Technological Timidity

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke’s memorable phrase is a good one to think about as we deal with the integration of new technology into today’s food industry.

Irradiation is now known to be a lifesaver. The E. coli bacteria that killed children in the Jack In The Box incident not too long ago needn’t have killed. Had that meal been irradiated, that bacteria almost certainly wouldn’t have been there.

The new synthetic bovine somatotropin (BST) hormone is capable of increasing milk production in dairy cattle. Increased production leads to less expensive milk, which means more children can benefit by growing up well-nourished.

New genetic advances are being developed and prepared for a market that in time will provide consumers with more flavorful, healthier fruits and vegetables and provide farmers with higher yields. These advances will do all this while minimizing harm to the environment and reducing pesticide use.

Yet, all of these advances face a big obstacle, namely the timidity of many supermarket chains. We are seeing it most vividly now in the case of the BST hormone where supermarkets have made pledges not to carry milk that came from cows treated with the synthetic hormone. But we all see similar pledges regarding irradiated foods and can expect a similar response on bioengineered produce.

Scientifically there is just no reason for any of this. In the case of the BST hormone, this is just a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone. It doesn’t get added to milk; it gets given to the cow. It is chemically indistinguishable from the hormone the cow produces itself.

Still, even in the face of a lack of scientific evidence, perhaps a retail ban on a product would be understandable in the face of overwhelming consumer opposition. But there is no such opposition. Most consumers know nothing about BST. Among those who do know something on the issue, feelings are divided, and, in any case, BST ranks pretty low as an issue of importance to people.

So why are supermarkets banning these things? It is because they decided to give in to extortion by some very loud, but very insignificant, self-proclaimed “consumer advocacy” groups.

Here is the way it works: A small group, such as Food & Water, a vocal opponent of everything sensible, threatens a supermarket chain with pickets and a consumer boycott. They promise to attract loads of negative publicity. Sotto voce, some groups whisper that there could even be some violence, splattering some customers with blood or milk or whatever, the sort of thing that would receive good play on the TV News or in the local tabloid and might well make consumers think twice about shopping in that particular chain.

As an entrepreneur and businessperson, I can understand the stores’ reluctance to risk all this. After all, the stores’ fortunes are really not tied to BST hormone, to selling irradiated meat, irradiated produce or genetically engineered produce.

What business sense does it make to risk millions in losses because of bad media attention, pickets, etc., just so you can sell a different milk that customers aren’t clamoring for anyway? In this case, it makes a lot of sense to take the risk, and for two reasons: First, the ability of these groups to deliver on their threats is open to question. When irradiated strawberries were first going to be sold at Laurenzo’s Market in North Miami, massive protests were threatened. Yet when the strawberries went on sale, scarcely anyone showed up. There was no mass protest or picketing. The group with the big mouth just couldn’t deliver on its threats.

Second and more important is that there comes a time when the business calculations just have to take in more than the specific response to a particular stocking decision by the chain. The business decision has to account for the long-term effects of giving in to these groups.

Like bargaining with terrorists, giving in to these groups on one point simply encourages them to make the same threats on the next issue. And pretty soon, supermarket chains’ purchasing decisions and consumer access to food will be determined not by the chains’ rational decisions on carrying items based on government acceptance, but by a small group of Luddites hell-bent on re-establishing some kind of natural nirvana that never was.

Every business sector has its privileges and its burdens. Retailers are on the front lines in this industry and they have a responsibility to not allow small groups to dictate things through threats. In America, we have a mechanism for this type of thing. If these groups want to ban irradiation or BST hormone, they should run for Congress!

In giving in to this kind of extortion, supermarket industry leaders do more than simply deprive consumers of the best food technology available. The supermarket leaders participate in the subversion of democracy, where democratically reached decisions, such as the one made to allow BST hormone, are subverted by threats of intimidation.

I have had the privilege of meeting many supermarket CEO’s. I am often impressed by the caliber of person who achieves this important position in our society. But those among these retailers who give in to these groups are getting some bad advice. Supermarket CEO’s are patriotic and courageous people, and they need to see the connection between giving in to threatening mobs and being threatened in the future. The CEO’s need to be shown the connection between allowing the food supply to be dictated by whoever threatens the biggest, most violent protest and the sense of disenchantment with a democracy that leads people to feel their votes don’t count.