One thing that’s clear about the growing dust-up over Kashi’s use of the work “natural” in its labeling is that marketers are being held to a higher standard of clarity than before. It’s not just consumer watchdogs issuing press releases and hoping they’ll garner a few paragraphs in the mainstream media. Consumers are taking to the digital ramparts and stories such as this are becoming larger than passing headlines in the 24-hour news cycle, as we most recently witnessed with the “pink slime” story.
“Kellogg is facing anger on social-media sites because of complaints that its popular Kashi brand of cold cereals doesn't live up to the company's ‘natural’ billing on ads and boxes,” reports Elizabeth Weise in USA Today. “The controversy went viral a week ago after a Rhode Island grocer tacked a note to one of his store shelves, telling customers he wouldn't sell the cereal because he found out the brand used genetically engineered, non-organic ingredients.”
“The information circulating is scientifically inaccurate and misleading because it was not based on actual testing of Kashi products but was instead general USDA data,” says a woman who identifies herself as “Keegan, a Kashi team member and nutritionist.” She continues: “We are confident that our products are free of substances that would cause a health risk to our consumers.”
Social media, of course, invite pure and unadulterated rage. Here’s a comment posted on Kashi’s Facebook page yesterday in reaction to the news.
“Eff you, liars! How DARE you make me feed genetically altered food to my one-year-old daughter? I'm going to my local Whole Foods AS SOON AS IT OPENS TODAY to talk to them, and I'm not going to rest until all KELLOGGS products are banished from their shelves nationwide.”
The unadulterated vitriol come from both sides, we should point out:
‘DIRTY HIPPIES !! You probably refuse to VACCINATE your children as well. Go smoke another JOINT and you won't remember eating kashi to satisfy your munches [sic].”
What’s missing from these incidents is the “he said/she said” aspect of traditional journalistic practice.
Weise’s USA Today’s piece, for example, contains an accurate (if perhaps self-serving) observation that Kellogg “is not misleading people” from Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association. “‘Consumers are totally confused,’ and don't understand that the only way to get organic food is to buy organic, she says.”
Huffington Post blogger Katherine Bindley amply quotes from both sides of the controversy, including the Kashi YouTube video and a reaction to it from a critic, the Cornucopia Institute.
“Mark Kastel, the nonprofit's co-director, told The Huffington Post he believes Kashi leaves consumers with the impression that no products were tested at all, despite the fact that -- while USDA data was used in evaluating the brand's agrochemicals -- an independent lab did conduct the GMO testing on a box of Kashi cereal pulled from store shelves,” Bindley writes.
"They manipulated the language [in the video]," Kastel tells her. "They did not make clear they were talking about us not testing chemicals: They said we never tested their products."
A class action lawsuit filed last year in a southern Californian district court against Kellogg and Kashi accused it of inappropriately marketing products as natural. The action got mentioned a bit in the trade press and on legal blogs, but was not a big story in the consumer press.
Riëtte van Laack reported in FDA|Law Blog, which is published by the legal firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, P.C., that there is a “new twist” in this particular “natural” lawsuit.
“The federal regulations and policies referenced in the complaint include the National Organic Program’s (‘NOP’s’) regulatory definition of ‘synthetic,’ an inaccurate statement of FDA’s policy on ‘natural,’ USDA’s policy on ‘natural,’ and FDA’s regulatory definition of artificial flavor. Plaintiffs further allege that the products in question do not conform to Kashi’s own definition of ‘natural,’ which states: Natural food is made without artificial ingredients like colors, flavors or preservatives and is minimally processed….”
Philip and Gayle Tauber founded Kashi, which was purchased by Kellogg in 2000, in California in 1984.
"Kashi was founded as a nutritional/functional food in that the grains and seeds are a protein source," Philip Tauber told Supermarket News’ Barbara Murray at the time. "In the 80s, we were a vegetarian-food company. By the late 80s we were a grain-based specialty-food producer, and by the mid-90s, chiefly a gourmet specialty cereal maker. In the last four to five years, we've been a diet cereal. All the different cereals are made with seven grains and sesame."
And now it unwittingly finds itself at the center of a controversy that it is in everyone’s best interest to clear up with straight talk about what is meant by the use of words such as “natural,” and what is not.