GMO Foods and the Free Market

I love it when The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page runs articles that flack for a particular business interest. They do it so badly, so transparently, that it’s almost funny to look behind the curtain and see what interest group they’re twisting facts, logic, and science to support. Right before Hurricane Katrina, for example, they ran a story about why it was economically sound to log cypress trees in the Louisiana bayous—no harm, no foul. Right after Katrina devastated New Orleans and large parts of Louisiana, however, they ran another article explaining why the cypress trees were essential for protecting the coastline. Gee, I wonder whose idea the first article was.

Delightfully Vague

Pepsi removes aspartameThe current focus of their op-ed misdirection is food and ingredients. On Saturday, Columnist Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. published an article called “Chipotle vs. Science” that criticized Pepsi for removing aspartame from its soda. He worried that they would start advertising their beverages as “aspartame free,” which he called a “delightfully vague” promise.

Well, actually, it’s delightfully specific for those people who, like me, consider aspartame a toxic substance that promotes inflammation in the body, spikes the glycemic index, and leads to obesity. What Pepsi is actually doing is responding to consumers who have figured this out and prefer their food without toxins, even if the decision is influenced by what he calls “faux food-safety campaigners on the make.” It also gives Pepsi a competitive advantage, something the free-market WSJ should understand pretty well

Next @HolmanJenkins takes on Chipotle Mexican Grill for the crime of removing genetically modified ingredients. This, my friends, seems to fall under the evil category of Marketing, or “puffery” rather than good business sense. Generally speaking, if your customers don’t want it, take it out so they’ll keep buying your product. End of discussion. And why don’t we want genetically modified foods? Mr. Jenkins says that we are eager to be fooled and have a “general level of idiocy.”

I won’t argue either of those points on behalf of the American public because I worry about a general level of idiocy when I look at the shopping cart behind me in the checkout line. (You can always tell when Mom’s away.) On the other hand, I will dispute his next contention, that “99% of the function of advertising is to remind customers that a product exists, not to deliver specific claims about it.”

Chipotle Burrito with no GMO ingrerdientsAfter reading this bit of marketing wisdom I fell on the floor laughing. Maybe that’s because I know something about advertising and have produced some of it for high tech companies but anyone who believes that bit of tripe not only knows nothing about advertising, he has never even watched Mad Men. Consider, however, that  Mr. Jenkins doesn’t believe that Chipotle’s ads are about the food at all; they’re about “the customer and his sense of entitlement and moral vanity.” Right. Because every consumer products company succeeds by insulting belittling and offending their customers.

You only thought you wanted to eat that burrito but actually you’re buying it because you feel entitled to get your moral vanity stroked.

It’s a good thing that Mr. Jenkins produces verbal puffery on behalf of corporations on the make for a living because he would be really bad at selling a product. He does, at the end, acknowledge that Chipotle is not “on a crusade for healthier eating but trying to sell more burritos.” Exactly. And you do that by giving the people what they want—or don’t want, as the case may be.

Follow-Up Nonsense

Today’s @WSJ includes an op-ed piece by Pamela G. Bailey called “Anti-GMO Cleanup Needed on Aisle 4” that is aimed at reinforcing the earlier nonsense. In it, she takes on the entire State of Vermont for passing a law last year that mandates the labeling of products that contain GMO ingredients. Now Ms. Bailey is not exactly objective on this issue as she is president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the group that has appealed a U.S. District Court decision allowing Vermont’s law to be implemented next year.

Vermont passes GMO labeling lawShe claims that the law doesn’t provide a right for consumers to know what they’re actually consuming because some foods are exempted. Also, Vermont’s shoppers can always buy USDA certified organic food. Sure. But what if they just want to enjoy some of their favorite brands without ingesting a suspicious ingredient? I personally like the fact that Cheerios—the only breakfast cereal I eat—has removed any GMO ingredients.

What Ms. Bailey really worries about is that Vermont will open the gate and other states will follow behind, including the 20 states that have already introduced GMO labeling bills. We’re not talking about banning GMO foods, mind you, just labeling them so that people know what they’re eating. Her solution is for Congress to pass a bill that sets a single, national standard for GMO labeling, such as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that has already been introduced.

This solution sounds  reasonable, although I’m confused about when the Free and Open Market is supposed to work on behalf of the economy and when the Federal government has to step in an impose national standards or violate states’ rights. Or maybe it’s just that having the Food and Drug Administration take authority for establishing “uniform, science-based labeling” means  the food industry only has to lobby Congress instead of spreading their money across 20 states (and counting). And I won’t get started on what “science-based” even means in today’s know-nothing, anti-science Congressional atmosphere.

So that’s The Wall Street Journal’s one-two punch on aspartame and GMO foods—so far, anyway. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next round.

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