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Sitting at her kitchen table in Houston, Bettina Siegel, a corporate lawyer-turned-school lunch blogger and mom of two, had no idea she had the power to spark a massive consumer uprising with her laptop.
But that's exactly what she did. In March 2012, her petition on Change.org asking the Agriculture Department to stop serving "pink slime" to school kids drew nearly 260,000 signatures. The social media fire, fanned by ABC News and dozens of other media outlets, led retailers and schools across the country to drop the product, formally known as lean finely textured beef, or LFTB, from their ground beef.
Siegel's petition was one of the early examples of social media dramatically influencing the food system and, ultimately, food policy. But now these online consumer revolts are a norm that's upending the power dynamic between corporations and consumers.
In the two years since the frenzy over LFTB, online petitions have helped pressure Starbucks to drop red dye made from crushed bugs from its strawberry Frappuccino. Kraft has removed artificial dyes from some of its children's mac & cheese products. Chick-fil-A removed high fructose corn syrup and certain additives from its buns and sauces while pledging to source poultry from birds raised without antibiotics by 2019. Chipotle has posted a list of its ingredients that contain GMOs on its website. And just last month, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors for the first time disclosed ingredients for some of their beers online.
In a different era, a stern letter from an angry customer might be answered by a corporate form letter, and that would be the end of it. But now consumers can leverage hundreds of thousands of like-minded people in a short amount of time, and companies are finding that it's smart business - and politics - to respond quickly and decisively.
"I think pink slime changed the way people saw the power of social media, the power of a single mom's voice," said Melissa Musiker, vice president of nutrition policy at APCO Worldwide, a public relations firm that has helped food and beverage companies navigate social media crises. "People didn't take Bettina Siegel seriously. They just thought she was some random mom. It doesn't work that way anymore."
The phenomenon spans beyond just nutrition - Bank of America recently gave up a plan for debit card fees, and Change.org helped propel publicity for Trayvon Martin - but food and beverage companies have been a particularly hot target. Three of the top seven most popular petitions of all time on Change.org are related to animal welfare in meat production, and more than two dozen food-related petitions have each earned tens of thousands of signatures, many of them hundreds of thousands.
"Food is definitely one of the most popular topics on the site," said Megan Lubin, a Change.org spokeswoman, who noted that such petitions have been increasing in recent years due, in part, to the "deep media saturation" that Siegel's petition achieved.
For the food industry, accustomed to a slow-moving regulatory process, the social media revolts are causing nothing short of whiplash. The pink slime furor, for example, grabbed national attention and changed federal policy in a matter of days.
"I'd never started a petition about anything in my life," recalled Siegel. But when she learned that the USDA was purchasing millions of pounds of the ammonia-treated beef for the National School Lunch Program, she was outraged. She got to nearly a quarter of a million signatures in six days. By day nine, the USDA announced it would allow states to opt out of purchasing ground beef containing the finely textured product. The story was splashed across every major media outlet.
Beef-state Republican Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Terry Branstad of Iowa ate LFTB-burgers to try to bolster support. They even gave out "Dude it's beef" T-shirts.
But it was too late. Beef Products Inc., the South Dakota-based maker of LFTB, once used in 70 percent of the nation's ground beef, quickly lost most of its customers, forcing it to shutter two of its three plants and lay off nearly 700 people.
Companies are now trying to ensure their products are not the next pink slime, even if they are usually hesitant to acknowledge that any changes in ingredients or corporate policy are the direct result of an online petition.
"The impact [of these petitions] cannot be underestimated. It's something we watch very carefully on behalf of our clients," said Josh Morton, director of corporate communications, crisis and issues management at GolinHarris, a public relations firm based in Chicago. But each petition needs to be put into the context of a larger social media conversation - and sometimes a mommy blog post is just as important as a petition itself, he added.
When it comes to petitions, it's often less about the number of signatures - which often only require a click - and more about the audience as well as the trajectory of the petition, explained APCO's Musiker.
Companies are not helpless. They and their PR consultants use sophisticated social media monitoring, or "listening" tools, including things like word clouds, maps and graphs designed to give companies a better idea of who is talking about their brands and what they are saying. Nestlé, the world's largest food company, has its own central command post in Geneva, Switzerland, that eavesdrops on consumers engaged on social media across the globe.
Interestingly, on Change.org, users who sign food-related petitions are much more engaged than other users, signing on average more than three times as many petitions, according to company data provided to POLITICO. Food petition signers are also overwhelmingly female and skew much older than the average Change.org user. They're more likely to be between the ages of 45 and 65, versus 25 and 45.
The Food Babe and her army
The woman behind many of the highest-profile food-related petitions is a blogger named Vani Hari, known to her followers as "Food Babe." Hari, who was inspired partly by Siegel's success, started on Change.org and has since built her own petition site, foodbabe.com. She has amassed her own virtual army of food petition signers, tweeters and facebookers who rally behind her calls to action. They get results, sometimes in a matter of days.
Recently, Hari targeted Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, asking them to disclose all their ingredients online. She said she initially approached the companies that make her husband's favorite beers because she wanted to know what was in their products, and alcohol companies are not mandated to list ingredients or nutrition facts. When the companies declined to give her a list, telling her it was proprietary information, Hari summoned her army.
The next day - after the petition generated media attention and a mountain of signatures - Anheuser-Busch started posting ingredients online, and the CEO invited Hari to visit the headquarters and meet their head brewmasters. MillerCoors soon followed suit.
Hari, who left management consulting to blog and advocate full time, thinks taking on the private sector directly is the faster and more effective route to take.
"Petitioning the government takes much longer. It's more effective to go directly to the companies and ask," said Hari, who is now a paid consultant for a handful of food companies to retool their ingredients.
The flood of petitions is keeping the food industry on its toes, but with each revolt concerns grow, too, that the masses are seizing on misinformation to force companies to ditch ingredients that are not actually harmful - and social media doesn't exactly foster a nuanced debate about the science. Scientists have raised concerns about stoking chemophobia.
Many in the beef industry say the demonization of LFTB, for example, was an ignorant response to a technology that brought revolutionary improvements to food safety.
Hari and her "Food Babe" army have recently come under fire, too, for her sensational approach and use of pseudoscience. One doctor recently called her the "Jenny McCarthy of the food industry," comparing her platform to the anti-vaccine movement.
Hari recently told her followers, for example, to avoid microwaves because they can cause "severe health issues." When she targeted Subway, demanding the company remove azodicarbonamide, a common dough conditioner, from its breads, she actually took a bite of her yoga mat to bring home the point that the chemical is used both in baking and yoga mat-making.
Azodicarbonamide is used in more than 500 products by 130 brands, according to the Environmental Working Group. Regardless, Subway announced in February that it would stop using the chemical.