When I boarded the plane in North Carolina to go to Chicago just a few days ago to deliver over 270,000 petitions to Kraft headquarters, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
Over the course of this week, several media outlets have interviewed me before, during and after my visit to Kraft where they reported bits and pieces of what happened; however, they didn’t share the whole inside story and that is why I want you to know everything that happened that day including everything that led up to the behind-closed-doors conversation I had with Kraft.
No April Fool’s Joke
On Monday, which happened to be April Fool’s Day, I woke up at 5am to a very chilly morning in Chicago to get ready for a live TV interview on Fox News Chicago. I spent the night before thinking about what I was going to say and preparing for questions. There was one thing I wanted to get across in the interview – I wanted to ask Kraft on live TV, why they have refused to meet with me (after repeated attempts to reach out to them) and why they haven’t listened to over 270,000 thousand consumers. Luckily during the interview, I was able to ask those questions. My favorite line was telling Kraft “I’m not the boogie man.” To my surprise, Fox invited their medical correspondent on the show with me, who ended up confirming the research that there is a correlation between hyperactivity and the consumption of food dyes. This doctor even went on on live TV again in the afternoon that day, to confirm these findings in the evening broadcast. Many people at the station told me they appreciated my efforts to raise awareness about food safety. So of course, I took a moment and tweeted that.
I headed back to my hotel, where I was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. The reporter grilled me – it was a lively debate and the article ended up having one of the best titles of day “Kraft served in mac ‘n’ cheese fight.”
Taste Test On The Streets of Chicago
To prove that the UK version of Kraft Mac & Cheese made with natural dyes was just as yellow and tasty as the US version, I held a taste test on the Chicago streets in front of the Jewel Osco Market on State Street. Even though Dr. Oz confirmed they virtually look and taste the same on his show, just as I did initially when I launched the petition, I felt like this exercise would be important to get the general public aware of the issue in Kraft’s own backyard.
We stayed at a hotel that had a kitchen, which I loved for personal reasons for preparing and eating healthy food, but the real reason we did this was to have the ability to make the UK version and store it in thermoses to keep it hot for the taste testing.
When I got to the market with all the samples, I was swarmed by the media to the point of total distraction from the original intent. Reporters wanted to interview me at the same time I was trying to approach the public to participate in the taste test. I tried to talk to as many people as I could with a tray of Mac & Cheese in the freezing cold weather. My fingers went completely numb even with gloves on! I was really surprised at how many people stopped to talk to me, considering the conditions. The comments and reactions were priceless – almost everyone said the UK version tasted great, they loved the color and couldn’t tell a difference, especially the kids. It was gratifying to know so many people, once they understood the issue, said they would choose the Mac & Cheese product without dyes too.
Delivering The Petitions
After the taste testing, I headed to Northfield, IL, where Kraft headquarters is located, to deliver the petitions. There was a Whole Foods right across the street, which was really convenient! We stopped there to fuel up, I bought some tea, a green juice and a cookie (full disclosure!).
When it was time, we headed to the parking lot across the street from the Kraft Headquarters and parked at the CVS. I was greeted by some amazing readers of this blog and supporters of the campaign. These new friends I made are truly incredible warriors and voices, I was touched by their commitment, positive energy and support.
We walked the boxes of 270,000 signatures across the street to the corner of the security entrance (technically on Kraft’s property) and set up on the side walk to give a speech on why I was there. Pulin Modi from change.org who has been with us every step of the way introduced me…You can read the entire transcript of the speech here.
After delivering this speech, we picked up the boxes and headed to the front gate. Immediately the security guard came out from the booth and gave me a clipboard to sign my name. She said, pointing at me, “you are the only one allowed in” and asked us to put the boxes down so they could be collected.
I didn’t quite understand the impact of what was happening at the moment – I kinda froze and then I looked around, screamed “YES!”, gave a hug to the team at change.org who have been with me from the start of this campaign and to the supporters who came out that day. I looked up at the sky and thanked God. I began to feel the magnitude of the over 270,000 voices I was representing. The letters from all the people and children harmed by these dyes went through my head. Tears of joy ran down my face – mascara went everywhere.
Before leaving with the security guard to be escorted to the front, I turned to the media cameras and told them “This is a monumental moment, people have been trying to get artificial food dye out of food for decades.” And thanked everyone who called that day. ABC in Chicago captured the moment here.
Then I proceeded to walk through the gate, escorted by security, where I was told I could take no pictures. I called two people on my walk in, Lisa Leake who started this petition with me and my husband. I also texted my Mom and told her “Kraft is letting me in”, she immediately wrote back “stay calm love.”
