When Food Scares Drive the Sales Pitch

A dubious milk scandal in Australia demonstrates how quickly marketers can seize upon public fears to serve corporate interests.



The exposé was incisive, frightening, and a bit self-righteous: "Much of the milk on our supermarket shelves have been modified with a secret ingredient the milk industry doesn't want us to know about." Aired by an Australian current affairs program in 2008, it aimed to educate consumers about permeate, a watery by-product of milk processing made up of lactose, vitamins, and minerals that critics say was used to water down milk.

Once the veil had been lifted, the public demanded better, and last month two major Australian milk brands, Dairy Farmers and Pura, declared that they are officially going "permeate-free."

Pura's accompanying campaign reads like a dutiful response to the criticism, their elimination of permeate a move toward making superior products available to consumers. "Our milk is not diluted with permeate," the company proudly proclaims, "and therefore it's less processed and closer to how it is on the farm." It's a clear victory, in other words, for healthy, natural food.

But just as friendly Old MacDonald began to skip off into the sunset with his smiling dairy cows, Dr. Frank Sherkat, a milk and dairy expert at RMIT University in Melbourne, showed up, cattle prod in hand, with a well-reasoned plea for common sense. Pura's new marketing strategy, so his accusation goes, is no more than a gimmick that plays off public fears. Permeate, he says, is simply used to standardize protein and fat proportions, far from what the campaign would have you imagine is some kind of modern additive corrupting otherwise wholesome milk. Pura itself acknowledges, albeit quietly, that the truth is nowhere near as dire. Its website asks, "Is permeate bad?" and then answers its own question: "No."

The whole non-affair is reminiscent of the sudden outcry over "pink slime," which earlier this year went from being a standard, if largely unrecognized, hamburger filler to being an egregious effort of the meat industry to pull one over on consumers. As a vegetarian who already has a beef with the meat industry (pardon the pun), I wasn't too shocked to learn about what is officially called "lean finely textured beef," but in truth, the news wasn't as scandalous as it appeared. The U.S.D.A., along with other food industry experts, insists that LFTB is safe and healthy. Safeway, to give just one example among many, got rid of pink slime anyway, acknowledging the fact that it was a non-issue -- yet boasting, in the statement it released, that the supermarket chain "is committed to providing our customers with the highest-quality products."

As so much of the food production industry is shrouded in mystery, it's easy to have doubts about what we're "really" consuming, making us especially susceptible to marketers' doublespeak. Decoding their health claims and boasts, as a result, becomes yet another challenge for consumers. Take, for example, the allure of chicken that's labeled "hormone free." Sounds great, but the producers aren't doing us any favors. They're just obeying the law: according to official USDA regulations, that claim can only be made if directly followed by the statement, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry."

High fructose corn syrup is another term likely to cause a visceral, negative reaction in consumers. And while the sweet stuff certainly isn't good for you, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that it "has the same sugars composition as other 'benign' fructose-glucose sweeteners such as sucrose [also known as ordinary table sugar], honey, and fruit juice concentrates and dietary sources such as fruits and juices." Thus, claims that foods and beverages are healthier or more natural because they're sweetened with "real sugar" are bogus. It's worth noting as well that the Food and Drug Administration declared, in 2008, that the presence of high fructose corn syrup does not automatically disqualify a product from being able to declare itself 'natural.' As of yet, in fact, the F.D.A. hasn't been able to define the term at all.

Keep this all in mind as the F.D.A.'s new ban on BPA in baby bottles and plastic cups goes into effect. We know that BPA is best avoided, but products absent the industrial chemical may still contain -- and emit -- chemicals with estrogenic activity, or EA. The results of a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives put it simply: "Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled -- independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source -- leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA-free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products."

Still feeling reassured?