The pot calls the kettle “big”

Turncoat. It was the typical “greenwashing” rebuke, directed at a multi-billion-dollar food company now claiming it will clean up its act by seeking to reduce and eliminate its “unnatural” ingredients.

The accused? Dannon, which, in a July press release, officially communicated to its customers its profound change of heart. To wit:

The dressing-down Dannon got in response pulled no punches.

“This is the beginning of the transformation of the company’s Danimals, Oikos and Dannon brands, which over time will evolve to contain non-GMO ingredients to add more choices to the most diverse range of yogurts available in the U.S. Additionally, starting now and expected to be completed within several months, all Dannon products in the U.S. that have GMO ingredients will be clearly labeled as such, independent of actions taken (or not) by the federal government.”

And by the end of 2018, the company pledges it will have gone “one step further” by ensuring “that the cows that supply Dannon’s milk for these three flagship brands will be fed non-GMO feed, a first for a leading non-organic yogurt maker. This will involve the conversion of an estimated 80,000 acres of farmland to produce non-GMO crops in order to provide non-GMO feed for the milk used to make Dannon, Oikos and Danimals® brand products.”

The dressing-down Dannon got in response pulled no punches. Here is an excerpt of a letter Dannon’s CEO and president Mariano Lozano received this past month:

“In our view your pledge amounts to marketing flimflam, pure and simple. It appears to be an attempt to gain lost sales from your competitors by using fear-based marketing and trendy buzzwords, not through any actual improvement in your products. Such disingenuous tactics and marketing puffery are certainly not becoming a company as well-known and respected as Dannon. Neither farmers nor consumers should be used as pawns in food marketing wars.”

This appears to be akin to the pot calling the kettle “Big,” and “Self-serving,” and it’s surprising in a couple of ways.

However, the authors of the letter, written with self-described “deep concern and great dismay,” were not from, say, the Cornucopia Institute, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or any of the other usual suspects in the good food advocacy movement. They were the presidents of the National Milk Producers Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

This appears to be akin to the pot calling the kettle “Big,” and “Self-serving,” and it’s surprising in a couple of ways.

First, this isn’t Dannon’s first time at the flimflam rodeo. (The company wrangled intensely with FTC in 2010 over claims it was falsely advertising health benefits related to Activia yogurt, among other legal battles.) So when a gigantic food company like Dannon gets on the anti-GMO bandwagon with a bunch of “free-from by…” promises, no need to suppress the skepticism reflex.

Second, the gripe of the signatories is not that Dannon is insincere in its pledge to take such measures.  The gripe is that, by boasting about doing so, the company is lending credence to those who employ scare tactics around GMOs when in fact such kinds of current biotechnology are the path to a healthier planet for all.

“Though touted with great fanfare as a corporate commitment to sustainability and environmental improvement, in reality the Dannon Pledge amounts to a major step backward in truly sustainable food production. Indeed, the reason the vast majority of American farmers grow crops improved with biotechnology is precisely because these crops are more sustainable than the ones they used to grow.”

In other words, Dannon’s sin is in having broken rank with the position of most of its conventional suppliers  by pandering (in word and eventually in deed) to what they consider to be a dangerous misconception when it comes to GMOS. All in the name of aiming to differentiate itself from its competitors. Just another empty marketing ploy.

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Jeffrey Kittay After teaching literature at Yale, Kittay founded and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, which the New York Times called “a hip trade journal for the cerebral set.” It won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He was subsequently part of the adjunct faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, and the corporate board of Maine’s Portland Press Herald.

Kittay holds a Ph.D. from NYU and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College.