The Power of Your Voice – The Food Babe Army
Before this moment, I didn’t have a scheduled meeting with Kraft, in fact, Kraft had refused to meet with me and ignored our requests to have a conversation about the petition for the entire last month. A few hours before heading to the headquarters, I posted a message on Facebook asking fans to call the headquarters on my behalf to ask Kraft to meet with me. I wasn’t the only one who did this, several other food advocates (and personal friends) shared this message with their fans too – The Cornucopia Institute, CEO of Nutiva – John Roulac, GMO Inside, Leah from Mamavation, Cheri from Label GMOs Hollywood, CSPI, Ann Marie from Cheese Slave, Max from Livingmaxwell, Lisa from 100 Days of Real Food, and countless other fans. I didn’t know at the time, but this tactic ended up being one of the most powerful social media events I have ever witnessed. Reading the comments on facebook was so inspiring, people were put on hold for over 10 mins and did not give up. Kraft eventually went from ignoring my emails and voicemails to finally deciding to meet. I believe the persistence and calls of supporters that day is what led Kraft to finally agree to sit down with me.
Here was the graphic posted and shared all over facebook that day:
The Meeting: Behind Closed Doors with Kraft
Once in the building, I was introduced to Lynne Galia and Basil Maglaris from Corporate Affairs (not the CEO Tony Vernon or Head of Mac & Cheese Noelle O’Mara like I had requested) and we went to go find a conference room. Obviously they had not reserved a room for my visit so there was a bit of confusion trying to get a space to sit down and talk.
I asked for their cards, but they both didn’t have one on them (I wonder if it’s because they didn’t want me to have their phone numbers?)
I asked them if I could conference in Lisa, and they obliged. But first, they made it clear that I wasn’t allowed to tape record the meeting in any capacity and Lynne showed me her phone when she turned it off.
As soon as we began talking, they immediately reiterated their position in the previous letter they posted on their website and asked us if we had anything new to share with them. We asked why haven’t they listened to over 270,000 people demanding the removal of artificial dyes? And they said “we are listening and have 14 different options that do not have dyes.”
We explained our position about those 14 options.
- There are over 30 Kraft Mac & Cheese products that have artificial dyes, and the average consumer cannot tell the difference between the similar looking blue boxes to avoid dye. We asked if Kraft would consider a label change to be more clear but Lynne refused to entertain this idea.
- Kraft’s dye free options are not available at every grocery store, we cited examples including reader feedback from calls to customer service, reader pictures of various grocery store shelves, and my own experience earlier that day at Jewel Osco market in Chicago to prove our point. We explained there is not a version without dye in every grocery store side by side with the regular version. Lynn said in response that consumers have to read the ingredient label, then call the customer service hotline to find the products without dyes and can buy different versions on Amazon.com – I stated that is an unrealistic expectation to ask of most consumers, and how would they even know about the dye free option, if they have never even seen it in their stores or unaware of the health issues associated with dyes?
- The Kraft Mac & Cheese that is available in kid’s menus across the nation at various chain restaurants like Applebees, IHOP, and Bob Evans do not give a choice, all of those children who order off these menus receive Kraft with artificial dye.
- The majority of the 14 options (all but 1) are more expensive – sometimes twice the price of the original blue box. While the UK version is just 10 cents more than the regular blue box version – a reasonable difference consumers could afford.
- Many varieties of the homestyle versions of Mac & Cheese are totally different and do not compare to the original blue box Mac & Cheese. (For example, they have other additives like partially hydrogenated oils (a.k.a. trans fat), corn syrup and GMOs.) How is avoiding artificial dyes and eating other additives really a choice?
- Kraft’s dye free options are not the ones marketed toward children with cartoon characters and other sayings – Kraft currently offers no dye free options to children. I asked Lynne and Basil if they would consider offering a version of Kraft without dyes to kids, they declined to answer.
- Two of the options Kraft lists are dye free actually do have dyes if you buy the microwave version. Lynne claimed that only the “bag” version is dye free. We explained this was very confusing to the average consumer and unfair to the person who chooses to microwave their food vs. cook it over the stove. It also makes their “letter to fans” inaccurate. Basil wrote a note about this on his piece of paper.
Lynne also reiterated that they are complying with the FDA laws and look to “scientists and regulators” when formulating their products. Which prompted me to ask “Why did Kraft spend over 10 million dollars during the last 5 years lobbying the FDA? And why does Europe require a warning label for these dyes?”
She didn’t answer the questions and looked visibly uncomfortable when I asked them.
