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Food marketing monikers might be a tasty cash crop

May 13, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

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I can handle the government sticking its nose into automobiles, banks, hedge funds, mortgages, real estate, credit cards and hospitals.

But Cheerios? Somewhere along the line, government has lost its way.

The complaint is over a Cheerios advertisement purporting that if you eat the breakfast cereal, within 10 minutes you will have the cholesterol level of a whitetail deer.

We've all seen these ads, and ads like them. No one believes them. Except maybe the one where the wife says she can lower her cholesterol (by eating Cheerios) before her husband completes his to-do list. That's not saying anything. If his to-do list is like mine, wifey will have about a 50-year window to meet goal.

And if scam-artist companies are free to advertise that they can cut your credit card debt in half, or sell you a product that will let you lose weight as you sleep (it will, if you sleep long enough -- 10 years ought to do it), then why pick on poor old Cheerios?

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I suppose the feds mean well, but, any time they get mixed up in food, the results are never good. Remember when "organic" used to mean something? It meant you were getting your food off a small farm that didn't use chemicals to make the plants grow and didn't spray poison on the food to kill the bugs. You could tell real organic vegetables because they were generally as deformed as the Elephant Man, but tasted far better than more uniform produce.

Big agriculture smelled a marketing strategy, however, and convinced the government to pass a "definition" of organics that only big agriculture could meet. So "organic" today is about as meaningful as slapping a label on Kate Moss that says "wholesome."

According to the New York Times, big agriculture is now in the process of co-opting the term "localvore" -- defined as a person who likes to buy and eat foods grown in her own community, under the reasonable theory that she don't know where that food that comes in a box has been.

The idea has become so popular that big agriculture can't help but smell cash. So the latest marketing campaign trumpeting a locally grown product is brought to us by none other than -- Lay's potato chips.

That's right, they go out early in the morning when the dew is still on the potato chip tree and carefully pluck the delicacies from the limbs and drive them 10 minutes to the local farmers market.

Well, not quite, but Lay's reasons that, at least in the regions where it buys its potatoes, it can claim that the junk food is a "locally grown product." (Disclaimer: I love Lay's potato chips; I don't care if they're grown on the moon.)

You can understand their logic in a way. Every food-like product is local to somewhere. And you can "locally grow" chickens on your friendly local toxic waste dump -- but it's still local.

That small, family farm that goes by the name of ConAgra is getting into the mix with its "local" (to its Oakdale, Calif., processing plant) canned tomatoes. And in the new era of globalization and a shrinking planet, isn't everything local anymore?

So once again, it will be up to the government to step in and define "local." Considering that the definition will be written with the helpful assistance of the multi-billion-dollar agricultural conglomerate lobbyists, I suspect some flexibility will be in order.

After all, even if your apples come from China, that's still local, considering the galaxy as a whole.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant here, on www.antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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