retail news in context, analysis with attitude

I found that this email from an MNB reader put into words a lot of what I've been thinking but had not expressed adequately:

I think I must comment anonymously, since I wasn’t smart enough to have a career that doesn’t depend on companies who would choke on hearing my name attached to some of what I believe.

The two stories (preventing state labeling and substituting a voluntary set of federal label guidelines for GMOs on one hand and the reality of “blueberries” and other flavors on the other) are clearly related.

Of course the industry wants “voluntary” labels; the vast majority of self-policed industry practices are a license to ignore whatever you don’t like or don’t want to pay for unless your company is culturally committed to honesty. This has been true for pollution controls, drug formulation and pricing, mine safety, automobile design, ingredient honesty, advertising claims, and almost every other form of endeavor where the few bad actors make the rest of any industry look bad. Nonetheless business reflexively doesn’t want intrusion, inspection, or anything else to interfere, and their trade groups all go along.

As a great Supreme Court justice once wrote, “your freedom to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose”. If the food industry actually WANTED honest and transparent they could have it by delivering it. If they don’t, they won’t deliver, and no voluntary legislation is anything other than a fig-leaf to mask that they do not want to be forced to tell the truth EVEN WHEN THE TRUTH IS nothing to be ashamed about. They do not want to risk losing decision rights. I get it. But my nose is out there at the end of their fist and laws set standards for a reason.

As for “disasters of Biblical proportions” from state by state labelling, that is nonsense. It costs a few extra dollars to distribute and label cans and bottles differently in states with different returnable regulations. The industry howled about it. And then just dealt with it. This is not all that different. And of course the Vermont law, like many such, is not designed to be a separate standard – it is designed to trigger other states into joining until a federal standard is achieved, either in law or de-facto. The model for this was California’s laws on car pollution many years ago – when a significant fraction of the market demands compliance, it becomes practical to comply everywhere.
But I work in the food and retail industry and have for half a century. I love it. I believe in it. But I do not trust everything it does or everyone in it.

I actually oppose GMO crops because of the freedom to apply  excessive pesticides it creates – a pretty good science case has been made that this is what is killing natural pollinators like bees. I do not really oppose engineered fish or whatever is next. But I am entitled to make up my mind on a case by case basis. And as another leader once said, “Trust. But Verify”.

I actually think that if we have a national problem, it is that people are more concerned with their own fists than other people's noses. That applies to industry's approach to GMOs, but it also applies to a lot of other things as well. But that may be a larger thought for another time and place.
KC's View: