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Now I’m Starting to Get Angry

July 20, 2010

I’m a passionate man.  I’ve been disgusted, delighted and disappointed.  I’ve loved, liked, and loathed.  But I can’t recall a time on the FLB when I’ve actually gotten angry.  Personal attacks don’t get under my skin.  Rude service rolls off my back.  Really, I consider myself rather unflappable.

So what could possibly start to stir my bile?
Welch’s grape juice.

And it is not because of the news that there was more lead in their juice than permitted in the State of California without a warning label.  The environment is a dirty dirty place.  Some produce has trace amounts of lead, some has more.  It seems at least in part we owe this to the persistence of the element, and its inclusion in pesticides and fuel for many years in the 20th century.

So what is a responsible large company to do when this is brought to their attention?

Here is what I would expect from a responsible company concerned with the wellbeing of the children who consume their products.  I would expect them to express concern about the findings and launch an immediate action plan to get third-party verification.  I would expect them to reaffirm their belief that their juice complies with California’s Proposition 65. Finally I would expect them to list specific and immediate actions they plan to take on the off chance third-party results confirm the Environmental Law Foundation’s allegations.

I haven’t seen them do any of this. And I was curious about what was going on at Welch’s HQ in regards to this situation.  Thanks to the miracle of social media networks, I was able to post a question to their Facebook page and get a response.

It’s the response that kills me.

Here is what I said:
How many days are left before you need to officially respond to the Environmental Law Foundation’s allegations of elevated levels of lead in the juice? I’m eagerly awaiting to see how this situation resolves.

Here is their response [note: I have added the boldface for emphasis]:
Thanks for your comments. We know you feel strongly about this and we can appreciate that. The environmental group
is making a lot of claims, but they haven’t released their test data for some reason. For all we know, these could be good people with good intentions – it’s just hard to comment on something we haven’t seen. Like every major brand on the market, we have really strict quality standards and a whole team devoted to making sure your juice is safe. We’ve been around for a long time, we really do care about our consumers and we would never release a product that is unsafe. Thank you for your comments and your interest in Welch’s!

Well.  Where do we even begin? I think I need to provide a bit of boring legal background, interpreted to the best of my understanding.

The Environmental Law Foundation sent notices to:

Law enforcement officials, including the California Attorney General and 58 county District Attorneys, and to the affected manufacturers, retailers and distributors, notifying them that particular food products frequently consumed by children contain lead at levels high enough to require a warning under Proposition 65. These notices start a clock for the companies to bring themselves into compliance with Proposition 65 by either (a) reducing or eliminating the lead or (b) placing “clear and reasonable warnings” on the food packages. If, at the end of 60 days, no law enforcement agency is prosecuting the violation, ELF will file suit to enforce the law.
Source: ELF June 10, 2010 News Release

Since the research conducted on behalf of the Environmental Law Foundation may very well be evidence in a legal action, the ELF contends this is confidential information and cites a specific statute:

[Specific testing data on each product] is confidential information provided to a law enforcement agency about a possible violation of law. Under Proposition 65 a private party who sends a notice of violation to the Attorney General must accompany that notice with a confidential “certificate of merit” including the scientific studies or data on which the notice is based. The Attorney General may provide the factual information submitted. . .to any district attorney, city attorney, or prosecutor within whose jurisdiction the violation is alleged to have occurred, or to any other state or federal government agency, but in all other respects the Attorney General shall maintain, and ensure that all recipients maintain, the submitted information as confidential official information to the full extent authorized in Section 1040 of the Evidence Code. Cal. Health and Safety Code section 25249.7(i).
Source: ELF Lead in Children’s Foods: Frequently Asked Questions

Boring legal stuff complete.

Now here is why I’m getting angry.  This isn’t some fringe “environmental group” running around willy-nilly making “a lot of claims.”  It’s a serious legal organization that has been doing stuff like this for almost twenty years, and winning.  And these aren’t a bunch of frivolous claims.  The products listed were tested by an EPA-certified lab and only one claim is being made: The levels of lead in these products is sufficient to mandate the below label.

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

The Welch’s PR strategic response, at least on the social media platform, would seem to be an attempt to discredit its accusers.  The implication that the manufacturer’s accusers “haven’t released their test data for some reason” is that the allegations may not be entirely above board.  But as discussed above, there seems to me to be a very good reason for keeping these findings confidential.

But to say “It’s just hard to comment on something we haven’t seen” is disingenuous. Yes, they may not have seen the lab reports, since they are considered to be confidential.  But they absolutely received the formal Notice of Violation and Certificate of Merit from the ELF well over a month ago.  Plus how hard would it be for Welch’s to say that every single one of their internal audits confirms lead levels below 0.5 micrograms per serving?  That would be an easy comment to make, if indeed they could confirm that statement.

Welch’s uses words like “safe” and “strict quality standards” and I am sure these are backed up with compliance to federal standards, which is certainly fair.  Still I am left to question the federal standards when the American Academy of Pediatrics goes on record stating there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Maybe it’s best to use Welch’s own words.  Their PR people could be good people with good intentions – it’s just hard not to get angry when it looks like they aren’t taking a serious problem very seriously.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 11:17 am

    Apparently you and I share a pet peeve, Daniel. I despise large corporations using disingenuous, strategically worded responses masquerading as genuine communication when confronted in a public forum. Hey…I know it’s a kinda niche pet peeve, but it’s mine and I’m sticking to it.

    That said, your article has provoked in me a strong urge to crush the offending PR nitwit and his/her mealy mouthed response. Perhaps if you were to post the legalese and its explanation from your post on their page?

  2. John H. permalink
    July 20, 2010 12:50 pm

    Ah, the only thing scarier than a Profussor is an angry Profussor – sort of like cheetas.

    I think a good follow-up question to the lovely people at Welch’s is whether they can provide a written copy of their strict quality standards or whether they can confirm that their strict standards include “no lead, like not any lead” in the juice. Of course, I cannot really threaten to stop buying their products, because I already don’t.

    I am forwarding this on to some agitating mothers here in Marin.
    http://momasunite.wordpress.com/

  3. July 21, 2010 3:25 pm

    Fruit juice is not the first food product sued under Prop. 65. Potato chips, cereals, sodas and candy have also been named. If you readers would like find out more information about other Prop. 65 litigation concerning chemicals in food, please go to http://www.prop65clearinghouse.com, an independent source of news on Prop. 65 developments.

  4. July 21, 2010 11:23 pm

    Well, I guess I won’t be drinking that Welch’s grape juice I just bought any time soon… and by ‘drinking’ I mean ‘using as a mixer for copious amounts of alcohol’. Because I really only need to kill so many brain cells at once.

  5. July 22, 2010 3:23 pm

    Damn. This pisses me off. It’s only one of two REAL juices that I can find (y’know without high-fructose corn syrup all that other sugary crap) that I can find here in Capital Land. The other is Dole pineapple juice. So I guess that’s the answer. Bugger…and shame on Welch’s. Wonder how Alton Brown feels about that…or perhaps he just doesn’t give a rip.

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