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Basing food policy on petitions

Shoppers are using social media to do away with ingredients they can’t pronounce. and they’re getting their way

Jesus Olmedo removes a tray of freshly cooked bread in a Sub

In early February, blogger Vani Hari, who calls herself the Food Babe, launched a petition to have Subway remove the “dangerous plastic chemical” azodicarbonamide from bread sold at its restaurants. In addition to buns, azodicarbonamide is used to make yoga mats.

Within two days, more than 70,000 people had signed the petition and Subway pledged to stop using the chemical.

Welcome to the new world of consumer activism. Online petitions, like Hari’s, are forcing food makers to alter formulations.

Among the CPG companies targeted recently by Hari and others, on sites such as Change.org: Kraft, over food dyes in mac and cheese; Mars, over food dyes in M&Ms; and Pepsi and Coke, for an ingredient in energy drinks.

But some experts worry that online petitions can cause undo panic and force ingredients to be removed that aren’t necessarily dangerous.

Azodicarbonamide, used as a bleaching agent and dough conditioner, might sound nasty, but it’s approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Instead of basing food policy on science, we have “policy by petition,” says Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University. “The basic story is the customer is right even when the customer is wrong.”

But we shouldn’t be surprised consumers are asking why azodicarbonamide or other strange sounding ingredients are in food. After all, we’ve all been told for years to read ingredient lists. Now, not only are people reading labels, but some are turning to social media for changes.

As a result, food makers must move quickly to placate consumers when complaints catch a buzz online, says Harold Simpkins, senior marketing lecturer at the John Molson School of Business, at Concordia University, in Montreal.

Pepsi and Coke, for instance, agreed to remove brominated vegetable oil (linked to a flame retardant) from Gatorade and Powerade drinks, respectively, after getting heat from online petitions.

But Virginia Jenkinson Zimm, president of Faye Clack Communications, a Toronto strategic marketing firm that specializes in the food industry, wishes food makers wouldn’t acquiesce to online petitioners such as the Food Babe. Zimm says Subway could have simply consulted a food scientist to explain what the chemical does and its uses.

Schwarcz doubts such an approach would have worked. It takes solid familiarity with scientific methodology to understand the issues. People may read ingredients lists more often, but that doesn’t mean they understand them.

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