Media hype Velveeta ‘shortage’ but ignore the real ‘inside story’

Posted by
January 16, 2014

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BY BILL BONVIE

While we weren’t invited, we feel rather certain that somewhere, the staff of a public relations agency recently got together for a quiet little self-congratulatory victory celebration.

Quiet, that is, because in the PR industry, the equivalent of a grand slam is to get a contrived publicity story for a client’s product into major media under the guise of “news” — and to do so as quietly and imperceptibly as possible.

You might think of the process involved as being as smooth as velvet — or Velveeta processed “pasteurized recipe cheese product.”

It was only a week ago that the long familiar product made by Kraft was widely reported to be in perilously short supply — so much so that it was speculated there might not be enough to go around by Superbowl Sunday, the apex of snack-food consumption. And the shortage, we were assured, wasn’t staged.

“It’s not a cheesy gimmick.  There really is a shortage of Velveeta, and thanks to corporate streamlining and increased seasonal demand, you might not be able to get some kinds until after the Super Bowl,” claimed one such story on the NBC News Business site that was dated Jan. 9th.

The report went on to say that NBC News had received two memos last fall from “sources in the wholesale grocery industry” warning customers to expect “limited supplies of Velveeta in the coming months” due to production lines having been moved from one plant to another and causing the company to “run into production challenges.” One result, it noted, was that 16-ounce varieties might have “limited availability” until Feb. 23rd. (This information, incidentally, was provided with the provision that “sources not be named.”)

Well, perhaps.  But on Monday, we happened to be shopping in our local supermarket, and discovered a sizable display of Velveeta in both 16- and 32-ounce sizes.

Curious, I called the number provided on the Velveeta package and spoke with a helpful customer service rep named Vannette. who told me that “when you see the store shelves are fully stocked, it means we’ve taken care of the problem.”

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A case of ‘cheese identity theft’?

That response was reassuring, to be sure.  But while I had Vannette on the phone, I took the opportunity to ask a few more questions — like whether Velveeta should be considered cheese. “We consider it a cheese,” she responded — even though it isn’t called that, but rather a “cheese product” (the Food and Drug Administration having reportedly instructed Kraft to refrain from using the term “cheese spread” to describe it back in 2002).

I also asked why it is that Velveeta, which comes wrapped in foil inside a cardboard box, can be stocked on an ordinary store shelf, while ‘real’ cheeses all need to be kept in a refrigerated case. After looking it up, she replied that it was because of the “stabilizers” in the product — and added that if it’s refrigerated in the store, it should probably be at home as well, since being “exposed to a different temperature could negatively impact the quality.”  (Once opened, the package notes, the contents should also be kept refrigerated.)

In fact, among the nearly two dozen ingredients included in Velveeta  are at least a couple — modified food starch and sodium alginate — that can be used as stabilizers.  There are also three “flavor enhancers” — milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate and maltodextrin — that are actually considered sources of free glutamic acid, or MSG, and that no self-respecting (if not as easily spreadable) bona fide cheese would contain.

Such additives fall under the category of “excitotoxins” because of their ability to excite certain brain cells to death while playing tricks on the taste buds, especially in kids and older people whose blood-brain barrier has been compromised. (Milk protein concentrate has also been described as a “mystery ingredient” in a lawsuit filed against General Mills over its Greek yogurt, and, according to the nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, is “largely unregulated, as we noted in a blog last April. In fact, its presence in Velveeta is reportedly why the FDA asked Kraft to please stop calling it cheese — or “cheese spread”).

Of course, the “inside story” of the risks and possible side effects of such additives rarely gets attention in the major media. But that’s understandable, given how much of their revenues are generated by food products — and how many of the “sources” behind the food-related stories that do cover may actually be nothing more than clandestine channels for PR firms.

But one thing is for certain: the kind of free exposure that a product gets every time an event or situation such as the supposed shortage of Velveeta makes the news (even allowing for the jibes it elicits on late-night TV)  can be worth tens of millions of dollars to the company involved.

Which is why we suspect that this particular story may have been cause for celebration among certain people in the PR business.  In which case, we can’t help wondering: might they have marked the occasion with wine and Velveeta?