I bought a jar of mustard. Actually, it is more accurately called prepared mustard, as it is not whole mustard seed or dried and ground mustard seed, but ground seed combined with several ingredients to make a sauce.
The label says it is “all natural.” I presume the mustard makers want me to use a common definition of “natural,” meaning derived from nature without intervention by human beings, who are always unnatural. And of course “natural” is a useful marketing term, because we tend to assume natural things are good and unnatural things are bad.
Reading the ingredients, the “natural” label is plausible. It contains water, vinegar, brown mustard seed, salt and xantham gum. Simple, and I assume good. But these are not ingredients you can gather out in the hills. The type of vinegar is not specified, and there are many, but I will assume it is white distilled vinegar, which is dilute acid derived from fermented ethanol, processed and refined, from ingredients processed and refined by human beings, who are always unnatural. The brown mustard seed I assume is produced by commercial agriculture, which means it is a variety bred for higher yields, planted and cultivated, harvested and threshed, packaged and shipped with the aid of unnatural machinery. Salt, I hope, is refined and purified. Xantham gum is a thickener synthesized from fermented sugars. I read that it was invented in a laboratory, by scientists. There’s no xantham tree I know of.
I will not argue. It is my favorite mustard. It is no longer sold in my local market, so I buy it over the Internet. It comes to my porch from the factory where the plastic jars are filled, shipped to a warehouse, wrapped in plastic bags and bubbles, boxed and labeled, trucked to my house by a shipping company. There is a whole lot of human manipulation affecting my all natural mustard, but it is my mustard and I like it.
What constitutes “natural” is an old argument that has brought a limited amount of government regulation and sometimes ends up in court. It is a marketing slogan. The mustard is derived from ingredients that began somewhere in nature, then were transformed by massive human intervention, like nearly everything we eat, but the label is arguably fair. There may be competitors who sell mustard with ingredients they consider more pure and unrefined, who may chafe at the semantic inaccuracy. In Washington state they just might run an initiative forcing competing mustard makers to label their product “unnatural,” which is arguably more accurate.
There would be no public benefit. The label will enlighten no one. It only provides a competitors’ definition of the commercial, industrial and scientific techniques used to produce the product. The label requirement will be intended to reduce sales of certain mustards, taking advantage of the illogical public perception that natural is good, “unnatural” is bad.
Should Initiative 522, the GMO labeling requirement, be passed, food produced by the favored form of human intervention, namely 10,000 years of genetic manipulation by conventional breeding, will be favored over food produced by inserting a few useful strands from one genome into the thousands of another. I have had readers scream over the phone, that one breeding technique is natural and another is not. It’s a meaningless distinction. They are different means of human manipulation of nature to reach the same end — food produced abundantly and efficiently. The label won’t tell you much.
Note: Wednesday’s column profiled two local World War II veterans taking an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., Tuesday. There is another local veteran making the trip — Howard Pillsbury of East Wenatchee. Pillsbury, from Entiat, was an Army tank driver in the Pacific who fought in the Battle of Okinawa. He returned, graduated from Eastern Washington State College in 1950, and then served 32 years with the Washington Department of Transportation in Wenatchee as a safety engineer. “To be honored this way feels good,” Pillsbury said. It is an honor well deserved. Thank you, Mr. Pillsbury.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.