August 23rd, 2009
Even the most enthusiastic of capitalists knows the truth behind the Latin phrase, “Caveat Emptor’ or “Buyer Beware.” Street-smart people have always touted the wisdom of carefully evaluating the quality of the products you acquire in sale or trade. One of our older American-English idioms warns us against buying something sight unseen: a pig in a poke.
Most of us aren’t buying pigs these days, but products containing pig parts abound, a hundred times further down the line from the porker’s origins as a farm-dwelling mammal. Good old Porky is transformed, not just into sausage but also medicine, floor wax, glue, crayons, lipstick, buttons and antifreeze.
That raises the question of why we put our trust in salesmen who not only lack solid scientific understanding about their own products but have no legal obligation to provide it to us. The Wall Street Journal recently demonstrated this form of folly in an advertisement masquerading as a news article.
Gwendolyn Bounds advises us of a new type of lawn care product, in development by the Scotts Corporation, which falls within a class she calls the “naturals”—products derived from non-synthetic source materials like soy. Ms. Bounds, like the CEO of Scotts, her sole informant for this discussion, never actually states that these “naturals” are less toxic/safer than other products. But the average reader is sure to interpret the story as one of a corporation committed to making a non-toxic product that kills pests and weeds, all because U.S. law has no definition for the use of the term “natural” in marketing. All a company has to do is submit information about its product’s active ingredient to satisfy regulators, who are solely concerned with bestowing marketing approvals for such ingredients.
The consumer needs to be informed of the full contents of the final, marketed product, which will have added ingredients serving to prolong shelf life, provide ease of delivery to surfaces and increase the ‘punch,’ or actual toxicity. How many times have we heard that lovely little chrysanthemums provide us with low-toxicity pesticides called pyrethrum? Yet the applicators don’t tell you it is combined with solvents and synergists, which jack up the level of toxicity and diminish bodily defenses against it.
Delivery devices were discussed in the article, but we weren’t told that such things aren’t regulated at all on a federal level. Ms. Bounds may have used a new sprayer to apply a “more targeted” dose of poison to an area, but she has no idea of how far the drift from it will go as the poisons volatilize into the air over the next few weeks. There was no mention of how long the delivery solvents will cause residues to stick to shoes and bare feet, so the poisons can be tracked into your home and car.
The CEO of Scotts has a lot of help in ensuring his product line is warmly regarded by those who believe they are being told the truth. Unfortunately, until word definitions are entered into a new dictionary of MARKETPLACE DEFINITIONS, as opposed to those of standard English, health care spending will continue to increase significantly from one year to the next. We are at the mercy of our own, willful ignorance. Caveat Emptor, indeed. Particularly when it comes to press releases, er, articles in business periodicals.
My letter to the WSJ:
Re: WSJ article, Where the Grass is Made Greener by Gwendolyn Bounds
To the Editor,
The primary informant for this article is Scotts’ CEO, rendering it an advertisement which denies readers crucial information about the science of pest and weed control. Industry has no duty to reveal the contents of their products, and consumers have no legal ‘right to know’ under trade secret laws. The term ‘natural’ has no legal meaning and does not exclude toxic constituents from products so labeled.
Before asking consumers to trust a company to sell them poisons (‘cides’), it is a good idea to investigate the track record of that company with regard to employee safety, pollution around manufacturing sites or note past product recalls by regulators. Instead of questioning environmentalists about hypothetical products still in production, the WSJ ought to consult with scientists associated with the EPA at such institutions as the Oregon University Extension Service.
That is the difference between a piece of journalism and a press release. You can do better than this.
Useful sources of information do not have to be unbiased. They just need to offer up useful facts: