A distasteful job…

This is most definitely the hardest post I have had to write. It is also the most distasteful since I have to defend myself and my integrity as a food consumer activist. There has also been a greater and sadder fallout to this ridiculous story that I am not willing to go into right now but suffice it to say that I have been aghast by the deceit, manipulation and lies that I have had to deal with.
On Friday I was accused of starting a witch hunt on twitter aimed at a small business owner. I posed a question about a product that was being promoted by an organic retailer in Johannesburg. I questioned if the stevia that was being used in the product was derived from chemical extraction or not. It was the item that caught my eye because a year ago I did some research on extraction processes of  ‘natural’ flavourants for a Cape Town based online retailer. So I am aware that even though the source may be natural, the process of extraction, particularly with “natural” sweeteners is often chemical.
21 August 2014
Hi Sonia
You really know your stuff. Thank you so much for taking the time to share – invaluable insight into the process of making coloured and flavoured food.

I am going to get answers on the candies for the questions you asked below because it will help us shape our own protocol in terms of options we have. No matter what route we take, we will be updating our FAQ’s and ingredient policy explaining what you have below as I fully believe as you say, We must not fool ourselves or consumers into believing that these are still not chemicals formulated in laboratories with the purpose of enhancing flavours or creating flavours where flavour did not exist. Chemical flavour enhancers, whether they are artificial or natural in origin, are used to fill a gap in flavour.

Hi XXXXX
Pleased it is helpful, my focus is on supporting a retailer that I can trust enough to recommend to fellow consumers.
Good luck with the protocols, I know it is a mind field but if you can maintain honesty and transparency then you cannot go wrong.
All the best
Sonia
I provide the above as an illustration of how I believe in dealing with the smaller retailers and smaller producers. I have never favoured name and shame as I believe in working with willing retailers. Even when I have concerns with the smaller retailers I have not made it public knowledge, only to the people that I think could make improvements.
I believe it critical to producers (including farmers) that food items are labelled and marketed accurately so as to protect the integrity of a method of production but also to safeguard the producers that are going to greater lengths and costs to ensure that there is purity and accuracy in their claims. I have spent four years visiting farms to understand the issues and methods of production for the purpose of educating consumers as to the differences and to enable me to promote the farmers and producers that are truly passionate and transparent.
I am not a desktop slacktivist or Facebook type activist, I believe in meeting with people and engaging with them. I visited with Andy Fenner as one of their suppliers was claiming pasture raised but I had been on the farm and I knew it couldn’t be called pasture raised since the animals received supplemental feed. We had an email exchange after our meeting and I worked with him. The result was that SAMIC were happy to claim it as free range instead. I also offered to revisit the farm with him as I was aware that it had grown substantially since my last visit.
Another example, is The Creamery who was coming under fire on twitter one afternoon by some other consumer activists and I knew where it was heading. Basically to extort her for funding. So I offered to visit with the owner. We spent a long morning together discussing the requirements and constraints of making affordable, quality ice cream while still sourcing higher animal welfare produce. I put her in touch with a dairy that I highly recommend (a farm that I have visited, probably about five times now over the four years of being involved in Grass) but her volume requirements are greater than they can provide so we are still sourcing dairy. She told me who her egg supplier was and I visited the farm which is free range as she had claimed.
Recently I received an email from this egg farmer who has asked me to provide a Grass endorsement for her eggs as it is a requirement for a new food market. It is not Grass policy to provide endorsements (although I have had many farmers approach me to set up a set of standards as a Grass endorsement) but I said that I would gladly inform the market organisers of my findings from the visit to her farm, so I am setting up a meeting with the market organisers. I am also hoping to help them with setting of their standards as many well informed people are not even aware of the difference between barn raised and free range poultry products since in South Africa we do not have a method of production registered with DAFF for barn raised – yet.

The other accusation was that I went for a soft target, a small business. This is something that really sticks in my throat as I have tackled concerns with some of the biggest global companies. I am the only Grass member that has been willing to stick their neck out and it doesn’t get chopped off by the big food corporations but instead by a small business owner who I have not even claimed to be misleading. Actually I feel like I am the soft target and the witch hunt is for me. Another person was also part of this twitter spat and made strong statements about stevia, but perhaps he was not targeted because he is an F&B attorney with a degree in chemical engineering – mmm?

ScreenShot1

The 100% natural logo cannot be seen in this image but its above the statements. Note I have not tagged anyone else into the conversation but as I am saying thank you then the F&B lawyer joins the conversation.

ScreenShotUpdatedIf anything, I shy away from sensationalism as I do not find it helpful for consumer knowledge or education. I found the Le Chocolatier debacle extremely false and blown out of proportion. Not because it was clearly wrong and needed to be exposed but this fraud happens all the time. The only difference was that some people had put their reputation on the line by selling it and recommending it and much of the hoo haa was about damage control. This type of food fraud, including false health beneficial claims, is a drop in the ocean in South Africa.

