Food Freedom

Don't Let Food Nationalism Spoil Your Meal

Nationalists are using food safety arguments to attack ethnic diversity


Earlier this month, Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, slammed what he dubbed "the 'political use' of food safety concerns and country of origin labeling" by nationalist and right-wing politicians in the European Union.

While I believe that many food safety regulations work only to stifle competition and protect large, incumbent food producers, reasonable people can and do differ when it comes to determining the proper scope of food safety regulations. I've also heard palatable arguments in favor of mandatory country-of-origin labeling, even if I disagree with those arguments.

As Andriukaitis's remarks suggest, these two issues in particular—food safety and country of origin labeling—are often trotted out in tandem by nationalists who couch their alleged concerns in a sneering illusion of superiority.

Andriukaitis's remarks, reports the E.U. policy magazine Euractiv, were directed at, among others, Italy's Matteo Salvini, a rabid right-wing populist and top Italian government official who replied that he's merely trying to stand up for Italian food producers.

According to Euractiv, Andriukaitis was critical specifically of "the way Salvini put the blame on the E.U. in the past for unsafe food coming from Africa, Brazil, or India as 'very nationalistic, protectionistic and ideological.'"

I share Andriukaitis's concerns about the E.U. generally and Italy specifically. In a column two years ago, for example, I cautioned against the "creeping food xenophobia [that] appears to be taking hold" across Italy.

"Last year, Florence imposed restrictions on so-called 'foreign' food from being sold in the historic city center," I lamented. "Fair Verona barred 'ethnic' foods. This year, Venice banned new fast food outlets, focusing in part on kebab shops, in order to preserve Italian 'decorum and traditions.'"

Notably, the concerns that Andriukaitis and I share are neither contained to the present day nor just to the E.U. or Italy. In South Africa, for example, recent claims that foreign-owned stores stock unsafe food have spurred "xenophobic violence, with shop owners targeted by South Africans."

Food nationalism and xenophobia have long been alive and well here in the United States. For example, the death of the Thanksgiving pudding has been tied to anti-immigrant fervor in the early 20th century. The demise of puddings and other so-called "mixed foods"—those containing more than a couple ingredients—"was due, in large part, to xenophobia; by then, many white Americans had come to associate mixed foods with immigrants," wrote Michigan State University history professor Helen Zoe Veit in a fascinating 2017 piece for The Conversation.

White Americans often misperceive so-called "ethnic" restaurants as somehow less sanitary than white-owned restaurants. In 2014, Slate's Andrew Simmons crunched some informal foodborne illness numbers in Los Angeles, which is 50 percent white, and determined that "around 68 percent of the time, [people complaining about foodborne illness are] pointing their fingers at restaurants serving ethnic food."

More recently, a new Chinese restaurant in New York City faced withering criticism from Chinese-Americans and others earlier this year after the white-owned business sought to differentiate its food from that of its competitors by touting the alleged comparative cleanliness of its food. The New York Times reported the restaurateur's "decision to brand her Chinese food as 'clean' was dredging up stereotypes that were hurtful to Chinese-Americans, not to mention tone-deaf."

That followed a similar controversy involving a racially tinged review of a New York City Chinese restaurant two years ago.

"It's very simple to say Italian food is the best," E.U. commissioner Andriukaitis said this month, according to Euractiv. "If you ask a Hungarian, a Lithuanian or an Irish person, they tell you their food is the best."

Maybe so. But having choices matters so much more than whether, say, Hungarian or Italian food is better than the other.

As it turns out, choices and nationalism are largely incompatible. In 2017, a German grocery store voluntarily removed all foreign-grown and -produced food from its shelves. While this might bring to mind odious nationalism, the store's point was exactly the opposite. By not replacing the foreign-made foods with German-made foods, the store's empty shelves demonstrated perfectly both the need for tolerance and the benefits we enjoy thanks to global trade and the interconnectedness of our food supply.

If you want more and better food choices, as I do, you should reject nationalism in all its forms.