Orange juice import ban reflects a smoldering crisis

On January 11 the FDA announced it was banning imports of orange juice from all foreign countries. This is a serious action. The mere possibility of it caused orange juice futures to soar to an all-time high.The impact on US growers may very well be significant. The impact on global trade may also be significant as affected orange farmers in other countries, particularly Brazil where this hits hardest, look to their governments for retaliation.

Since this is serious, there must be a very serious reason for this strong action. On the face of it, it looks like there is. The problem is a fungicide called carbendazim. It is used to prevent black spot, a type of mold that grows on orange trees. The problem is the fungicide is illegal to use in the US, but not in Brazil.

Orange juice is big business. In 2009 we Americans drank 1.2 billion gallons of the healthy stuff, or almost 4 gallons per person. A lot of the orange juice comes from concentrate from Brazil. Since Brazilian orange juice is more tart than most domestic juice, the juice we drink usually comes from different sources. The biggest brands of orange juice are Minute Maid and Tropicana, owned by CocaCola and Pepsico respectively. It was CocaCola which alerted the FDA to the presence of the carbendazim in Brazilian concentrate.

This may appear to be a simple case of the US government doing for us what we expect it to which is to protect our food supply and help keep us safe and healthy. I wish it were that simple. But food safety and health issues are all caught up in pseudo-science, in politics, in global trade issues, in hatred and mistrust of big corporations, in media fear-mongering.

The carbendazim that was discovered by CocaCola is in the parts per billion range. Extremely low levels. I doubt there is a single credible scientist that would say that drinking orange juice with carbendazim in it at 10 parts per billion represents any kind of health risk–unless maybe you are a lab rat and the force feed you forty gallons of the stuff. Testing of elements in food has gotten very, very good. We now test for things at minute levels where before we had no idea they were there because our technology didn’t allow us to test for it. But there is a dark side to that. Find one thing at some minute level and the world can go crazy.

That brings me to my old subject: how does the media deal with this. Case #1: Huffington Post. The headline makes it clear what their intention will be: “Orange Juice Shows Us the Toxic Side of International Trade.” That’s beautiful, we got toxins, orange juice and the evils of international trade all in one attention-grabbing headline. The article, written by professor so who could question his credentials, goes on at great lengths to point out the extreme danger of this thing called carbendazim:

This fungicide is closely related to the phased out benomyl, eliminated over concerns that it causes birth defects. Carbendazim also causes birth defects in lab animals and is probably the reason benomyl does so since benomyl breaks down to carbendazim in the body. Both fungicides also damage male fertility and cause liver cancer. FDA has responded to this information by disallowing carbendazim use on food crops in the US and has no acceptable tolerances for this fungicide on imports such as orange juice.

That’s enough to scare me. But the above paragraph does not point out that there is a relationship between danger and exposure. It isn’t until the very last paragraph where the author admits something that is rather important to this whole story:

Fortunately the concentrations of carbendazim found in orange juice so far are below what would constitute a frank health risk.

OK, at the parts per billion level we are talking about there is no health risk. The FDA said so themselves:

“Consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that have been reported does not raise safety concerns,” the FDA said in a letter to the Juice Products Association, a trade group. “FDA does not intend to take action to remove from domestic commerce orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim.”

It turns out that the lack of safety concern expressed by the FDA is a bit of an understatement. According to the EPA the benchmark for products on the market is 80 parts per billion and that level is 1000 to 3000 times lower than the levels that would indicate a health concern. So, if my math is correct, the EPA says the parts per billion would have to be from 80,000 to 240,000 parts billion before there would be a health concern.

These levels do not raise safety concerns? Then why did the FDA take the action it did? Why does HuffPo link orange juice with toxins, why do they scare the bejesus out of everyone with the terrible risks this imported juice represents? Why does even an innocuous business article about this issue include the “on-the-street” interview with a customer who says, “I’m not going to buy anymore of it until they say all of the orange juice is okay.”

You would think the US growers would be ecstatic. Clearly this will raise prices of domestic oranges. But they are realistic:

“There might be concerns in some consumers’ minds about there being chemicals within the juice. I think that could almost counter-balance the increase in futures prices and subsequent returns to Florida growers,” said Ray Royce of the Highland County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida.

Royce also said something that should be of concern to all of us who buy food: “Obviously food safety issues are probably going to play a bigger and bigger role in driving food or commodity prices in the future.” I’m sure you don’t mind and I don’t mind paying more for food if safety is improved. But I hate like heck having to pay more for political purposes or because the news media need to get more eyes on their websites and do so by doing everything they can to scare people whether there is justification or not.

Why is there a growing state of fear relating to orange juice in this issue? Is because the US believes Brazil is dumping oranges on us? That motivation is entirely possible given this action by the US in 2009 against dumping accusations. Might the growers in Florida look to the administration for a boost and the administration see opportunity relating to an election later this year?

I’m really not into conspiracy thinking. But I am very interested in the public being made aware that screaming headlines about the next great danger to our food may not be accurate, fair or in our best interests. I am convinced that the food production business from the farmer to the giant manufacturer is in for a very interesting time. The shifting values of the American consumer are at the heart of it, but those shifting values are created or inflamed by the necessity of media outlets to attract and audience. And there can be no doubt that visceral emotion is their greatest strategy. They create fear — often at the expense of the truth. And when politicians and regulators sense fear or outrage, they believe it is their duty to step and create new laws or more restrictive regulations.

