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Be Careful What You Call It


What we call something seems to be more important that what the thing actually is. During a recent vacation to the United Kingdom, I discovered that certain food items have much different names. Likewise some food items that share the same name as we have here in the US are quite different in actual fact.  For example, oatmeal is called porridge in the UK and Fish and Chips are what we call Fish and Fries. Conversely when I ordered Yorkshire pudding, what I got had no resemblance to a pudding product as we know it; and when I saw something on the menu called “Spotted Dick”, I just snickered and moved on. Yet the names we give some food items have now become an international legal issue.


Many of the items on our grocery store shelves derived their names from the places where they were invented. Yet, over time, those connections have been lost and most of us today give little thought to why we call it bologna, champagne,  feta, or bratwurst. However, the folks in Europe, where these products originated, do.  As part of a trade deal being negotiated with the US, the EU is demanding restrictions on products with these names and, in some cases, insisting that only products produced in the  EU can carry these names.  US lawmakers have issued a harsh response to this approach. Indiana Senators Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly say this is  political baloney. The Hoosiers joined with other lawmakers in pressing US trade negotiators to tell the Europeans that America won’t accept such naming restrictions. The US dairy industry says such an agreement would cost the US cheese industry billions of dollars. This would likely spark a worldwide trade war of words, with the US putting restrictions on Philly Cheese Steak and China restricting the use of Peking Duck.


What you call a food product is becoming a legal issue not only in international trade but in US supermarkets, and it is an issue not only over what something is called but what people think that means. Kroger is being sued over misleading consumers because of what they called their chicken. The complaint against Kroger was filed the Superior Court of California (where else) seeking a class-action status against the chain for allegedly misleading consumers about chicken sold under the “Simple Truth” brand.  Those behind the suit claim the name implied the chicken was not raised in cages and treated humanely. The suit alleges that the “Simple Truth”  chicken products were produced by Perdue Farms, which uses industry practices including electrically stunning the chickens prior to them being slaughtered.  Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey told Reuters, “What we have on our Simple Truth chicken label is information for our customers that we believe is accurate, and we intend to vigorously defend our label.” If this suit is successful, retailers will have to go back to genetic names for products like “Chicken.”


But there is some evidence that consumers are getting tired of all the food name semantics. A market research firm has discovered the use of the term organic on restaurant menus has declined by 28 percent from the fourth quarter in 2010 to the fourth quarter in 2013. Mintel Foodservice category manager Julia Gallo-Torres says there’s a return to the terms classic, original, and homemade because organic foods are expensive and consumers want alternatives that still let them know the food they are eating is safe and good quality. The survey also indicated an increase in geographic labels in food names, perhaps an indicator that people are more interested in where food was produced rather than how.  It also shows that the word games being played when naming food are not going to slow down anytime soon.


By Gary Truitt