Social Media as a Megaphone to Pressure the Food Industry - NYTimes.com

Renee Shutters with her son Trenton. She omitted all foods containing petroleum-based dyes from her son’s diet a few years ago.

By STEPHANIE STROM

Renee Shutters has long worried that food dyes — used in candy like blue M&M’s — were hurting her son, Trenton.

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Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

Trenton Shutters eating candy that has none of the artificial dyes that make him ill.

She testified before the Food and Drug Administration, but nothing happened. It wasn’t until she went online, using a petition with the help of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that her pleas to remove artificial dyes from food seemed to be heard.

Mars, the candy’s maker, is now hinting that it may soon replace at least one of the dyes with an alternative derived from seaweed.

“I’ve really thought about calling them,” Ms. Shutters said about Mars. “I’m not trying to be this horrible person. What I’m really thinking is that this is an opportunity for their company to lead what would be an awesome publicity coup by taking these dyes out of their products.”

While the F.D.A. continues to allow certain dyes to be used in foods, deeming them safe, parents and advocacy groups have been using websites and social media as powerful megaphones to force titans of the food industry to reconsider the ingredients in their foods and the labeling and processing of their products. In several instances in the last year or so, major food companies and fast-food chains have shifted to coloring derived from spices or other plant-based sources, or changed or omitted certain labels from packaging.

Matthew Egol, a partner at Booz & Company, the consulting firm, said that while food companies had benefited from social media to gain rapid insight into trends, data on what products to introduce and which words to use in marketing, they also had been the target of complaints that sometimes become magnified in an online environment.

Mr. Egol said companies were approaching the negative feedback they get with new tools that help them assess the risks posed by consumer criticism. “Instead of relying on a P.R. firm, you have analytical tools to quantify how big an issue it is and how rapidly it’s spreading and how influential the people hollering are,” he said. “Then you can make a decision about how to respond. It happens much more quickly.”

From Cargill’s decision to label packages of its ground beef that contain “pink slime,” or what the industry prefers to call finely textured meat, to PepsiCo’s decision to replace brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade with a natural additive at the behest of a teenager, corporations are increasingly capitulating to consumer demands.

Companies are reluctant to admit a direct connection between the crusades of consumers like Ms. Shutters or Vani Hari, a blogger known as the Food Babe, and their decisions to tweak products, but the link seems clear. More than 140,000 people have signed Ms. Shutters’s petition on petroleum-based food dyes, and dozens have commented on Ms. Hari’s posts about some of the ingredients in items on Chick-fil-A’s menu.

“We’ve always tried to be a customer-focused organization,” said David B. Farmer, vice president for product strategy and development at Chick-fil-A. “What has clearly changed is some of the channels of communications, which wasn’t a factor in the past like it is today. We’ve had to adapt to that.”

Two years ago, Ms. Hari marveled in a blog post about the nearly 100 ingredients in a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich and took issue with some of them, like MSG, artificial colors and TBHQ, or tertiary butylhydroquinone, which is used as a preservative in many foods.

“TBHQ is a derivative of butane,” she said in a telephone interview. “The F.D.A. says TBHQ cannot exceed 0.02 percent of fats and oils in a product, but consumers who are eating a sandwich that has it plus French fries and other things that also have it in a single meal may be getting more than that.” She followed that post with another, offering a recipe her readers could use to make a chicken sandwich that is a pretty fair imitation of Chick-fil-A’s — but with only 13 ingredients, none of them artificial.

Chick-fil-A eventually responded, inviting Ms. Hari in October 2012 to spend a day at its headquarters in Atlanta, where she discussed her concern about some ingredients as well as larger issues like the use of chicken from animals whose feed contains antibiotics and the potential for labeling products that have genetically engineered components.

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