Defining Qualities

We all know that the world of agriculture and food claims a lot of media attention. Everyone — whether politicians, the food industry or the smallest struggling farmers’ cooperative — announces their aims and uses current punchy language. But all too often they turn out to lack any strategic vision, or are just mouthing meaningless and pointless clichés.

For example, everyone talks about quality in various guises. The food industry’s ‘Guaranteed quality’ just means the product is safe; ‘Good traditional quality’, presumes a traditional product will automatically be good quality; ‘aiming for quality’, suggests quality is a panacea for all problems, the magic slogan to persuade an increasingly difficult market.

We might improve matters if we all agreed what quality is. If we all had the same idea of what is sound and desirable — from both a producer and a consumer point of view — we would not waste so much time talking nonsense. The dictionary definition of quality says it is ‘the standard of something as measured against other things of the same kind; the degree of excellence of something’, and also ‘feature, distinctive attribute’.

So if we are talking about food and use the word quality, what standards are we talking about? What type of measurements? What features and attributes?

I would like to suggest an idea of quality that was developed in the light of experience and is shared within the Slow Food movement. It is a concept of quality with three dimensions — the attributes of good, clean and fair.

Good means the food has proper flavor, aroma and appearance. We can recognize this qualitative attribute when we stimulate and educate our senses, when we compare different products and learn to choose the more gratifying. But if this were the only attribute, we would just be a bunch of elitist gourmands and lovers of a few impressive — and expensive — delicacies.

So we need other attributes, such as clean. Clean means sustainable. It means using production methods that are not harmful for ecosystems or the soil, it means respecting biodiversity and ensuring food is safe for human health.

But there is also social sustainability. This brings us to the third attribute, fairness and justice. This requires food to be ethically sustainable and to use production methods that do not exploit workers or drive out other good products. It means fair prices for consumers and also for producers, who have to survive and should receive proper social and economic recognition.

Good, clean and fair: they are three simple attributes but they would significantly reduce the number of products accepted by consumers demanding this form of quality. It is customers who would be the first to influence production (if we all believed that ‘eating is an agricultural act’, there would be no doubt about where power really lies).

Is food that is fair and supportive necessarily a quality product? It respects the work of small farmers and often enjoys organic certification, but is it always good? I can assure you that I have eaten products that were fair and supportive but which were truly awful and inedible. Fair and clean does not always mean good.

Does being organic equal quality? Clean and good maybe, but if you look at California for example, they’ll sell you peppers that are by no means miracles of nature at horrific prices. Plus, there are thousands of Mexicans slaving in the fields for a pittance. In short, a certain kind of organic is often not fair.

Is top wine always quality wine? There are some incredible wines produced in Italy and producers are also able to make good profits, but is it right to disfigure some of the most attractive areas with an invasive monoculture, even planting vines facing north, instead of leaving woods and meadows which would be more appropriate? In this case the wine is good and fair but not clean.

If quality meant good, clean and fair for all, a lot of people now selling their products with references to quality would think twice. They would clearly be breaching trade descriptions and could even be liable for prosecution.

First printed in La Stampa, on February 20 2005

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

  • Did you learn something new from this page?
  • yesno