If you want to know who's winning the food-and-agriculture wars, read food company press releases:
-- Subway said it will take the dough strengthener azodicarbonamide out of its bread even though the ingredient is "extremely common" and "fully approved and recognized as safe by the FDA" (http://tiny.cc/…).
-- Delhaize America, owner of Food Lion supermarkets, said it's encouraging pork suppliers to stop housing sows in gestation stalls (http://tiny.cc/…).
-- Kraft Foods (http://tiny.cc/…) said it's taking artificial preservatives out of Kraft Singles cheese slices.
-- Chick-fil-A (http://tiny.cc/…) said it will only sell chicken raised without antibiotics in all of its restaurants within five years.
These are just examples that popped up in the last 10 days. The fast-flowing river of releases in previous months included announcements that genetically engineered ingredients are coming out of Cheerios and tartrazine dyes (Yellow No. 5 and 6) out of cartoon-character-shaped Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
"Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry," anyone? That was DuPont's slogan from the 1930s through the 1980s. No company would dare use it today.
"Natural" is in, technologically improved out. Even "The Miracles of Science," DuPont's current slogan, probably risks a boycott from some consumers.
And make no mistake, it's consumers that this is all about. Activists may lead the charge and, indeed, a food blogger (http://foodbabe.com/…) had petitioned for both the Chick-fil-A and Subway changes. But companies don't submit because they think the activists are right.
Privately -- and sometimes publicly, as in Subway's release -- they disagree. The point is that whatever the companies think, they submit when they believe submitting will help sales. Activists, farmers and politicians can have their say but it's what consumers think that matters.
As Kraft Foods put it in its press release on Singles, "We know families today want convenient foods that have no artificial preservatives and a simpler, more recognizable ingredient list, and Kraft is working to deliver more of these options for some of our most beloved brands."
Once one company acts, it can touch off a chain reaction of competitors that feel pressured to do the same. In February 2012 McDonald's said it would work with suppliers to eliminate gestation crates, just weeks after Smithfield Foods and Hormel had moved in the same direction. Within two months Burger King and Wendy's had joined the parade. And that was just the beginning.
Judging from the timeline on the Humane Society's website (http://tiny.cc/…), you have to wonder if there's a major food or restaurant company left that's still planning to buy pork from suppliers that use gestation crates. As best I can tell Domino's may be the most significant holdout, Papa John's fell in line in November.
To be sure, the pressure to conform varies from issue to issue. For all that the controversies over food chemicals and gestation crates and biotech ingredients have in common, they resonate differently with consumers.
Genetic engineering, for example, generates fierce resistance among some but far from most Americans. We still buy what's on the supermarket shelves, 70% of which has genetically engineered ingredients. So far, at least, the caravan of companies following Chipotle and Whole Foods into anti-biotech land has been short.
In the wake of Chick-fil-A's announcement the big question is how the antibiotics-in-animal agriculture will play with consumers. I've blogged on this more than once recently (see here http://tiny.cc/…, here http://tiny.cc/… and here http://tiny.cc/…) and will examine it again soon.
This much is clear: If Chick-fil-A's competitors decide the "Eat More Chikin'" chain has read the market correctly, the next wave of press releases could portend big changes for livestock raisers.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com