronise your local market instead of the supermarket for a start).

But here’s where things get even more tricky. Even if society manages to guilt trip you into taking the moral high ground when grocery shopping, how do you decide between fair trade stuff or supporting your local producer and cutting out food miles? Suddenly, the supermarket becomes a minefield of ethical dilemmas. That bag of baked almonds? Ridiculous water footprint. Avocados? Drug Cartel associations and deforestation in South America. Hard pass. Shrimp dip? We can’t guarantee that there might be child slaves behind it. Don’t trust me? There’s even an app that allows you to calculate your slave labour footprint.

My main point is ethical consumer choices can be dubious and not often black and white. Worst still with the lack of transparency and unclear labelling. The only way around is to arm ourselves with information to make more conscientious choices. So, let’s talk about the 3 most controversial foods on earth that give you a bleeding heartache afterwards (from the bill) and leave a gaping hole in your moral conscience.

1. Shark’s Fin

For most of us who have grown up in the 1990s in Asia, not having shark’s fins soup at a wedding banquet is akin to not have champagne. This luxurious treat can come at a cost, as the practice of ‘finning’ has led to the annihilation of more than 73 millions sharks every year. Think about poor Lenny and his friends.

So while the harvesters loot the high seas, the still-living creature is dumped into the seas. Without its fins, the shark isn’t able to swim, and will sink to the bottom of the ocean where it will suffer an imminent death by drowning or get eaten by other predators.

With such a tragic death plot involved, and morbidly high price tags, you’ll expect the soup to taste pretty darn good. Truth is, it doesn’t—it’s tasteless. The fins are merely there for texture.

More than a quarter of the world’s shark species are threatened with extinction as reported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature with countries like Indonesia and Hong Kong maintaining their reputation as one of the world’s largest producers of shark fins. The community is fighting back with the new Fisheries Act, approved late on 18 June 2019 which was hailed as a win for the preservation of fish habitats. Currently, Canada and 12 U.S. states have banned the import and export of shark fins, which sends an important message to the world that this practice is wrong and should be stopped.

2. Foie Gras

Compared to chickens, ducks and geese take up to two and a half times longer to mature which makes the capital cost of running a duck farm two and a half times more expensive. Not exactly profitable unless you’ve got your mind set on producing foie gras. We hope you have a strong stomach.

You’ve probably seen footages of this before. Birds who spend their last 4 weeks of their lives in the confinement of the tiniest cafes where they are subjected to force-feeding by gavage every day during which 2 to 4 pounds of grain and fat are forced down a bird’s gullet followed by intense massaging. You’ll witness the birds wretch, panicking and writhing from the trauma of the handling and as the days go by, an irresolvable acceptance of its doom which manifests in unpreened feathers and distress. Hell, it makes the dreaded torture scenes in Narcos look like child’s play.

A five-hour drive southwest of Madrid, Spain, a company Pateria de Sousa produces an ethical version. Here on the 1,200-acre farmland, force-feeding is ditched and the final goods are a product of nature. Coincidentally, it is where flocks of wild geese touch down annually to gorge themselves silly on acorns and olives before flying south for the winter. The landing, a reoccurring ritual since the 1400s, is almost like Mother Nature’s extradition billing for the cackling gaggle of geese. If you’re anything of a businessman, you’ll go flocking to this golden egg of an opportunity. As did the duo, Sousa and Labourdette. The ‘sacrifice’ takes place only once a year during which naturally fattened geese are paralysed with flashlights and killed swiftly.

3. Caviar

Food fit for the Kings and Tsars of Europe, caviar is synonymous with luxury, However, due to the nature of caviar harvesting, it is inherently unsustainable and overfishing of the archaic water giants has resulted in near extinction. Thankfully, there are a handful of caviar producers out there who have subscribed to sustainable practices—extraction without killing the fish and this has resulted in a surge of sturgeon. On the downside, these pregnant sturgeons are injected with loads of antibiotics to ‘induce labour’ and their eggs are pasteurised leading to a product which has a longer shelf life albeit it not being so fresh nor safe to consume in large quantities, or if you’re pregnant. Either way, there’s no winning.

Caviar Colony, a Singapore-founded company produces caviar harvested from five species of sturgeons cultivated on its own farms in Yunnan, China. As far as fish go, they lead a spectacular life, frolicking in pristine spring waters from the Yunnan mountains and binging on Caviar Colony’s own antibiotic-free, organic feed—a proprietary blend of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs. Nurtured and harvested only at 10 years old, true respect is paid to culturing the best product and that is reflected in the sumptuousness of the caviar without the addition of any kind of chemicals or preservatives. In addition to their commitment to the fishes’ welfare, Caviar Colony aims to reduce food wastage by selling the males for its meat to Chongqing markets. Good intentions that should be contemplated as ethical commitments in the larger scheme of things.

With a conscious shift occurring rapidly, the paradigm of supermarket dilemmas may seem a bit daunting. Especially with the most blameless-looking ingredients touting the most criminal social implications. Instead of thinking of it as a challenge, we should see it as an opportunity like Eleanor Shellstrop who learns more about ethics and tries to be a better person in “The Good Place”. Here’s a tip, buy food from sources you trust. Find out the ethical commitments of your fish suppliers, butchers. Ask questions. Above all, eat less, but better. Nobody is going to be perfect, but we can all try and do our part.