Given the power enjoyed by American corporations, it might seem impossible that ordinary people can effect change other than via government force, a.k.a. legislation or the courts. But when sufficient organized pressure from consumers (otherwise known as citizens) is brought to bear, corporations can, and often do, change their ways. That’s especially true when, as in many of these cases, business isn’t great. Here are five recent examples of consumer pressure forcing big business to change its ways:
This week, McDonald’s announced that it would phase out the use of chickens raised with antibiotics that are used in human medicine—a practiced that has resulted in the rise of drug-resistant “super-bugs.” Meatpacking companies had already been cutting back on the use of the agents, but McDonald’s move is seen as a major step toward ending their use altogether. On Friday, Reuters reported that Costco is, according to Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety, “working towards” ending the sale of meat treated with such “shared use” antibiotics.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this week said it would stop using elephants in its shows. Animal-rights groups have complained for decades about what they have described as abuse. While the Feld family, which owns the circus, says Ringling Bros. isn’t reacting to critics, that seems like a bit of spin—if it weren’t for those critics, few people would realize how badly elephants are often handled by circuses, such as the use of “bull hooks” to tow them around. And without the critics, fewer laws would have been passed restricting the use of elephants—Los Angeles has prohibited the use of bull-hooks, for example. Such laws have made incorporating elephants into circuses cost-prohibitive.
Nestle last month announced that it would remove artificial colors and flavors from Nestle Crunch and Butterfinger candy bars in the United States. This is a case not so much of pressure from organized groups, but pressure from consumer behavior. U.S. consumers are increasingly buying “natural” and organic products, and Nestle is simply responding to that demand trend. Nestle competitor Mars is also considering removing artificial food dyes from M&Ms. All these products will still be loaded with sugar and fat, but it will be all-“natural” sugar and fat (well, if you consider high fructose corn syrup to be “natural”—but see the next item).
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Despite the fact that there’s no solid indication that high fructose corn syrup is any worse for you than sugar (which is to say, not good for you at all), the substance is a favorite bugaboo of many food activists, some of whom go so far as to call it “poison.” And Big Food has responded, replacing HFCS with “real sugar” in many products. Sometimes, consumer pressure provides companies with new marketing opportunities, and doesn’t really solve any problems.
Genetically modified crops present a similar case of possibly misdirected pressure. The GMO issue is far more complicated than HFCS (with GMOs, there are real concerns about seed patents, and how much market power they accrue to corporations like Monsanto, further supporting our highly problematic industrial food system), but the anti-GMO movement, which is partly driven by the unproven assertion that GMOs present direct health risks, has similarly created marketing opportunities for big food companies. Unilever, Chipotle, General Mills, and scores of other companies have begun selling some products based on their being “GMO free.”