One of the loudest voices about this Le Chocolatier saga was the Johannesburg organic retailer who I unfortunately obviously challenged on Friday, with the result that I received a threat of legal action from the producer of the product that she was promoting. I have removed their name as I honestly believe that they are collateral damage in what is essentially an argument about standards between the Johannesburg organic retailer and myself. The fact that it was blown out of proportion by this retailer will become evident below.

I deal with standards, I believe that standards are required to protect consumers from misleading claims. This retailer wishes to become, in a fashion, the gatekeeper of standards for organic / free range / banting / natural etc. I took exception with her  comment that I was splitting hairs to ask if all ingredients are 100% natural in a product that claims to be so. I think she should know better, and professes to know better. I have also found her to be defensive when she need not be. This type of knee jerk reaction because she has made certain assumptions about me, is not only damaging to all involved but for consumers informed choice. Yes, I have proven over the years that I support the smaller guys but by helping them understand the claims they are making, not by knee jerk defence reactions when someone merely poses a question. We should also hold big and small business accountable to the same standards.

I never once said that this producer was misleading and I have no qualms with his business and I apologise to him for clearly being the victim of what was basically a twitter spat between myself and the Johannesburg retailer.
ScreenShot3I thought I had cleared that up with him in the phonecall that I made to him, telling him that I was amazed by the course of events and how the Johannesburg organic retailer had taken a simple question and blown it sky high. He was clearly upset when I phoned and I told him that I was not targeting his company or insisting that he removes any signs when he mentioned that his signage states 100% natural. I suggested that he use this nasty episode as an opportunity to inform his customers that if they want to have something sweetened and remain banting or whatever standard that there are compromises that they need to be aware of. I really thought I had made him understand that my intention was not to bring his product or his business into dispute. Clearly I didn’t because  I received a very long and let’s say, passionate, direct message from the Johannesburg retailer telling me that she had just spoken to a very upset small business owner who said I had insisted that he remove his signage stating 100% natural. Huh?
I find it alarming that one person with an axe to grind with me created such drama that has called my motives into question and the producer has become collateral damage.
I do not have the time to edit the identities from all the tweets otherwise I would post the full conversation but there were many, many more tweets and direct messages from the Jhb retailer which were  misguided in the assumptions and accusations. What was interesting was that the lawyer, who is someone who is not an ally of mine by any means had the same reaction to this insane dialogue as I was feeling.
As I have said, there are further repercussions to this twitter spat that have been harmful but insightful and I will be dealing with those in due course.

ScreenShotlast

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Helping you find integrity in the food chain soniam@eategrity.co.za

Posted in CONSUMER AWARENESS
11 comments on “A distasteful job…
  1. GRASS says:

    The owner attempted to post a comment in response but informed me via email that he was unsuccessful – I have therefore posted his comment below…

    “Hi, I am the owner of the business recently targeted on Twitter regarding our use of Stevia as a natural sweetener to sweeten one of our products. While I totally support the quest to expose food fraudsters I have taken offense at the way this particular instance was handled on a public forum.

    Firstly, I need to state that our Stevia makes up 0.00025% of the end product we produce. Secondly I have noticed a comment on this blog sarcastically questioning why we were avoiding the questions about Stevia which angers me as it is totally inaccurate. I would like to clearly state that when we were questioned on Twitter about the Stevia we use, we replied unequivocally with web links and evidence for our stance that the product is 100% natural, safe for diabetics, is approved for use in all foods and is a pure form of Stevia (not wholeleaf or crude in its makeup which is not approved for use in food). We also stated that the exact same Stevia is retailed in national pharmacy chains for use in all food types and is supplied by SA’s largest health and natural foods distributor. Eventually it became evident that our opinions and links were of no value as it was never acknowledged, and other followers immediately jumped onto the bandwagon to beat their drums and harass us over this issue. Regardless of our replies the aggressive harassment continued. I must state that Grass Consumer was not one of these that continued the messages but it was a couple of followers that were relentless with their immature, one sided attitudes.

    The correct way to approach such an issue is firstly to privately investigate and approach a retailer about the matter, and if there is clear proof of fraud and misleading the public then for sure go to a public forum to expose the perpetrator. We pride ourselves on sourcing only the best and most natural ingredients we can find for all our products, and go to great lengths to ensure the health benefits for our customers are maximised, thus an insinuation such as this broadcast to a very wide audience of all the associated commentators followers can be damaging to our reputation and brand, and for this reason I make no excuse for seeking legal advice on the legality of using Twitter with unfounded accusations and the potential liability of the people involved.

    While I understand and fully support the cause of Grass Consumer and others in exposing food fraud, there must be a fair and equitable process in approaching these matters that does not prejudice or damage those who are being ethical and are doing the best they can in the industry.”

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  2. Thankyou Sonia for Continuing your good work even though you have been challenged with obstacles and difficulties. In reading your articles and following GRASS, you have tackled problems with honesty, excellent research and integrity. Your motives are pure and you are essential in the broken system that we have with regards to food monitoring, in our South Africa. You have my full support and on reading the comments by others, it seems support of many other greatfull consumers as well.
    Continue to carry yourself as you do and please don’t be disheartened by this horrid situation. We need you.

