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2 Charlotte bloggers harness national attention with Kraft mac & cheese campaign

After starting a campaign to get food giant Kraft Foods to remove artificial colors from the famous macaroni and cheese in the blue box, Charlotte bloggers Lisa Leake and Vani Hari are on their way to becoming full-blown media sensations.

First, their petition on the website Change.org snagged more than 200,000 supporters in less than a week. Then their video pitch to Kraft went viral on the ABC News website. They’ve been interviewed by “Good Morning America” and flown to New York for a March 14 appearance on “The Dr. Oz Show.”

“I thought we’d get one national news spot,” said Leake, 35. Instead, they’ve gotten a dozen, from Britain’s Daily Mail to the Chicago Tribune and the Observer.

Leake, who started her website 100 Days of Real Food in 2010 to document her family’s attempt to cut out processed foods, admits she is ready for things to calm down.

“We’ve been exhausted,” she said Friday at the Dean & Deluca Wine Room at Phillips Place, where she and Hari of the Food Babe website had scheduled back-to-back interviews with the Observer and Fox News. “It’s taken time from our families and friends.”

The campaign actually started in February. Hari, 34, had recently left her job as a management consultant in the banking industry to blog full time on her food activist site foodbabe.com. She wrote a post for Leake’s site on American food products that are made without certain additives for sale in the stricter European market.

“I started freaking out,” she said. “The same exact Betty Crocker cake mixes, Betty Crocker icing, Rice Krispies, Pringles. Seeing the side-by-side (ingredient) comparisons fired us up.”

After seeing the reader interest, the women got a friend in England to send them a shipment of products for comparison. The one that really grabbed their attention: Kraft Cheesey Pasta, the British version of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner.

In America, it gets its signature neon-orange color from yellow dyes No. 5 and 6. Both are controversial. While the FDA allows them in limited quantities and some food experts consider them safe, others cite studies that show links to cancers and hyperactivity in children.

In Britain, where both dyes are banned, the product is colored with beta carotene and paprika.

“The double standard is what gets people angry,” Hari said.

“It’s an iconic American food product,” said Leake. “This is pasta – it doesn’t need food coloring.”

Kraft responds

So far, Kraft’s response has been a statement that reads in part: “The safety and quality of our products is our highest priority and we take consumer concerns very seriously. … We only use colors that are approved and deemed safe for food use by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Lynne Galia of Kraft Foods Corporate Affairs sent the statement to the Observer on Friday. Galia also noted that Kraft makes 14 versions of the product without added colors for the American market, including an organic version.

Leake and Hari reject that.

“They don’t have ‘Sponge Bob organic,’ ” Hari said, referring to the frequent use of children’s marketing on some packages. “They’re getting away with using cheaper ingredients in children’s foods.”

While an 8-ounce package of the original product was $1.29 Friday at Harris Teeter, a 6-ounce package of the organic version was $2.19. The British version was the equivalent of $1.38 on Amazon/UK.

‘Pink slime’ campaign

The Kraft campaign isn’t the first to harness social media. Naomi Starkman, editor-in-chief of the website Civileats.com and a consultant who advises nonprofits on media strategy, compares it to successful attempts to remove brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade and BPA, a chemical found in plastics, from Campbell’s cans.

“I think what we’re seeing is a sense of Occupy Your Screen,” she said, referring to last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement. “People are really busy, but if they can harness social media as a megaphone, that’s where the power of the consumer is going to come in.”

Of course, the campaigns also come with risks to the bloggers, who can face criticism or retaliation from the companies they write about.

Last year’s “pink slime” campaign, started by a blogger to get beef trimmings treated with ammonia hydroxide removed from school lunch programs, resulted in a policy change by the USDA.

It has also resulted in lawsuits, including one by a man who lost his job when the meat company Beef Products Inc. closed plants in the aftermath.

There’s also a risk that too many dramatic presentations will result in less public attention.

“If enough goes on, there’s going to be a cry-wolf syndrome,” said Dr. Marion Nestle of New York University, whose books include “Food Politics.”

A visit to Kraft

For Leake and Hari, the attention is far from over. With 268,111 supporters now on their petition, they said they’re planning a trip – they won’t say when – to deliver it to Kraft’s Northfield, Ill., headquarters.

“We hope they’ll meet us at the door and have a conversation,” said Hari.

Leake is still surprised they haven’t gotten more response from Kraft.

“Our goal is not to tarnish their reputation. (If they’re going to change), tell us a timeline so we can start to let people know.”

Although Leake has a book, “100 Days of Real Food,” coming out next year and Hari said she is working on a pilot for a TV show, both said the goal of the campaign wasn’t to get attention for themselves.

“We care about more than ourselves,” said Leake. “We’re doing it for the country.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236.
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