Government poking around in my intestines, grocery habits
I knew the government was looking out for me but only recently did I learn that its concern extends all the way into my intestines.
When government officials talk about consumer protection, they mean protection not merely at the personal level, but at the cellular.
Speaking on behalf of my cells, I appreciate this.
Shameless profiteers might not care a whit whether my digestive tract hums along like a well-tuned engine or balks like one with grit in the carburetor.
But Oregon Attorney General John Kroger is eager to intervene should I suffer an unexpected bout of constipation as a result of advertising puffery.
Which leaves me feeling, well, not exactly warm inside.
But relieved, anyway.
It seems Big Yogurt got a trifle too proud of certain of its products.
Specifically, The Dannon Company has been touting the alimentary attributes of its Activia brand yogurt.
Probably you’ve seen the TV commercials.
The actress Jamie Lee Curtis sits on a sofa, beaming the sort of beatific grin that only a person with a thriving colon can muster.
(And who’s not being chased through an endless series of dark hallways by a mask-clad maniac who’s brandishing a butcher knife, which was on occasion Jamie Lee’s on-screen fate before she graduated to dairy product pitchwoman.)
Jamie swallows a spoonful of Activia and begins her spiel.
The gist of which is that people who faithfully consume this yogurt can expect their eliminatory functions to be as predictable as the sunrise.
And although she doesn’t actually say so, Jamie’s implication is that these punctual purgings will also be, if not quite blissful, then at least more pleasant than what you’re used to.
The ads also include one of those cunning graphics that are so integral to televised advertising.
This one shows the outline of a human torso, with a dozen or so circles, these representing partially digested food, strewn about its middle.
Suddenly the balls form an orderly set of lines, like soldiers on parade, and plunge straight to the bottom of the screen.
(What this movement depicts I’ll leave you to figure out.)
To bolster its claims, Dannon trademarked the strain of bacteria in its yogurt, giving it the clever name “Bifidus Regularis.”
(I didn’t know you could trademark something as small as a bacteria. Although what’re the bacteria going to do, hire a lawyer and demand royalties?)
Although the Dannon ads struck me as funny, Kroger was not amused.
Neither were his counterparts in 38 other states.
This cadre of attorneys general challenged Dannon to put up proof — something more convincing than those speedy circles, I presume — that the company’s kept bacteria really do for our guts what Drano does for our pipes.
Dannon couldn’t do it.
What the company could do, thanks in part, I suppose, to its Activia profits, was write a $21 million check.
That money will be distributed among the 39 states.
Oregon’s share is more generous than the average — $1.06 million, according to the press release Kroger’s office issued.
Which is only fair since, according to the press release, Oregon “was a lead state in the investigation into Dannon’s nationwide marketing campaign.”
Although I doubt that investigation required FBI-level talent.
I mean I can’t believe any credulous viewer actually thought, after watching an Activia ad, that Dannon’s scientists had actually concocted a master race of bacteria in a secret laboratory, a super bug which exists only to keep our innards as well-scrubbed as a surgeon’s scalpel.
I’m equally skeptical that any significant number of people were taken in by the other boast that got Dannon into trouble — that its DanActive dairy drinks will transform your immune system into an epidemiological Chuck Norris, stunning microscopic invaders with roundhouse kicks of white blood cells.
Whether my ability to gauge the gullibility of the American consumer is keen or not, though, is irrelevant in this case.
The bottom line legally speaking, as Kroger points out, is that “companies are not entitled to make statements that they can’t back up.”
Yet I can’t help but chuckle at the peculiar, and possibly unique, nature of the Dannon case.
Normally when states’ top cops tussle with the processed food industry, it’s because a company, through its own malfeasance or more innocent mistake, has caused its customers’ digestive systems to work at an uncomfortably rapid pace.
Which, except for the uncomfortable part, is precisely what Dannon promised to a national TV audience.
Dannon got into trouble only when it couldn’t prove that eating its yogurt was akin to installing a restaurant-capacity garbage disposal in your abdomen.
Legislators, perhaps eager to set aside such vexing issues as the state’s $3.5 billion budget chasm, are busily figuring out how their constituents ought to be allowed to bring their groceries home.
This topic seems to me a fair ways outside the Legislature’s bailiwick.
Unless the plan is to assign legislators to accompany voters to the store.
(If Ted Ferrioli is willing to carry my beer and cold cuts, sparing me both hands to corral a nimble three-year-old, he’ll have my gratitude.)
It turns out, though, that the Legislature’s plan is to ban the plastic sacks in grocery stores statewide starting in November 2011.
Also, the proposed law would require stores to charge at least a nickel for each paper bag.
The idea, according to Mike Ellis, president of Fred Meyer, the retailer that banned plastic bags at 10 Portland stores, is to make sure the law has “incentives for people to switch to reusable bags.”
Well, banning one kind of bag, and tacking a fee onto a second, certainly qualifies as an incentive to use the third kind.
Although a cynic might use other words to describe the situation.
“Tax,” for instance.
I’m a cynic, but one who doesn’t much care for the plastic sacks.
We use way too many of the things — something like 100 billion a year in America alone — and most of those end up in a landfill (though they can be recycled).
Or impaled on the locust tree in my yard.
I suppose I can condone the Legislature trying to nibble at this plastic scourge.
And yet, a niggling voice insists that I peruse the list of groups that legislative leaders have lined up as allies.
That list includes several environmental organizations.
These outfits tend to fret, sometimes rather hysterically, at the prospect of cutting down trees to build houses.
But in terms of sacks, they favor banning plastic while allowing, albeit with a fee, paper.
And although the proposed Oregon law would mandate that paper bags contain at least 40 percent recycled material, the stuff was originally part of a forest.
This isn’t hypocrisy.
But it is unsettling.
If you claim to be dedicated to preserving resources, it seems to me you’d prefer turning trees into homes, which last for decades and where families can go to get out of the rain, rather than bags, which go mushy after 15 minutes of drizzle.
And then let your eggs smash on the pavement, which is another sort of waste.