FoodPolitik: Food activists’ circular firing squads

Richard Berman | President, Berman and Company

Washington is full of self-interested political characters, and it’s always amusing to watch ambitious schemers with common enemies harm each other instead. Inside the beltway, this is called a “circular firing squad.”

There’s no shortage of this in-fighting in flailing political campaigns. One recent example was the public scrum over President Obama’s birth certificate.

It’s natural to think that the whole “birther” phenomenon was cooked up by right-wing conspiracy theorists, but it was actually the brainchild of Hillary Clinton partisans during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Even the White House’s late April disclosure of Obama’s long-form birth certificate didn’t quell the noise level completely, with some continuing to allege fraud. The smart money says this issue — created by supporters of Obama’s current secretary of state — will remain on the national radar for some people through the 2012 elections.

America’s food fringe has its share of circular firing squads too.

VegNews magazine — which, as you probably guessed, advocates against eating meat, cheese, or using any animal products — recently found itself embroiled in a major scandal (“major” within its tiny cultural niche, anyway).

Bloggers discovered that VegNews was airbrushing meat and dairy foods out of “stock” photography, sanitizing them just enough to credibly accompany vegan recipes. (Apparently, some animal activists were shocked to learn that a juicy burger looks more tempting than faux-meat soy loaf.)

Among the 1 percent of Americans who eat a PETA-approved diet, mass outrage ensued. And VegNews, sensing the loss of its subscription base, issued a groveling retraction.

You’d think vegans would have a great enough sense of common purpose to avoid targeting their own kind.

But to a certain degree, it’s predictable. This is what happens when you look at dinner as a political statement instead of as — well, food.

Some food revolutionaries, to be fair, are well intentioned and genuinely look for ways to improve agriculture, even if their solutions aren’t terribly practical. But there’s definitely a current of holier-than-thou snobbery running through today’s “foodie” movement. And the food-politics stage is seldom big enough for two giant egos.

A celebrity chef announces an all-organic menu. Then a school lunch program (usually somewhere like Berkeley) limits itself to organic and “local.” Eventually the one-upmanship results in someone marketing organic, local, and “heirloom” produce. Grass-fed, organic, locally raised, artisanal beef, anyone? You get the picture.

The results for organic-food crusaders are mutually destructive squabbling, fractured messages, and a confused consumer base. The same thing happens when one organic interest directly attacks another, as we’ve seen with the Cornucopia Institute’s broadsides against large, “corporate” organic marketers.

We see some flavor of this with egg marketers. Some of them may find it appetizing, for competitive advantage if no other reason, to embrace “cage free” and organic niches and promote their supposed benefits in a way that undercuts larger, “conventional” egg interests.

This may — underline “may” — be a winning strategy in the short-term. But in the long run, profit margins on cage-free eggs will creep down closer to those of regular eggs. And the whole industry will be left more vulnerable to vegan-promotion organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), whose foot in the door will eventually become two feet, and then a leg.

For the uninitiated, an HSUS vice president admitted a few years ago that her organization’s goal was to “get rid of the entire [animal agriculture] industry” by “promoting veganism.”

She now runs the “Global Animal Partnership,” which Whole Foods created to legitimize its feel-good animal welfare niche marketing and help it cling to its elite status.

Whole Foods, of course, is the paragon of “progressive” food. But it still has circular firing squad problems.

Anti-biotechnology activists now claim that many products in Whole Foods stores are “contaminated” with genetically modified organisms. This might be technically true, but GMOs are harmless. Americans have been eating them for 15 years without credible evidence of any health risks.

Ultimately, Whole Foods’ purer-than-thou positioning hasn’t insulated it from pitchfork-wielding ideologues. The self-proclaimed “Millions Against Monsanto” movement even hints that an organized boycott of Whole Foods could come as soon as October.

Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that if an opponent wants to hang himself, you should give him some rope. When annoying “foodie” factions publicly bicker over who’s the most gastronomically chaste, sometimes the best thing to do is grab some non-organic popcorn and watch the fireworks.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit www.BermanCo.com.

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