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February 2016
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April 2016

Ingredient or warning?


GMOlabelThe state of Vermont wants food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be clearly labeled. The food industry worries that will feed paranoia about the safety of GMOs and wallop their bottom line.

Who's right?

On the one hand, while it's premature to declare a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion.

If the risks are unclear, proponents can point to clear benefits. Genetically modified cotton, for instance, contains genes from a bacterium found naturally in the soil. The bacterium produces a toxin that targets cotton bollworm, a pest that infests millions of acres each year. That makes it unnecessary to spray the GMO cotton crops with insecticides, many of which are carcinogenic.

Furthermore, nearly half the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology. Since genetically modified crops were first planted in 1996, humans have consumed trillions of servings of foods made from them without a single documented case of illness as a result.

But other experts take a more measured approach. "If used wisely, GMOs could ... alleviate hunger and disease worldwide," according to the educational web site of Nature magazine. "However, the full potential of GMOs cannot be realized without due diligence and thorough attention to the risks associated with each new GMO on a case-by-case basis."

And an industrial-strength lobby is pressing the case that all GMOs are dangerous to our health, the environment, and God's plan. Google "gmo." The majority of the results on the first page will be anti-GMO of varying degrees of hysteria.

So what's an ethical company to do?

Where there's a clear scientific consensus on a matter of public interest, as in the advisability of childhood vaccinations and the validity of climate change, ethical considerations compel us to recognize and honor it. Where no consensus exists, it obligates us to open and respectful dialog.

So companies like Mars, General Mills, and Campbells are free to press arguments that genetically modified foods are safe. They're also free to continue using them. And by voluntarily labeling their products as containing GMOs, they are respecting their customers' right to know what's in the products they're buying and consuming.

But a company's ethical obligation doesn't end there. Only open and clear communications can keep an ingredient label from becoming a baseless warning. 



The Ethics of Mac 'N Cheese

Mac n cheeseSometimes you can lie by not saying something. Sometimes you’d be lying if you did.

That was the position Kraft found itself in when it eliminated artificial flavors, preservatives, and dyes in its venerable mac and cheese. To keep its yellow-orange hue, Kraft substituted natural spices like paprika, annatto, and turmeric for yellow dyes number 5 and 6. Instead of chemical preservatives, it uses salt.

In fact, the new ingredients showed up on 50 million boxes of the stuff before Kraft called attention to the change. No claims of “we’re going natural,” no “new, improved.” What gives?

The company actually announced its intention to make the changes way back in April 2015. It even announced the changes would take place in January 2016. But then it said nada.

Like generations of marketers, the good folks at Kraft and its ad agency were seriously spooked by the brouhaha surrounding the introduction of “New Coke” back in 1985. They had nightmares about people pouring the “new” Kraft mac ‘n cheese down sewer grates, millions signing Facebook petitions to “bring back the old mac, and supermarket shelves piled high with iconic blue and orange boxes nobody wanted.

So they pulled a fast one and waited the introduction out. Some would call that a “soft launch.” Others might wonder if it’s even ethical.

To my mind, it’s perfectly ethical. Kraft announced its plans in advance. But it also knew that making a big deal about the changes would cause many consumers to perceive a change in flavor that wasn’t really there. In fact, some people claimed the product “tasted different” after the 2015 announcement, even though nothing had changed yet.

Waiting to confirm the recipe changes had been made protected consumers (and the company) from that psychological quirk. The proof that it was ethical is that no one noticed. Of course, if lab tests had found taste differences, or if it had substituted potentially harmful ingredients to save money, this would have been a whole other story.

But as it is, Kraft responded to many parents’ concerns about artificial ingredients. And that’s an ethical practice in itself.

Trumpian ethics

Trump-o-meter.001Politifact reports that nearly half (47%) of what Donald Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire."

From what I can see, the folks at Politifact do their job as objectively and carefully as anyone could. But the accuracy or truthfulness of Trump's rhetoric is really beside the point. 

Anything a politician says has three levels of meaning -- semantic, pragmatic, and symbolic.

The semantic is the literal meaning of the words, whether they conform to reality and are factual. That's what Politifact is measuring.

The pragmatic meaning is the "why" of the statement. What motivated the candidate to say it now and in this particular place? This meaning is harder to nail down, but no less important to the intended audience. If the pragmatic meaning is well-chosen, the audience will get it even if it flies over the heads of the rest of us.

The third meaning is symbolic. It's what the candidate's words signify to his listeners, what they mean beyond their dictionary definitions. In Trump's case, that's the real meaning. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. It's brash and direct. Trump says what his followers are thinking. His words say "I'm with you."

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No. And they don't think he does either. It's enough that he's expressing the same frustration and anger that they've been experiencing.

They're so fed up, they're willing to take a flyer on a guy with a bad combover, hot wife, and hefty bank account. At least he'll shake things up.

The ethics of Trump's campaign has less to do with how well his political statements conform to reality than with their larger meaning. There's not much room for nuance in a political speech. For example, it's not true that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing," as Trump claimed in his Florida victory speech. In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program as confirmed by independent experts.

But what Trump could have meant is that we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money, which is more opinion than statement of fact.

If that sounds like an unnecessarily generous interpretation, it's simply meant to put more emphasis on the larger ethical issue at play in Trump's campaign -- his lack of respect for voters' intelligence and his disregard for the consequences of his divisive rhetoric.

Trump has assumed no responsibility for the violence levied on protesters at his rallies. And he continues to campaign in sound bites and heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy or programs. He's pandering to voters' resentments, reinforcing them rather than addressing their causes.

That's the biggest ethical lapse of all.