Allergy-increasing food dyes. Cancer-causing dairy products. Canned soups overloaded with chemicals that mimic powerful human hormones. All of these products have been available on supermarket shelves across America, and all of them have been alleged to contribute to health dangers. Though the federal government hasn’t stepped in, many such products have been changed and their potentially dangerous ingredients removed from the market – and all because ordinary consumers took a stand.
If you have ever felt like this after learning that a company has included unnecessary and potentially hazardous ingredients in your family’s food, you could be one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who contributes to making a difference. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places
Too often in the case of defective or hazardous products, we look to the government to protect us. Yet the process of changing federal regulations in order to get hazardous products off the market is often a lengthy one. Between bureaucratic delays, waiting periods, and complex product testing procedures, removing potential safety hazards related to products can literally take years.
In fact, until the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in January 2011, the FDA didn’t have the authorization to require that companies recall their products, and consumers were instead forced to rely on companies to comply with FDA requests to issue recalls, according to Vetri-Science Laboratories. Even now, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the FDA must first gather sufficient data to conclude that the problem is significant enough to warrant a recall and allow the manufacturers of potentially hazardous products to issue recalls voluntarily, as well as allowing these manufacturers to dispute any government-imposed recall. The FDA has taken such heat for failing to prevent unsafe medical devices from entering the market – and, more alarming, patients’ bodies – that “a panel of medical experts said the government should abandon its system for approving most medical devices in the U.S., because it offers patients no assurance of safety,” ABC News reported in July 2011.
Many consumers mistakenly believe that products are taken off the market by the FDA as soon as a potential safety hazard becomes apparent. In reality, the process is a slow one – and it could be your family suffering the consequences. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
What all of this means is that, in the event that a product is truly dangerous, steps taken to rectify the problem are almost entirely reactive. Not until January 2013 did the FDA finally release drafts of regulations that, if enacted, would allow the agency more authority to prevent outbreaks of illnesses due to contaminated food, TIME reported. Though this is a step in the right direction, it has come after a full year’s delay, and it is still not enough to protect the American people. When it comes to ingredients that aren’t contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, or another foodborne illness but are still equally dangerous with long-term use, these new regulations are unlikely to help. The first victims of a hazardous product or ingredient have been hurt long before the FDA even begins the convoluted process of intervening, and in the meantime, more people get hurt – people like ourselves and our children.
The Role of Social Media
Luckily for consumers, FDA regulation is not the only way to hold companies accountable for the ingredients they use in their products. “An increasing number of petitioners have taken on food companies with help of the Internet,” reported CBS News. As opposed to the convoluted process of waiting for government intervention, the pressure from consumer outcries and backlash can grow almost exponentially, even overnight. Ultimately, enough of this pressure can force the hand of companies that might not voluntarily take the most safety-minded courses of action.
These corporations answer to us consumers, not because they are legally obligated to do so, but because we have the economic and public power to impact their sales and reputations – and that’s good news for consumers, because it means these companies are more likely to produce safer products in the future.
“You can figure out what customers want very easily,” expert Doreen Lorenzo told Discovery’s Curiosity.com, arguing that social media has altered the process of product development in its entirety. Customers willingly and vocally tell companies what they do and, perhaps, more importantly, do not want in their products. Social media has made this interactive customer relationship more accessible and visible.
Social media allows us to convey this sentiment (Photo Credit: Corbis Images) just by doing this:
(Photo Credit: Corbis Images).
While many companies are embracing this free business guidance so that they do not waste time and expenses on developing unpopular new products, consumers face a much greater struggle trying to change existing products. Is it because companies shy away from change, fearing that any alteration of a popular product could jinx its future success? Is it because an existing fan base will fight back against any announcement of change? Or is it because, when it comes to iconic food products specifically, companies and consumers alike are thinking with their brains, their hearts, and their stomachs?
A Cheesy Example
Perhaps the recent social-media-based consumer effort to make headlines is the quest to cut potentially dangerous dyes from Kraft’s packaged boxes of macaroni and cheese.
See the unnaturally bright orange-yellow color? That’s not the cheese turning your pasta that shade. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The uproar began on March 5, 2012, when mothers and nutrition bloggers Vani Hari and Lisa Leake posted a Youtube video explaining their concerns about food dyes yellow #5 and yellow #6 and urging others to sign their petition to convince Kraft to remove the additives from U.S. packages of macaroni and cheese. Due to serious concerns about safety, these dyes are already banned in many European countries, and versions of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese sold overseas do not contain the allegedly harmful products.
The harm of using yellow #5 and yellow # 6 dyes is still being debated, but “the Mom bloggers believe that these dyes are harmful to children and may cause hyperactivity, asthma, allergies, and migraines,” CBS News reported. “Yellow Nos. 5 and 6 can cause hypersensitivity, or allergic reactions, and contain carcinogens called Benzidine and 4-amino-biphenyl,” the report continues, citing the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s study Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.
Does mac ‘n’ cheese really need to be unnaturally yellow to be appetizing? Can’t we just enjoy other aspects of the dish, like the delicious taste? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Hari and Leake’s video went viral and the cause captured nationwide attention from social media users and major news media such as ABC News. On March 5, more than 2,000 people had signed the petition. By the next day, the number of online signatures had jumped to more than 17,500. March 7 brought the number of supporters to 30,000, and by March 10, more than 200,000 Americans had signed the petition. Hari and Leake may have taken little steps – an online video shorter than three minutes long and a simple blog post – but the outpouring of public support for their demand proved that social media allows you to think big and make a huge impact even with small actions.
