Joanna Lidback: Barton, Vermont
A couple of food fights have broken out in recent weeks—and in both cases, some in the media have favored fake news over hard facts in covering controversies that surround Chipotle and Ben & Jerry’s.
More than 135 people fell sick to norovirus last month after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in Virginia, bringing back disturbing memories of the outbreaks involving E. coli, salmonella, and the Mexican-food chain’s customers just two years ago.
The new revelations appear to offer fresh evidence that Chipotle still suffers from problems with food safety, even as it boasts about serving “food with integrity” and continues its ignorant crusade against GMO ingredients.
Those are the facts. Yet Bloomberg News offered a conspiracy theory, publishing an article on “the possibility that corporate sabotage is behind Chipotle’s woes.” It suggested that Wall Street short-sellers were somehow poisoning Chipotle’s food. Other news sources followed and the bogus idea spread on social media.
There is absolutely no evidence to back up these claims—but they do allow Chipotle, which sickens its customers, to pretend it’s a victim.
If people want to unearth a real conspiracy—rather than a mere conspiracy theory—they should look at a recent attack on Ben & Jerry’s, the brand with the quirky names for its ice-cream flavors, such as “Cherry Garcia” and “Chunky Monkey.”
Last week, the New York Times reported that Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream products “have tested positive for glyphosate,” a widely used herbicide.
On first glance, it’s a shocking statement. Readers who made it past the article’s sensational headline and opening paragraph, however, discovered that the amount of glyphosate was so infinitesimally small that it had to be measured in parts per billion.
Here’s another way of looking at it, according to the Times: “a 75-pound child would have to consume 145,000 eight-ounce servings a day of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream to hit the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency, the government body charged with setting a ceiling on the amount of glyphosate allowed in food.”
Let’s be clear: If you’re eating that much ice cream, your biggest health concern isn’t infinitesimal residue left by glyphosate, which is a mainstream crop-protection tool whose normal use, often in conjunction with GMO plants, poses no safety or environmental worries.
The author of this phony scandal is the Organic Consumers Association. It paid for the non-peer-reviewed tests and gave the results to the Times, which acted as if this was some sort of newsworthy information setting up Ben & Jerry’s for some sort of fall.
Despite its innocent-sounding name, the OCA is a radical group that despises mainstream farming, including the practices of many organic farmers who are trying to meet a market demand. Part of its agenda is to intimidate companies such as Ben & Jerry’s to abandon all aspects of modern agriculture—and it pursues its goals by spreading half-truths through the media.
The response from Ben & Jerry’s actually made things worse. Rob Michalak, the company’s global director of social mission (whatever that is), essentially apologized: “We’re working to transition away from [GMOs], as far away as we can get,” he told the Times.
Michalak played right into the hands of the OCA, essentially suggesting that GMOs are dangerous—and that food companies should strive to avoid products many conventional dairy farmers rely upon.
I happen to be one of those conventional dairy farmers, and our farm is even located in the rolling hills of Vermont, just like the headquarters of Ben & Jerry’s (which is actually owned by Unilever, a transnational company based in Rotterdam and London).
We don’t grow GMOs on our farm and most of our dairy winds up in cheese rather than ice cream. But we do rely on GMO crops because they’re the source of much of what we feed our cows. Organic farms can’t grow enough crops to satisfy the needs of Vermont dairy farmers, or lawmakers for that matter, to say nothing of the rest of the country’s food demands. They’re too inefficient.
Yet instead of standing up for ordinary farmers against a common foe, Ben & Jerry’s has once again chosen to criticize a safe and sensible tool of modern agriculture.
When it comes to informed choices, consumers deserve more than supposed conspiracy theories and fake news. They deserve facts and critical thinking.
Joanna Lidback and her husband operate the Farm at Wheeler Mountain, a diversified dairy farm in Vermont. Joanna volunteers as a board member for Global Farmer Network where this column orginally appears (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).