    Like

    • GRASS says:

      Thank you Rushka, I appreciate your support. It is good to know that I am not alone in the battle for transparency and truth but I must admit dealing with these issues for four years now has made me a little battle weary. There are certainly things I wish I could ‘unknow’ , particularly the health and greenwashing that consumers believe in.

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  3. Simon says:

    If our constitution underpins our democracy then surely the asking of questions underpins transparency? Sonia, we salute you for your tireless research and the resultant ability to ask the critical and relevant questions that we aren’t able to articulate ourselves. We have the right to know what the effects are of what we put into our bodies and the right to choose if we then consume these products or not. We can only do this through transparency, there can’t be grey areas. So sad that those being questioned and those around you can’t discern the clear cut issues you raise. We urge you to pursue the quest for adoption of clear unadulterated standards for labelling – God bless you.

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  4. I’m with Marika on this! I feel flabbergasted after reading your post, Sonia. Seriously? The outlet wants to seek legal advice because you ask a simple question about the stevia extraction???? Now I have heard it all!!
    This is exactly why I have not set foot in Woolworths for two years – if a store gets defensive when you something pertinent to you, they must be trying to cover something up. Why else not just answer a simple question?
    It’s like cosmetic companies that claim not to test on animals yet their products contain ingredients that ARE tested on animals! As a journalist and consumer living in South Africa I am incensed by all the green washing in SA which is like the wild West with its lack of protocols. That’s why I admire people like you, Sonia – not afraid to ask the difficult questions. One company I would like to mention here is Faithful To Nature. In my experience when ANY discrepancy was brought to their attention, they either changed the labelling or claims being made. And that’s why I will support them to this day (and no, in case anyone is wondering, they do NOT pay me to say so on any level!)
    Please do NOT stop asking questions, Sonia. I for one support you 100 percent. It seems when it comes to natural products being sold here some are more natural than others (to misquote George Orwell). As a consumer well do I know the difference between the white powdered Stevia, the green stevia leaves, and that other chemical crap I don’t touch.
    You (me, and indeed ANY consumer) are well within our rights to ask whatever questions we choose. Anyone who threatens legal action over asking questions is nothing but a bully! (tallest trees catch most wind etc)

    Liked by 1 person

    • GRASS says:

      Thank you Caroline I know how passionate you are about transparency and informed consumer choice and understand the issues because you have experienced them yourself. I have tried to encourage a strong consumer voice in South Africa by equipping consumers with the knowledge of the concerns in the food industry to enable them to know what questions to ask. Consumer action and consumer awareness is at least 10-15 years behind that of Europe, particularly Germany who are streets ahead and that is why their retailers listen to consumer pressure on issues such as debeaking chickens and GMO content – the greatest part of any “food revolution” is equipping consumers with the correct information about standards and claims – walk the talk.

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  5. So disappointed this is happening. Sonia M is an outstanding advocate for consumer education and transparent & accurate labeling. She is a voice for consumers and we trust her thoroughly investigated & researched work. Most consumers don’t know what standards apply to labeling claims like natural, organic, no artificial chemicals or sweeteners or sugar added, “may contain GMOs”, grass fed, grain fed, pasture raised or free range. It’s very confusing & Sonia is asking all the right questions for us. Sometimes producers don’t even realize that they’re mislabeling. Her aims are to raise consumer awareness and work with producers & retailers to raise their standards, not to insult or alienate them or sensationalize issues.
    How can anyone threaten her with legal action for asking questions ??? Keep up the good work, Sonia! Respect!

    Liked by 2 people

    • GRASS says:

      Thank you Helen, this experience has really highlighted so many concerns in our F&B industry and the lack of consumer awareness. Even the people that are supposedly working for consumer’s informed choice are too afraid to ask the critical questions. I don’t believe that Twitter is the arena to pose all questions and that is why I asked for contact details. A further concern is that the Jhb retailer is purporting to create a platform whereby consumers can ask questions and be assured of transparency – how is her defensive behaviour supporting transparency and consumers being able to ask questions? It is critical for consumer informed choice that consumers be able to ask a question, in a non aggressive manner and not be seen as a threat to business.

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  6. marika318 says:

    This is ridiculous, nothing short of a witch hunt, ultimately predictable. It never ceases to amaze me how unethical retailers will quickly turn to legal big guns to blast away uncomfortable opinions. Really just bullying. Sonia Mountford has nothing to defend. For my part, she is the reason I take Grass seriously at all, since she has always been prepared to put her name to her comments and opinions. That takes courage – and ethics. I’ve also always been impressed with the thoroughness of her research. Refreshing! Grass needs people like her, if it is to retain any credibility whatsoever. So Sonia, keep doing what you are doing. You rock! I’ll be keeping more of an eye on the attacks on you …

    Like

    • GRASS says:

      Thank you Marika, I have been overwhelmed by the amazing emails I have received in support, from the most unexpected places. There are so many concerning issues that our focus should be on, one of them is chemically derived ingredients in our natural food. I had a look at some labels over the weekend and was horrified by the ingredients list in a supposed health product.

      Like

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