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
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.
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
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?
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.
If 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.
I 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.