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READ ALL ABOUT IT: by Pettus L. Read

by Pettus L. Read – Director of Communications for Tennessee Farm Bureau

When Is Natural Considered Natural

Trying to get acquainted with her first grade students at the start of school, a teacher recently asked them to tell her what has been the hardest thing they have ever tried to do in their short lives. Expecting to get the usual answers such as learning to spell their names or tie their shoes, she went around the room letting each child talk about their most difficult event.

They all had been uneventful until she got to one little boy who was in very deep thought. After finally getting his attention and asking him to tell everyone about his challenge, he wrinkled his nose and said, “Well, I guess I would have to say the hardest thing I have tried, and learned from it, is you just can’t baptize a cat.”

Attempting to understand and deal with food issues as an agriculturalist is about like the little boy’s attempts at trying to baptize the family cat. There is no way to get everyone on the same page and with today’s many methods of communication, along with social media, trying to correct false information once the “cat is out of the bag” is pretty much impossible. It also seems that each day the terminology also changes to a point that I really don’t understand how those who market food products can ever get right what you may find in a box on a grocery shelf.

Over the years, I have been one who has sent out numerous warnings over ridiculous lawsuits that seem to cause undue harm to no one but the innocent. If you will remember back to the time when the tobacco suits made all the publicity and tobacco companies were forced to pay out billions, I asked the question how long would it be before our food enjoyments would be attacked. Well, it is beginning to happen and the scary part for myself is it happened quicker than I would have thought. It is being reported by corporate communication specialist Richard Levick that some of the same attorneys who took on the large tobacco manufacturers and won, are now, with the help from consumer activists once again, going after even more big money. This time it is this country’s large food companies for getting the wording wrong on their labels.

The big push these days is for “natural” foods. If you walk down a grocery store aisle the word “natural” is on everything from chewy grain bars to toothpicks, and if I had to guess, the toothpicks would be about the only thing that would pass the activists’ test for being all natural. Levick reports that General Mills is being sued because their Nature Valley items, which I find to be very tasty while working out on the farm, have processed ingredients in them so they shouldn’t be allowed to use the “natural” label on their products. Seems a couple of mothers out in California have a problem with that word being used and found a group that happens to know a good lawyer and you pretty well know the rest of the story. My suggestion to the mothers would have been to not buy the products if you didn’t like them and find something more natural, like a good toothpick or something. But, that is, of course, too simple and so they are in the process of trying to baptize a cat.

I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of labels when it comes to advertising. Like when you see a box that the label claims it is made with “real fruit.” You have to know that a box is not going to have a fresh apple, pear or any other fruit inside, and whatever fruit it does contain is not going to resemble anything close to real. You just have to understand that when they started making it, the fruit was real at that time, but over time it just became a facsimile of the real thing.

Either way, just like the days during the tobacco lawsuits, attorneys are starting to smell smoke and it is not coming from the boy’s restroom this time around. They smell the aroma of things cooking in some of our major food distributor’s advertising campaigns with allegedly deceptive wording on products. In his Fast Company article, Tobacco Warriors Set Their Sights On The Grocery Store, Levick made some suggestion on what companies could do that are now facing these problems with labeling and activists. He says, “Companies in the crosshairs-and those just outside them-must think differently about labeling practices and how they communicate with consumers on a level above the customary marketing relationship. They themselves must act like consumer advocates, describing their labeling practices and explaining their ingredients with greater clarity and credibility.”

That is very good advice that could help avoid “real fruit” and “natural” problems in the future. Baptizing the cat for the little fellow may have been easier to accomplish by the time this is all over.

Pettus L. Read is editor of Tennessee Home & Farm magazine and Tennessee Farm Bureau News. He may be contacted by e-mail at pread@tfbf.com

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