retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Though John Belushi’s legendary “Animal House” character Bluto would surely scoff at this particular usage of the term, “web food fight” has now entered the social networking lexicon. In the 1978 classic movie, food literally flew across the Faber College cafeteria. Today, consumers are launching salvos over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and petition sites such as Change.org.

The most recent web food fights began with backlash against Ashton Kutcher’s “brownface” commercial for Popchips, genetically modified ingredients in Kashi’s “natural” cereal, the “pink slime” meat controversy, and crushed bug extracts in a Starbucks specialty drink.

Different flashpoints – similar immediate results.

Consumer outrage was fast and furious, prompting the producers to scramble and make amends or promise to change. A closer look, however, shows that while the Popchips controversy generated headlines and thousands of YouTube hits, the resolution was simple. Popchips yanked the commercial and apologized to Indian-Americans and those who found Kutcher’s portrayal of “Raj” -- a Bollywood producer looking for a date – as racist and offensive. (Not to mention stupid, in my opinion. But then again Kutcher is the brand’s “president of pop culture.” Enough said.)

The other cases are more complex. The Kashi kerfuffle commenced when the owner of The Green Grocer in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, pulled the popular cereal from his shelves, posting a note saying he learned Kashi used genetically engineered soybeans that are resistant to an herbicide. A photo of the sign went viral, and blogs and Facebook pages lit up. Kashi responded with a video on Facebook, defending the product as being “natural” (but not “organic”) under FDA regulations. Within a week, the Kellogg Co. unit announced an initiative promising that by the end of 2014, all Kashi GOLEAN cereals and Kashi Chewy Granola Bars will be Non-GMO Project Verified and by 2015 all new products will “contain at least 70% USDA organic certified ingredients.”

The Starbucks crushed beetle brouhaha began when a vegan barista tipped a vegan blogger that the company was using “cochineal beetle extract” to color its Strawberry & Crème Frapuccino and other products red. A chorus of “gross” and “disgusting” erupted online and more than 6,500 people signed a Change.org petition. Starbucks, to its credit, reacted quickly and promised to switch a tomato-based lycopene dye by July in U.S. stores.

Which brings us to “pink slime,” so named for the ammonia-treated beef scraps showing up in hamburger at U.S. schools. Bettina Ellis Siegel, a blogger, former lawyer and Houston mother of two, started a Change.org petition against the filler and had 260,000 signatures in no time. Soon the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it would let schools order beef without the scrap meat, and producers of said beef were crying foul and shuttering plants. The fallout continues.

All these case studies point to the lightning quick speed and clout of the consumer’s wrath on the internet. And in the case of Kashi, Starbucks and “pink slime,” that transparency and honest, accurate labeling is clearly the only acceptable response.

In these food fights, the game may be rigged - with technology assuring that in the long run, the only real winners will be consumers.

Comments? Send me an email at kate@morningnewsbeat.com.
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