A food-industry giant’s ‘stunning about-face’ demonstrates the power of consumer indignation

Posted by
April 22, 2014

By BILL BONVIE

Who would have believed that a major food company would actually issue an abject apology to its customers for having initiated a policy that angered many of them – and announced that it was immediately trashing the whole idea?

general_millsBut that’s what one just did, in what The New York Times called “a stunning about-face.”

The contrite corporation was none other than food-industry giant General Mills, which has posted a prominent notice on its website that it has “listened” to consumer complaints over an arbitration clause that got a lot of people’s dander up when they realized they might be, in effect, signing away their right to sue the company.

While claiming that the legal terminology involved had been “misunderstood,” General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas, noted in an email over the weekend that it was being removed from company sites and that “we have reverted back to our prior legal terms, which contain no mention of arbitration.”

Kirstie Foster, director of external communications for the Minneapolis-based agribusiness behemoth, went even further. “On behalf of our company and our brands,” she stated in a message to consumers on the company’s official website, “we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology.”

And, while noting that the offending terms had never been enforced, nor would they be, are now null and void, she added that “we never imagined this reaction” to arbitration clauses that  “are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and “don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim.”

Will bad food ingredients be the next to go?

If nothing else, this reversal proves that nothing moves companies to reform their way of doing business so much as consumer indignation – particularly in an age when it can be so visibly expressed via social media.

And in the same manner, if enough customers were to vent their dissatisfaction with food ingredients that are “common” in all sorts of products, but that can adversely affect their families’ health, it’s a good bet we’d see action on that front as well.

In fact, the effectiveness of “consumer power’ in swaying such policies is becoming more and more apparent – just one example being the increasing number of products that now have “no high fructose corn syrup” prominently displayed on their packaging. (And I’m sure you can immediately think of others.)

As Paul Argenti, a  corporate communications professor at Dartmouth College, pointed out to The Wall Street Journal, this episode demonstrates how social media have provided consumers with new powers to punish companies for policies that arouse their anger, even if such policies are perfectly legal. And the response ” shows a kind of growth at corporations — they can change their mind and that’s a good thing for everyone.”

That’s not to say that complaints about ingredients won’t meet with a certain amount of industry resistance. This often takes the form of thinly disguised public-relations ploys, using so-called “experts” to reassure you that various additives have not been proven to pose any health threats, much as was once done with cigarettes (as hard as that now is to believe).

And, of course, it requires a good deal more time and effort on the part of food processors like General Mills to revert to healthier formulations than it did to take down a policy statement — whether or not its implications were “misunderstood.”

That’s why it’s so important for consumers to be knowledgeable about the nature of the substances being added to the things they’re eating – to carefully read ingredient labels, to know which ones are objectionable, and to be able to rebut the reassurances of industry and its PR flaks that none of these things will really do you any harm.

In fact, that’s what we consider our primary role here at Food Identity Theft – to keep you informed of what’s going into the products on supermarket shelves, the shady background of some of the additives that have become so “common” in today’s processed foods, and what researchers have discovered about their long-term (and sometimes immediate) effects on health.

Armed with that kind of knowledge, if enough of you make your voices heard, it’s a good bet we’ll see a lot more than one “stunning about-face” by the food industry in the near future – and maybe even more in the way of apologies. And without having to resort to our right to sue.