The American food fight

How online petitioning is shaking high-profile companies to their core, pushing transparency and changing recipes.

The story of David and Goliath goes something like this: little guy with a sling and five stones goes into battle with a big guy wearing armour and carrying weapons. While the odds don’t look good, the little guy prevails, Goliath dies (and loses his head).

America’s food industry is running somewhat parallel with this tale; the Davids being consumers and bloggers, the Goliaths the food corporations.

There’s a disturbing reality at play in the US, which is adversely affecting the contents of its processed foods. What’s banned in Europe or Asia is, under FDA regulations, still permitted in the US, including artificial colourings, synthetic hormones, and GMO’s.

But bringing up the rear is those that have harnessed the power of online petitions, demonstrating success in recent years at pushing big companies to remove potentially harmful ingredients, as was the case with Bettina Elias Siegel’s ‘pink slime’ campaign to remove “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB) from US school canteens in 2012; or Mississippi schoolgirl Sarah Kavanagh’s plea to PepsiCo to drop brominate vegetable oil from Gatorade in 2013.

Easy as it might sound, it’s not simply a case of launching a petition, tweeting it and standing by for an apology from the CEO. Take for example, the case of Kraft, which came up against two North Caroline food bloggers-cum-campaigners, Vani Hari of foodbabe.com and Lisa Leake of 100daysofrealfood.com. Their petition against Kraft’s addition of artificial dyes Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 in its American mac’n’cheese gained nearly 300,000 signatures. Kraft removed the dyesfrom three of its mac’n’cheese products – but only those targeted at children. Kraft spokeswoman Lynne Galia, who attended a meeting with Hari and Leake said: “While I can’t speculate on the future [of removing the colours from products] , as we consider new products, we’ll keep listening to our consumers.” So while petitioning and endless meeting requests work, in some cases it’s only to a certain extent.

Hari’s most recent campaign targeted Subway and its inclusion of azodicarbonamide – since dubbed ‘the yoga mat compound’ – in its bread as a bleaching agent. Its other applications are as a foaming agent to increase the elasticity of yoga mats and shoe rubber, and when heated and consumed, is reportedly linked to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma. Hari’s concerns were piqued because of Subway’s slogan, “Eat fresh”; its endorsement by the First Lady Michelle Obama; and its close ties with athletes. “It’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter, said Hari. “And it’s definitely not “fresh”. Subway is using this ingredient as a bleaching agent and dough conditioner which allows them to produce bread faster and cheaper.” Subway has confirmed it will move the chemical from its dough, but has not confirmed when.

The toxicological significance of these ingredients still divides food experts and scientists, and that just because something is used in food and industry doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be consumed in moderation. The campaigners’ bottom line is that if an additive or ingredient is banned in one continent, why should America be any different?

The what’s-in-your-food campaigns appeal to a zeitgeist that spends much of its time online – sharing, clicking, reading and commenting on claims and advice that’s easily embroiling. There’s a real danger of being overwhelmed and shocked at what’s out there, and it has the power to provoke a compulsion to check the labels in your cupboards and do a full body cleanse. But the difference in standards between Europe and Australia, compared to America, gives cause for concern to consumers on the web who are faced with convincing arguments and words that are tricky to pronounce. The targeted companies are responding (eventually), responding to calls for transparency and change, and rethinking their recipes, and perhaps that’s all the proof consumers need.

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