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What’s On the Menu?
By Jean Hay
April 1999

The Clean Clothes Campaign based in Bangor has been pushing for years for consumer revolt against the pitifully poor wages doled out to textile and shoe workers, most but not all working in foreign countries, who make high-priced clothing which bring in enormous profits to the parent companies. The drive has been for people to shop discriminately -- to check labels, to avoid known offenders, and to deliberately patronize those stores who monitor the working conditions inside the factories of their suppliers.

Underlying this campaign, of course, is the presumption that employers of all stripes have the responsibility to pay their workers a living wage, regardless of where they work in the world. It is the same presumption, if not the actuality, behind our federally-mandated minimum wage – that it is the responsibility of the business owners to build into their business plans the payment of adequate wages. If business owners can’t make a profit if they pay their workers enough to live on, then they shouldn’t be in business.

Which brings us to the restaurant business.

Why in God’s name are restaurants legally allowed to pay their wait staff HALF the already inadequate minimum wage? Did you even know that was the reality?

The chef/owner of an inn in Boothbay Harbor wrote a letter to the editor of the Maine Sunday Telegram last month, lamenting that some of her customers did not tip enough.

"People need to be aware of how much a typical wait person makes and how the state laws affect them," Wendy Hayford wrote. "Most restaurants pay their wait staff the minimum wage of $2.58 per hour. The wait person, from there, relies on his/her tips. They have to report 17.3% (national average) to the IRS. A typical tip is 15% or under. This means that our wait staff is paying out of its own pocket. If people are offended when asked if they need change back, imagine how offended they would be if our menu prices were increased by 25% in order to pay our staff what they deserve."

For starters, I found it interesting that a 25% increase in meal prices would be necessary for her to pay her workers the equivalent of a 17.3% tip.

Secondly, this restaurant and inn owner apparently did not understand that those of us who do tip at that level are already forking over that money. Our bottom line for a restaurant meal is 15-20% higher than her bottom line at the cash register.

The custom of tipping is archaic and demeaning, creating an unnatural tension between the wait staffer and the customer – not to mention the tension with the IRS. I think tipping should be eliminated entirely – as it has been at fast food restaurants, where workers are paid at least the minimum wage, not half of that figure.

I wouldn’t mind at all – in fact I would like very much -- to have the price on the menu reflect the real and entire cost (plus a built-in reasonable profit) of putting that plate of food in front of me.

Which brings me to my next point.

I would like more than the real price for the meal noted on the menu. I would also like to see the contents of those meals, particularly as they relate to genetically engineered foods.

In mid-April the Maine Legislature will again take up the subject of labeling genetically engineered foods. I am in favor of it, although opposition to the idea is strong on this state.

In 1995 I went to an Agriculture Committee hearing where this issue was first brought up. Monsanto had just gotten permission from the Pesticide Control Board to grow its genetically-engineered pesticide-laden potato called NewLeaf. It needed PCB permission because there is so much of the pesticide, Bacillus theringiensis, in NewLeaf that the potato is a pesticide factory, and required authorization.

At the hearing, I heard remarkable testimony from the farmers who were poised to grow this potato.

One said it was unreasonable to think the potato farmers could keep the genetically engineered potatoes separate from their regular potatoes, and if they couldn’t tell them apart, they couldn’t label them accurately. Monsanto at that point was contracting with the farmers to grow the potatoes for seed stock. Monsanto would own every single potato under that contract. These farmers were contending that they couldn’t be expected to fulfill the terms of their contract, even before the first potato went into the ground.

Another farmer or two insisted that, in this day of brand name hype, to require labeling was to imply that there was something wrong with the potato. What they of course were really saying is that if people had a choice between a NewLeaf potato with a built-in pesticide and an ordinary potato that had only been sprayed in the field and/or in storage, they would not buy NewLeaf.

For some reason, that didn’t seem to stop their resolve to grow it.

Another farmer actually got up and said the pesticide built into NewLeaf is not really a pesticide, because pesticides are poisons, and Bt only paralyzes the digestive tract of the potato beetle larvae and they starve to death.

Your Agriculture Committee and mine bought their arguments, and killed the labeling bill.

But it refused to die, and the issue is again, so to speak, on the table.

Genetic engineering of our food supply is serious business. Not too long ago, agricultural advances had to do with improving yield or nutritional aspects of various crops. But now the focus has shifted.

Now scientists are making food crops resistant, not to natural enemies, but to specific herbicides. They are building into the genetic make-up of plants pesticides that cannot be washed off and which don’t break down in storage.

They are even promoting plants with a terminator gene, one that prevents seeds from germinating into the next generation. That might be fine for a company to keep strict control on its patented life form. But these things are grown in open fields. If that one gene jumps out of the bottle and crosses with a plant in the native environment – as some evidence shows can happen, or maybe already has – our whole food supply is in jeopardy.

Some folks still have an unfettered faith in science and technology. Thirty years ago my mother used to say that nuclear power was wonderful and of course safe, that scientists would figure out what to do with the waste. With Chernobyl and Three Mile Island behind us, and disposal finally recognized as a 10,000-year problem, she doesn’t say that anymore. Sharon Tisher, head of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, in a recent BDN op-ed article, pointed out that it was smart computer scientists that brought us the Y2K problem. I could add DDT, Agent Orange, lead-based gasoline and a whole bunch of other scientific/technological disasters to that list.

The chemical/agriculture companies assure us that enough studies have been done to guarantee our safety. Yet they don’t want to tell us which of their laboratory miracles might be on our dinner plate.

If we don’t have labels on this genetically engineered stuff, we have no way – short of growing our own or buying organic -- to avoid being guinea pigs in a massive experiment we may want no part of. If genetically engineered food is not labeled at the point of purchase, we have no way of determining if the reason we got sick, immediately or down the road, had anything to do with what we may have eaten.

Chemical companies like Monsanto of course have good reason to fight a labeling law. Without labeling laws, chemical companies like Monsanto are protected from any culpability for any of the damage their products might cause to our bodies and/or to our environment.

What we don’t know might hurt us, but it can’t hurt them.

And that is their all-important bottom line.

This column appeared in the April 1999 issue of the Northern Democrat, edited by Roger Roy, Caribou, Maine.

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