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Don’t label me, man.

September 19, 2017

I have good news and bad news for lovers of fermented tea, aka kombucha. First, the good:

If you purchased GT’s kombucha products between March 11, 2011 and Feb. 27, 2017, you may be entitled to benefits from the kombucha class action settlement.

Sweet! Now the bad: the GT’s and Whole Foods are being sued by a competing purveyor of probiotic beverages, KeVita, for underreporting their drinks’ sugar content. I knew something about their Trilogy flavor seemed too good to be true.

In related news, Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept reports on a Whole Foods supplier – Pitman Family Farms – that is accused of falling short of standards for the humane, “free-range” label they use on their Mary’s Free Range Chicken product. It’s unclear from the story whether Pitman raises chickens from separate substandard facilities and labels them as such, but it doesn’t look good for either company.

As someone who may spend $8 for a dozen eggs on occasion, I want to know that what I’m buying is the real thing. One solution is better labeling. The same health food newsletter that recently extolled voting with your dollars ended with a plea for activism, in the form of support for the National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory board of dedicated volunteers. But the inspectors seem to not be doing their jobs, and who could blame them? There are thousands of small organic farms and only a handful of bureaucrats, who prefer air-conditioned offices to smelly hen houses. Industry probably sets up their facilities in a way that makes it easiest for inspectors to check the right boxes, not engage a thoroughgoing search for truth. This is not to impugn anyone’s motives, just speculate on how I might act if I were in the inspector’s shoes.

In the case of GT’s kombucha, it took a rival producer to discover the “”error”” in GT’s nutritional facts. In the mysterious case of the “”free””-range chickens, it was the private news outlet that brought you Snowden’s leaks on drone strikes and the NSA that shined a light in the chicken coop. Even public goods like transparency and accuracy in labeling can come from competition. The mistake is thinking that the label, the standards, or the legislation are what create accountability.

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