Lynne said Kraft is listening to their customers who want to keep Mac & Cheese just the way it is. We asked her how Kraft defined the word “listening,” since there were over 270,000 people requesting the removal. We wanted to know who the people were that want artificial dyes in their food? She couldn’t answer that question – so we asked “How do you define “listening” – and she explained that the people who are still buying the product (i.e. the people who don’t know about this issue yet) are the ones they are listening to – in other words, we explained – you are listening to your sales of Mac & Cheese, the bottom line, correct? And she nodded.
I realized the tone of the meeting from the get go, wasn’t very positive, but I stayed on message and asked pointed questions, sometimes asking the same question two and three times to see if we could get answer…
One of the questions I asked repeatedly was this:
Why did you reformulate Mac & Cheese without artificial food dyes overseas but not here? And why did Kraft do it for almost the entire line of products including, Lunchables, Trident, Halls, Pillsbury, and Ritz Cheese Crackers? Artificial food dyes are still allowed in Europe – but you reformulated them there? Why?
I just wanted to hear the answer as I understood it. We know Kraft did it to avoid the warning label that is required in Europe when a product uses artificial dyes and wanted them to be honest and admit this but neither of Kraft’s representatives wanted to answer the question truthfully and said “I don’t know” each time we asked those questions. At one point I asked to speak to the person in charge of the UK version of Mac & Cheese, and Lynn said that was her territory, but she didn’t know the answer to our questions, so I asked – who does know the answers? Can we talk to them? She refused my request.
Lynne, exhausted from having to answer “I don’t know” several times during the meeting, said she “might” consider following up on that question.
Hearing, that we weren’t going to get the action from Kraft we wanted, I asked if we could set up a follow up meeting in 2 weeks to get answers to our questions, and see if we could stay in touch regarding this issue and whether any progress is being made at Kraft towards removing artificial dyes. Basil said “2 weeks is arbitrary” and Lynne, added “In 2 weeks -our position will be the same.”
We asked Lynne and Basil if they fed their kids Mac & Cheese and what versions they choose. Both of them answered several different versions including the ones with dyes, and Basil mentioning his family likes adding extra cheddar cheese (likely Kraft brand) to the boxed versions.
Towards the end of the meeting, I asked if Kraft was planning to eliminate the dyes anytime in the future, and if it was on their radar (considering they said in June 2012 they were looking into replacing artificial dyes with more natural options.) If Kraft was not ready to talk about it, we offered to back off. I even proposed to keep any of their plans to remove the dye private until they were ready and ignore media who was waiting outside. We handed them a carrot, but they didn’t bite. Instead, Lynne offered that she couldn’t “predict the future” and ultimately left the meeting saying she believes “Kraft is making the right choice” and “we have to agree to disagree.”
At the end of the meeting – Lynne claimed that she was taking our concerns and unanswered questions to other colleagues but I noticed she didn’t take any notes during our meeting. Her notepad was left entirely blank, while I had taken over 3 pages of notes.
After the meeting, I was walked to the main gate by security, and to my surprise, the boxes of petitions were still there. I found it comical that they left them out there for so long considering all the employees coming in and out of the building.
The supporters who came out that day waited over an hour for me to return from the meeting – it was an incredible feeling having them greet me at the end of the meeting. A video from Progressive Illinois captured what I said and shared at that moment here.
Result: Kraft’s Brand Damaged, Boycotts Ensue
Kraft made a very calculated move to sit down with me. That was one thing they did right to avoid further criticism. Could you imagine the backlash from the media if they didn’t accept the 270,000 petitions we delivered to their front door?
However, as you can see from the results of the meeting, Kraft continues to be in denial. One of my mentors stated that getting inside Kraft’s headquarters is indicative of the food industry berlin wall falling one pebble at a time…The potential brand damage that Kraft could suffer from not listening to concerned customers is tremendous – just use google news to google kraft mac & cheese and you can see what I’m talking about. I truly believe down the road, Kraft will make this change. We’ve seen this denial over and over again, companies say no a few times, before they say yes – especially when their decisions start to hurt their bottom line.
Readers, fans and supporters have already started to vote with their dollars and have stopped buying not only Kraft Mac & Cheese, but all of Kraft’s Products. If you’ve been following me for sometime, you know this – I personally haven’t bought anything from Kraft (except the Mac & Cheese I had to for this campaign) since they gave 2 million dollars fighting against our right to know and labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Trust me when I say this is not over and we have a lot of creative ideas planned to keep this pressure on and want you all to be even more involved!
Please make sure you sign up for my email list to stay up to date and follow me on facebook and twitter. Keep sharing this petition. And most importantly, keep talking to your friends and family about why they should not be consuming these artificial, petroleum-based dyes.
We can do this together – I know it.