Food Fights: When Puffery Crosses the Line

Smith Article in the October 2004 Issue of CEI's Monthly Planet

As technological and institutional innovations have made it possible to replace the problems of starvation with those of obesity, we’ve begun to take for granted the gains of our modern food production, processing, and distribution system. “In the old days,” it is often said, “the apples were tarter, the peaches sweeter, the meat more flavorful, and life more tranquil and peaceful.” Mom’s apple pie and southern fried chicken—weren’t they much better than today’s pre-packaged, mass-produced foodstuffs?


Add modern food production’s ability to keep the sweat, squeals, and mess of harvesting and butchering well off-stage, and it’s no wonder that a highly romanticized view of our rural past has come to shape our attitudes about food.  Food should be “pure.”  All fish and meat products should reach the table only via PETA-approved channels. Our vegetables should be grown in natural soils with natural fertilizers.


In today’s wealthier world, these attributes can be acquired without resorting to the cruder techniques of the past. We can isolate production of vegetables vulnerable to pests and thus minimize the use of pesticides, and fl y in exotic foods from all corners of the globe. In brief, we can cater to “natural food” tastes—at a cost.


Businessmen, ever alert for new opportunities, have moved to cater to these modern perspectives on food and dining. Many companies now compete over niche markets for herbal remedies and organic and “natural” foods. Not surprisingly, many of those offering these new fashionable market choices have taken full advantage of consumers’ rational ignorance to ballyhoo the superiority of their products over those of their unenlightened, politically incorrect competitors.


Now, there is nothing wrong with any of this—or is there?


It is entirely appropriate for a firm to trumpet the quality of its own products, to call for shoppers to compare. But is it appropriate for firms to attack the safety of their competitors’ products, to argue that they put people at risk? Absolutely not—yet some companies have myopically adopted this tactic, one that trial lawyers have long used to litigate against anyone with deep pockets.


Recently, the restaurant group Subway allied itself with anti-fast food activist Morgan Spurlock to attack its rival McDonald’s. In Germany, Subway tray liners advertised Spurlock’s anti-McDonald’s film, Super Size Me, and endorsed his claim that McDonald’s food was “unhealthy.” Sharp competition? Or shooting oneself in the foot? Subway sandwiches and McDonald’s hamburgers are both satisfying, affordable meals—but eating too much of either can make you fat. (Note that both restaurant chains now sell salads!) McDonald’s has already been the target of obesity lawsuits. If Subway’s actions undermine the legitimacy of convenience dining, will trial lawyers attack it also?


Another example: The Whole Foods supermarket chain has proven a brilliant success in capturing the “natural foods” market. Those able and willing to pay premium prices enjoy a wonderful “shopping experience,” a sort of grocery Nordstrom. In a society where incomes have risen and food costs dropped steadily for the last century, such high-cost shopping alternatives are valuable. But sometimes the Whole Foods marketing strategy goes over the line—touting organic food as morally superior, promoting antibiotechnology environmental activist groups as “stakeholders.” But will Whole Foods’ “save the world” posturing encourage self-righteous activists to turn on them? Indeed, Whole Foods is already under attack for alleged anti-union behavior.


Competition is good; firms should highlight their products’ qualities. Puffery is excusable. But business should avoid seeing competition as merely a zero-sum game of undermining competitors. Such attacks undermine not just the competitor, they actually make the whole industry—including its politically correct firms—a more inviting target for regulators. This approach is both wrong and wrong-headed.