The differences in Australian and American food culture: Opinion

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 6th July 2015

Jan Davis is a contributor to Australian Food News.

American FlagI’ve just returned from several weeks travelling across the United States. It is fabulous to be home – and to appreciate just how lucky we are in Australia to live in an amazing part of the world.

We see so much American culture on TV, in magazines, at the movies – and it is easy to be lulled into thinking that the similarities outweigh the things that are different. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that our two cultures are different in many ways – some significant and some less so.

This is neither the time nor the place to talk about the American attitude to rules and regulations; or to things such as gun laws.

So I’ll focus on things more up my alley – things related to food.

Before even looking at what is on the plate, though, one huge difference is in the way we use our cutlery.  Americans eat with one hand – they use a knife to cut food, then put it down and put their fork back into their right hand.  This is really disconcerting.

Oh, and there is a public fixation on reminding people about hand washing – something we see no need to do here.

I’m not a coffee addict like many Australians. Even for me, though, the stuff passed off as coffee in the States is pretty much undrinkable. That’s probably why Starbucks hasn’t made successful inroads into Australian markets. It is, however, now possible to get a halfway decent cup of tea – albeit tea bags – and a wide range of herbal teas is also widely available.

There is a growing trend in restaurants differentiating their offerings through seasonal produce or locally grown ingredients. There are also many new chains promoting healthy eating, organic ingredients and integrity in food production. I had several amazing meals during my time away – as good as anything I’ve had in Australia. Having said that, fast food outlets are everywhere; and portion sizes are generally huge. Many places let you take home leftovers, something that is frowned on in Australia because of the risks of food poisoning.

Much of the food served there is more heavily pre-prepared and processed than Australian’s are used to. It is getting easier to find fresh produce, but it is still the exception rather than the rule.

In Australia, we generally keep sweet and savoury stuff separate. This concept doesn’t seem to exist at all in the US – sweet and savoury are combined with wild abandon, leading to things like apple pie with melted cheese on top. It takes a concerted effort in the US to find bread that doesn’t contain either sugar, corn syrup, molasses or some other sweetening agent as a major ingredient.

I still haven’t managed to wrap my head around this – although I have developed a serious addiction to pancakes with bacon and maple syrup.

More seriously, the issue of food safety is never far from my mind when travelling in the US.

The Centre for Disease Control estimates that roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalised, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year.

There are few mandatory food safety regulations through the supply chain in the US. Farmers, processors, wholesalers and retail outlets are much more highly regulated in this country – and that is reflected in the much lower incidence of foodborne diseases in Australia.

Furthermore, the USA imports over 40 per cent of its fresh food needs, much of it from South American countries. There are few regulatory requirements for these products. As an example, although most of the seafood Americans eat is imported, only one per cent is inspected before it comes into the US – and a sizeable portion of that is rejected.

The US is currently grappling with the issue of updating its food standards – but, if successful, even the proposed new regulations would be a long way behind the current situation in Australia.

With Australia now embarking on increased economic integration with the US thorough the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the question of our strict food safety standards will no doubt be a key topic of discussion.

This is one area where we can be proud of the difference between what happens in Australia and what happens in the United States.

Bringing Australian food standards down to meet those in the US is clearly in America’s interest. However, it is not in Australia’s interests, either economically or socially. Australia should strenuously resist any move in this direction.

Jan Davis has worked in senior agribusiness roles across Australia for thirty years. Tagged as Tasmania’s top political lobbyist and one of the most influential people in the state; she works as an agribusiness and government relations consultant. To read her full biography click HERE.