Not everyone is on Hari and Leake’s side, though. “In America’s food wars, nothing is safe anymore, not even the venerable Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, the stovetop staple of children, college students and single men around the world,” lamented The Washington Examiner. While so many Americans have been eager to learn about the dangers and call for the removal of the additives, others take a different perspective.
The “If You Don’t Like a Product, Use Something Else” Argument
Our nation was founded on the basis of certain rights, and along with that right to free speech and freedom of choice goes the opportunity to purchase, eat, and feed our families as we so choose. For some, the push to remove yellow dyes from Kraft Macaroni & Cheese packages comes across as a way of stepping on this right. “If you don’t like the yellow dyes, don’t buy the food,” they argue.
Yes, you can check the labels on every food product you purchase – but should you have to? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Why do people like Hari and Leake feel a need to make the matter a national movement rather than a personal choice? Perhaps because the only way to make a change is by making a stand.
Does Geography Impact Consumer Safety?
A major point that Hari and Leake are fuming over in this instance – the same point that empowered consumers everywhere make in a variety of cases – is the difference between product ingredients over various geographical locations. When governments do regulate products, their procedures are theoretically based on the same science, yet their regulations only extend as far as national boundaries.
“The point is the food industry has already formulated safer, better products, but they are voluntarily only selling inferior versions of these products here in America,” wrote Hari, author of The Food Babe and contributing writer for Leake’s blog 100 Days of Real Food, about the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese petition.
Consumer Empowerment and Successful Campaigns
Whether or not Kraft alters the mac ‘n’ cheese recipe to cut additives, the age of consumer empowerment has already brought massive changes within the food and personal care product industry. Just a few of the highlights include:
- Campbell’s soup is now BPA-free, according to Forbes. The chemical, which mimics estrogen, was associated with later “hyperactive, depressive, and anxious behavior” in female children born to mothers who consumed BPA during pregnancy. Between the efforts of advocacy group Breast Cancer Fund and public backlash from consumers, the pressure to remove BPA convinced Campbell’s to cut the ingredient.
- Monsanto, which supplies dairy products to such well-known establishments as Starbucks, no longer exposes cows to artificial growth hormones, according to The Organic Consumers Association.
- PepsiCo removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from Gatorade sports drinks, according to CBS News. More than 200,000 people signed an online petition to discontinue use of the flame-retardant material that is already banned in other nations.
- Starbucks no longer uses cochineal extract to color pink and red foods and beverages, according to CBS News. Though the FDA approved the use of the additive, consumers were outraged and disgusted to learn that the coloring was essentially made from crushed beetles.
- Johnson & Johnson discontinued the use of carcinogens in personal care products, according to The Green Life. In August 2012, longstanding public outcries led the manufacturer to officially announce that it would discontinue the use of cancer-causing ingredients such as formaldehyde and parabens, as well as other unnecessary chemicals and preservatives, from such popular brands as Neutrogena and Listerine.
When consumers take a stand, you can feel relieved knowing that food and personal care products are being made safer for your whole family. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
The ‘Dark Side’ of Consumer Backlash
There is one danger to consumer empowerment. Having power without having information is useless at best and dangerous at worst. That’s why it is more important than ever that we as consumers become educated about the products we purchase and their potential effects on our bodies, our lives, and our families.
The Internet provides a wealth of opportunities to endorse initiatives that are wasteful or downright ridiculous. And while it’s fine to sign a petition all in fun – like the one demanding that the U.S. government research and create plans to build a real-life Death Star, a la Star Wars – not every absurd proposal is an innocent joke.
Did you know that a chemical called dihydrogen monoxide, often found in food products and everyday items such as Styrofoam, has been determined to corrode metals, exist in cancer tumors, and cause death if inhaled? Did you know that the term dihydrogen monoxide is really a fancy name for water? The popular hoax that warns people of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide and urges them to call for a ban on the chemical has been floating around on and off the Internet since at least 1988. While the worst that can come from such a proposal is the potential for social embarrassment, it illustrates that even concrete facts can be distorted and misrepresented to convince consumers to take uneducated action.
What exactly are you protesting or petitioning about? If you don’t take the time to educate yourself, the truth is, you might not be sure. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
There’s no denying that the Internet is still ambiguous territory where anonymity and the power of immediate self-publishing of information allow anyone to be virtually anything they want. It is becoming increasingly easier to be an expert, and when these self-appointed authorities have an agenda to push, the empowerment of uneducated consumers becomes dangerous.
Being Empowered – and Educated
Writer Alan Moore once said, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” He based the well-known quote off of the writing of a famous historical figure. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
For modern consumers, though, the word “government” should be replaced with “companies.” Unscrupulous corporations have become a main source of fear. We are just well-educated enough now to know that some companies don’t want us to be educated. We no longer trust the businesses that built our economy to put our best interests first, understanding instead the likelihood that quick profits will trump responsibility – unless we do something about it.
We shouldn’t have to be afraid to use the products on our retail store shelves. We shouldn’t have to question what a food or cosmetic will do to our health or whether these products will harm our families. Becoming an educated consumer takes time and commitment, and companies may use tricky tactics, like intentionally confusing language, to make the process more difficult. Without education, though, there is no true empowerment. This means take a moment to read labels, research ingredients, and fact-check the claims cited by online “experts.” Your health and your family are worth the few extra minutes it takes to make sure the products you’re buying are the safest possible purchases.