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A Lesson From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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You stop in at your local grocery store to grab a few items and, sure enough, only one checkout lane is open. While you stand in the slowly moving line, you look to your right and see a rack of candy bars.  Before you even give it a second thought, a Snickers, or a Milky Way, or a pack of M&Ms joins your small pile of food staples.  It is called impulse buying and is the exact reason they place that candy in the checkout lines of grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies. It is a purchase done with little thought about the price, the ingredients, or the process by which the candy is made.  This is different from what takes place at the meat case or dairy section — or so the activists would have us believe.

If you wanted to find out who made your chocolate bar, what was in it, or what process produced it, you could not.  The Chocolate industry is the most closed, secretive, and paranoid industry in existence today. You cannot tour the factories or even find out who runs the companies. In the outstanding and captivating book The Emperors of Chocolate, Joel Glenn Brenner describes the candy industry as a highly secretive, competitive, and paranoid industry dominated by large global corporations who refuse to reveal almost anything to the public.  Yet, farmers are being villainized and criticized for not allowing people to walk all over their farms checking to see what is being done and for not allowing animal activists to stroll through their barns with video cameras looking for signs of abuse.

When farmers have tried to protect themselves and their operations, they have been accused of hiding wrongdoing. When farm groups have tried to pass laws that protect the privacy of farming operations, they have been the victims of  lawsuits and media misrepresentation. North Carolina passed a law that provided protection to agricultural operations. Under pressure from animal rights and environmental groups, the Governor vetoed the bill, but the Legislature overrode the veto. Now the activists are filing a lawsuit.

This scenario has been played out in several other states with different conclusions. Indiana’s “ag gag” bill died in the legislature, but came back as stronger trespassing laws for farming operations and became law.  The term “ag gag” was coined by Mark Bittman, a so called journalist who has built his career on bashing agriculture. Seven states have passed such laws, and almost all are getting legal challenges. But, no one is demanding to see how Hershey makes its candy bars?  You cannot tour the Hershey factory, but you can pay money to visit Chocolate World, an amusement part in Hershey, PA, and see a demonstration of how their products are made.

Mars and Hershey control 80% of the candy market in the US. Yet the proposed merger of DuPont and Dow is being opposed because it would give them too much control of the seed and farm chemical market.  You don’t see Wal-Mart pulling M&Ms from their stores because Mars will not tell anyone how they are made.  The candy industry has had its share of attacks and bad press but, for the most part, has ignored it.

Sometimes I feel we in agriculture have gone too far to try and appease our critics.  While it is in our long term best interests to provide information to consumers about the food they eat, we must also look out for our own welfare and investments. If that means placing limits on who can visit and photograph our operations, then that is fine.  Operations like Fair Oaks Dairy and the Great Pig Adventure are excellent ways to let consumers see what goes on in a livestock operation. But farmers should be allowed to limit access to their barns and ban their employees from disclosing details of the operation.  That is how Mars and Hershey do it. And, if you remember, Willie Wonka had iron gates and a wall all around his chocolate factory.

By Gary Truitt