Nothing important changes without a fight. And in the world of food politics, 2014 brought quite a few battles and a respectable amount of real-world change for the better. Behold, the year’s top food fights:
1. Big Mayonnaise vs. Eggless Mayo
Hampton Creek—the Bay Area-based food technology company that has acquired over $120 million in funding since 2011—epitomizes the disruptive spirit that many food technology companies share. In an effort to reduce the number of hens raised in battery cages, Hampton Creek has gone about creating a line of products using plant-based protein instead, including mayonnaise (Just Mayo), cookie dough (Just Cookies), and a scrambled egg alternative, tentatively named Just Scramble, that’s in the final stages of testing.
Over the last year, Just Mayo has been gaining in popularity and has seen considerable uptick in sales when it began appearing on the shelves of Whole Foods, Dollar Tree, and Walmart, among other major retailers. Eventually it caught the attention of mayonnaise juggernaut Hellmann’s, owned by Unilever.
In October, Unilever filed a lawsuit accusing Hampton Creek of false advertising for calling itself “mayo.” In its legal complaint, Unilever acknowledged that “Just Mayo already is stealing market share from Hellmann’s.”
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a standard of identity for mayonnaise—it must contain egg yolks and at least 65 percent oil by weight—it does not have one for “mayo.” Even more embarrassing for Hellmann’s, it was discovered that the company had several products it called “mayonnaise” which didn’t meet the FDA’s requirements either. D’oh.
Meanwhile, Hampton Creek received loads of free publicity and new supporters. One media monetization expert estimated the startup garnered $3 million worth in advertising per day as a result of the lawsuit’s coverage. A change.org petition written by TV chef Andrew Zimmern in defense of Hampton Creek also received over 100,000 signatures in seven weeks.
It looked like Unilever was gearing up for a legal battle in 2015, but last week the company announced it was dropping the lawsuit. Unilever’s press release lobbed a few passive aggressive digs (“we believe Hampton Creek will take the appropriate steps in labeling its products going forward),” while throwing in some shameless self-congratulatory remarks (“We share a vision with Hampton Creek of a more sustainable world”).
2. Soda vs. Berkeley
For years, the soft drink industry has been on a seemingly untouchable golden throne. It claims Santa Claus as an unofficial spokesperson, sponsors some of the most popular television sporting events, and has even ingratiated itself with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Until recently, it had also successfully defeated a whole slew of proposed laws involving taxes, size-limits, and other limits to its reign.
Lately, however, Big Soda has been slipping. First, came the news that sales are on a downward slide. Then, the backlash to a campaign that aimed to educate Americans on how much physical activity it requires to burn off a can of Coke . Finally, in November, the industry suffered a major defeat when Berkeley, California became the first city in the U.S. to successfully pass a soda tax.
The law, when it takes effect, will require retailers to charge one additional penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
The fact that three quarters of Berkeley voters supported the tax was especially newsworthy considering the fight the soda industry put up, which included spending $2.4 million, creating an astroturf front group called the Coalition for an Affordable City, hiring people to hold signs at rallies, and passing off their commissioned studies as impartial ones written by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Now, the question is: Will the tax take effect any time in the near future, or will it get blocked by lawsuits from the soda industry? Only time will tell.
3. The School Nutrition Association vs. Healthy School Lunch
The School Nutrition Association (SNA)—the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals—squared off against First Lady Michelle Obama and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act when it requested that Congress give school waivers allowing them to opt out of new, national healthier school lunch standards.
The New York Times even billed the SNA as “Washington’s loudest and most public critic of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”
In fact, SNA enthusiastically lobbied for the new rules back in 2010. So why the flip-flopping? As Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reported, half of the group’s $10 million budget comes courtesy of the food industry and “several former presidents of the organization said they are worried that food companies have influenced the group’s agenda over concerns that the nutrition standards for the $11 billion program will take a big bite out of sales of popular items like pizza and salty snacks.”
Indeed, the group’s 2014 conference was sponsored by Domino’s Pizza, General Mills, PepsiCo, ConAgra, Sara Lee, and ice cream producer Blue Bunny.
In the end, Big Food donations certainly paid off. Earlier this month, Congress provided exemptions to schools from whole grain requirements and stepped away from new sodium rules.
4. Big Food vs. the FDA
The food industry is known for championing “consumer awareness and knowledge,” but whether or not it means it is another question.
That apparent love for education was nowhere to be found when, earlier this year, the FDA proposed an updated Nutrition Facts label that would include grams of added sugar per serving—something that has been on many nutrition experts’ wish lists for years. Currently, naturally occurring and added sugars are lumped together as “sugar.”
There is an ever-growing body of research showing that high intakes of added sugar increase the risk of heart disease, raise blood pressure, and significantly up the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes. The food and beverage industries are aware of the science, but they collectively balked at the proposed label.
For example, Kellogg’s claimed that adding one additional line of information to the Nutrition Facts label would “confuse shoppers.” Food and beverage lobbies such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the International Food Information Council let the FDA know of their displeasure by presenting testimony to the FDA.
Comments on Nutrition Facts label 2.0 closed August 1 and the FDA should come back with a final draft of the rules at some point in 2015. If added sugars become a permanent fixture, it would certainly be a bitter pill for industry to swallow.
5. Low Fat vs. Low Carb (Round 3,927)
The diet wars continued this year thanks to a largely publicized study that declared low-carb diets superior to low-fat ones. As is to be expected, those entrenched in each of these respective camps either cheered the study or declared it as junk science.
Never mind that, as New York University professor and nutrition expert Dr. Marion Nestle told me, the so-called “low-fat” group was essentially eating the same percentage of fat consumed by the average American. And, as University of San Francisco pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig commented, the study failed to address many important questions.
These Groundhog Day-like debates that focus on one nutrient versus another are the food movement’s Achilles’ heel. First, they tend to ignore that the real culprit is highly processed food a staple in the American diet. To lose sight of this and declare that say, peaches, oats, avocados, or coconuts are “the problem” is misguided and gives the food industry an unwarranted pass.
Besides, when one nutrient is framed as the enemy, the food industry quickly develops more cheap, highly processed foods to fuel that fire (i.e., fat-free cookies and low-carb frozen pizza).
There are so many more important food system problems that need to change, like the exploitation of farmworkers, the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, fast food chains’ aggressive marketing to low-income minorities, or the meat industry’s endless list of abuses that have many independent ranchers and animal rights activists seeing eye to eye? Now those are battles worth having.
Here’s to more big fights and even bigger changes in 2015!