Politics And Food

Our cover story delves into the question of whether the contretemps over French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to place France in opposition to the United States will create an opportunity for U.S specialty foods.

It is not easy to get a clear answer here. In the short run, the primary victims of a boycott are not the French but the American store-keepers, distributors, and importers who have bought and paid for French product. Ultimately, of course, if they fail to reorder, it is the French economy that will suffer, but that is long term. In the meantime, few retailers have any incentive to add fuel to the fire by acknowledging sales declines and boycotts.

Even competitive manufacturers who might want to rouse up the masses tend to keep quiet because they usually buy supplies in France or have operations there as well, and the great behemoths of multinational retailing don’t want any trade wars or for France to make it tough when these companies look to open locations there. So it is very hard to get people to speak frankly on this matter.

In any case, one battle does not a war make. American attitudes toward other countries will be determined as much by their future behavior as by their behavior around the Iraq war.

In general, boycotts are a rough-edged tool and should be avoided. They hit Americans, “friendlies” in the boycotted country and deprive the boycotters of goods and services. As the replacement products often cost more, boycotts can also cause inflation.

This boycott has some resonance partly because the behavior of the French was so egregious Germany also opposed U.S. policy but didn’t send cabinet officers around the world to oppose the U.S. In addition, the ground had already been readied for such a call, as there was a movement to boycott France, particularly in the Jewish community, growing even before the war issue came to a head. Former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, was calling for a boycott because of the French government’s feeble response to growing anti-semitism in France.

Also though, a boycott has blossomed because France, as a producer of luxury products, is a relatively easy country to boycott. If the worst sacrifice American civilians make in this war is that they must buy Italian Gucci rather than French Hermes, then the sacrifice is small indeed.

There is a touch of irony here in that so many products are given foreign names (think names like Haagen-Dazs and Frusen Gladje) for the specific purpose of tricking consumers into thinking these are “refined” European imports. Now many of these same manufacturers are struggling to put “made in the U.S.A.” stickers on their product, lest someone think their product, which has always been made in Brooklyn, might possibly be foreign.

One positive to the situation is that this boycott has been a citizen-led expression of political will. The President didn’t urge it, the legislation does not require it. Individuals are simply deciding how they would like to spend their money.

This separation of individual action from official acts of the state is something the organic industry may be reflecting on right now.

The organic industry developed when words like “natural” were corrupted by the food industry. Organic producers banded together to have governmental regulations imposed that would prevent the use of the word “organic” unless certain standards were met. At first these regulations were on the state level but, eventually, national organic standards were established and codified into law.

The problem is that there is no inherently correct answer to what should be classified as organic. Just recently the European Union decided to allow synthetic vitamins in feed for animals that will be marketed for organic meat. This is simply a judgment call or, more precisely, politics.

In the United States, the same dynamic played out when buried in a federal spending bill was a provision allowing meat and poultry farmers to use non-organic feed if the organic feed costs more than twice as much as the non-organic variety.

This caused an outrage in the organic community and in a Herculean task, the industry managed to get a law passed overturning this provision. The only problem is that someone else managed to slip in another provision, this one requiring the USDA to set up the systems so that all wild fish can be labeled organic. Since, of course, there is no way of knowing what wild fish have eaten, this provision has also put the organic community into an uproar.

The whole situation points out the obvious: that the organic community is not the single most powerful lobby in the country. Since the organic standards have been rendered a legal construct, we can expect continuous lobbying to warp those standards to favor different interest groups.

There is an alternative, however. Any person or organization can trademark a symbol and make that symbol available on its own terms. So the Organic Trade Association or another group simply has to establish a trademark, establish rules for using it, and the standards will no longer be influenced by representatives in thrall to chicken interests and Senators looking out for fisherman.