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Consumers Take the Food Ingredient Fight Online

By Sonya Collins
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

July 23, 2015 -- After 4-year-old Trenton Shutters started pre-K, his behavior changed dramatically.

When things didn't go his way, "he would have a meltdown to the point of being inconsolable," his mother, Renee Shutters, recalls. Trenton had nightmares and couldn't sleep through the night.

Shutters researched every possible explanation, even bipolar disorder. Then another parent suggested food coloring could be the cause. Shutters' online research revealed that many parents had concerns about food dyes and hyperactivity. On Trenton's fifth birthday, Shutters and her son placed a sad-face sticker on all the artificially colored foods in their pantry, and Trenton stopped eating them.

In 2 days, Trenton's nightmares stopped. So did his meltdowns at school. Now dye-free for 6 years, the 11-year-old excels in school, band, orchestra, and hockey.

For Shutters, it wasn't enough to cut out dyes from her own son's diet.

Two years ago, she joined a growing movement of consumers who directly petition food manufacturers to change their policies or practices. Shutters' petition on Change.org asks Mars, Inc., to remove petroleum-based artificial dyes, including Red 40 and Yellow 5, from M&M's.

"A lot of families might never make the connection between dyes and behavior. Or they don't have the time, energy, and resources to monitor their children's diet like I did," she says.

Online petitions can be powerful tools to incite change. Controversial food blogger Vani Hari, the self-proclaimed "Food Babe," used a petition to help convince Kraft to remove Yellow dyes 5 and 6 from its macaroni and cheese. Mississippi teenager Sarah Kavanagh's petitions pushed Gatorade and then Powerade to eliminate brominated vegetable oil (BVO) -- a chemical flame retardant -- from their products. Online petitioners also got "pink slime" -- a highly processed beef mixture -- off school lunch menus.

"The online petition is a way for you to share your message quickly," says Mike Jones, Change.org's senior campaign director for the U.S. "The more signatures they get, the more they start social media conversations, the more they get press coverage, and the more companies at the heart of these petitions pay attention."

The Power of Social Media

The reach that social media provides petitioners is key. "Most decent-sized food companies will have their own Facebook page, and they're going to monitor (consumer complaints) pretty carefully," says Bob Hibbert, a lawyer who advises food makers on FDA and USDA regulations.

Social media can force companies to respond to consumer demands in one way or another, Hibbert says. "One way is to change the ingredient. And another way is to communicate why it's safe."

Chick-fil-A says it responded to consumer demands when it decided to serve antibiotic-free chicken and remove some artificial ingredients, including yellow dye, from some of its menu items.

McDonald's announced a similar initiative in March, saying it would only source chicken "raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine." It will also serve milk from cows that are not treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST.

The company cited consumer demand as the motivation for the change. The fast-food giant regularly responds to consumers via social media through its "Our Food, Your Questions" campaign.

Why Target Companies?

Before Shutters launched her online petition, she testified in a 2011 hearing where several witnesses asked the FDA to ban artificial food dyes. The agency heard testimony from health advocates as well as the British researcher who did two of the largest studies of the link between dyes and hyperactivity. Those studies pushed the European Union to mandate that all foods containing artificial dyes carry warning labels. Ultimately, the FDA called for more scientific evidence before it could justify a ban or warning labels in the U.S.

"A consumer certainly can go to the FDA, but they've got to have a lot of solid science, and FDA is free to take its time and move deliberately," Hibbert says.

Many of the ingredients in question lack solid scientific evidence that they can harm health. But by taking their complaints directly to food manufacturers, consumers need only demonstrate that they don't like the ingredient. They don't have to prove that it's toxic.

"Food companies, like other businesses, are going to respond to what their customers want. If the company is suddenly getting a flurry of 'Why are you using this ingredient?' on social media or in online petitions, the company might switch [the ingredient] rather than fight," Hibbert says.

Companies will often stand by their ingredients, even as they promise to make changes. "While no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows, we understand this is something that is important to our customers," says Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald's North American supply chain, in a press release.

Throngs of Supporters

In 2 years, more than 182,000 people have signed Shutters' petition -- 90% of her goal of 200,000. She credits the Center for Science in the Public Interest for some of the petition's success. The health advocacy organization shares Shutters' views on artificial colors and co-sponsored her petition.

Like many other petitions, it points to other countries' position on the ingredients in question. Shutters notes that M&M's in Europe don't contain artificial dyes. "In Europe, they publicized that they were making the change because they cared about children's health," she says. "Why do we get the bad stuff?"

Nestle, a competitor of Mars, announced in February that it would phase out artificial colors and flavors by the end of this year.

Mars says in a statement that it has "absolute confidence in the safety of all the ingredients that we use, no matter where our products are sold around the world." Mars has FDA authorization to use spirulina, an algae used to make all-natural blue and green food coloring. The company has not yet incorporated the ingredient into its products. It describes the FDA authorization as "a step toward providing us the option" of using natural colors.

Shutters herself takes the message to the public, too. She gives talks on food dyes at clubs, churches, and schools.

Mars hasn't stopped using artificial dyes, but Shutters considers the journey a success. "What we've really been doing is trying to raise awareness," she says. "Think about what a difference this could make in the lives of so many families."

Even when food companies never make the change a petition requests, many petitioners count increased awareness of their issue as a win.

"Maybe they haven't won their campaigns outright, but maybe they created a month's worth of news coverage on the issue," Jones says. "For some petition starters, the sheer number of signatures and the national conversation that starts is a victory."

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SOURCES: Renee Shutters, Petitioner, Jamestown, NY. Mike Jones, Senior Campaign Director for the U.S., Change.org, New York, NY. Bob Hibbert, Partner, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Washington, D.C. News release, McDonald's USA. News release, Chick-fil-A, Inc. News release, Kraft Foods Group, Inc. Change.org FDA, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food Advisory Committee. WBUR, "Why M&M's Are Made With Natural Coloring And In The EU And Not The U.S." Food Babe. McCann, D. The Lancet, September 2007. Weiss, B. Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2012. News release, Nestle USA.

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