We all want our food supply to be safe. But I want decisions about that to be based on reality, not screaming headlines and government action based on unreasonable public fear and unproven accusations.

Internet protests–exercising the power

Many of the largest internet website leaders have joined in the protest against SOPA/PIPA in an effort to stop Congress from implementing new laws aimed at protecting intellectual property.

Poynter has gathered up the “blackout” pages of many of these sites and you can see them here.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue–and it is more complicated than either side is willing to admit–today marks one of the more significant days in the young but world-changing history of the internet.

We saw the power of the internet in the “Arab spring.” Yet, it wasn’t the internet doing it, it was people of like mind, at least on the issue of a common enemy, using the power of the internet to focus energy. Now we see it energizing people, millions perhaps, to get involved and express and opinion on an important political issue. It is not “the internet,” of course, it is people, but these are the people who when combined together to a considerable degree control the internet. This is a whole new power base and we are seeing a struggle for power going on on a pretty historic scale. These people, the folks behind Google, Wikipedia, WordPress, Firefox, Reddit and so many others are demonstrating today that if they band together they can largely shut down our lives. (Amazon is taking a little softer line.)

It may be a strange thing to contemplate, but what if the Congress, realizing that what is playing out here is a demonstration of where power really lies, moves ahead simply to demonstrate they are still running the country? There’s almost a sense of that in Majority Leader Reid’s strategy of moving toward the quick vote on PIPA.

Perhaps our leaders need to learn what Tunisia’s, Egypt’s, Libya’s and other Arab leaders needed to learn as well. No matter how powerful you think you are, no matter how big of an army you control, the power still resides in the people. Thank God for that. But the internet leaders who have banded together for this unprecedented global protest also need to be reminded that their power, as flexed as it may be right now, is limited as well. First, by the willingness of people to grant that, and second by the dictum of Lord Acton that power corrupts.


SOPA is dead, PIPA still alive and Wikipedia goes dark Wednesday

If you rely on Wikipedia (not sure I could live without it), it will be dark Wednesday. This unusual action is a protest against two bills that were under consideration in Congress: SOPA and PIPA. However, I just found out that SOPA is dead as of earlier today. PIPA (Protect IP Act) is the Senate’s version of the Stop Online Piracy Act as SOPA was called. (don’t you just love the names of legislation–so carefully crafted to be beyond argument or disagreement).

The storm of protest these proposed measures caused demonstrated the power inherent in this communication network we call the internet to influence our laws and future. There is a value system and an ethical platform that underlies this network and while far from homogeneous it is something that can be described and even felt. Any legislator, like any company leader, not fully understanding this value system runs the risk of serious damage. GoDaddy, one of the internet’s largest domain registry sites, lost 100,000 domain names in about 10 days because the CEO rather thoughtlessly backed SOPA, then changed his mind after he saw the damage. He should have learned more from his elephant hunting escapade.

Note to legislators–I understand that you are concerned, rightly so, about protecting IP. But, before cooking up more legislation along the lines of SOPA and PIPA I suggest two things: be aware of unintended consequences and how much damage you could do without even realizing it and 2) consult with the internet technorati and engage them in a solution that will help solve the problem and gain their support. If you don’t you may find “The Internet” will not want to see you re-elected.


What? No such thing as social media?

Gary Vaynerchuk is an entreprenuer, internet (I was going to say social media) rockstar, TED talker, and big time wine guy. So what’s he doing in this video saying there is no such thing as social media?

If you don’t feel like watching YouTube right now, I’ll cut to the chase: the internet is social media and social media is the internet, so why do we keep calling it social media? I’ve struggled with this same question because I do believe that social media as a term has become much broader than it started out. PIER, the communication management system I created, was conceived in 1999. It featured even in its earliest versions web content management, list management, distribution, interactive management (which we called inquiry management), limited monitoring, analytics (reporting) and a lot more, But that was before the days of 2.0 which is when they started talking about the web as more than a platform to load up your brochure in html and start using it to actually work with customers and other people. Social media as a term, in my mind anyway, emerged with the likes of initially MySpace (remember that one?), then Facebook and Twitter.

Twitter, and Facebook, now raise similar questions. Is Twitter social media? It certainly was intended for that. But now it is used extensively for brand building, for emergency communications, for selling things. It’s a long ways from friends sharing information on what they are having for lunch. Similar with Facebook. What started out as a college campus replacement to the pre-teen MySpace is now used by most corporations as their website. Yes, their primary marketing website. Just watch some TV commercials and see how often the tag says: facebook/companyname vs.

You can certainly argue that by using it for out and out commercial marketing and sales doesn’t make it less social, because it its dominance as a means of social contact that makes it so attractive for marketing. Yet, the change in purpose is significant.

The internet has taken almost as many forms and functions as their people and organizations with the will and knowledge to take advantage of it. That, I suspect, will continue for quite a while to come (hmm, what will replace the internet?). A surprising amount of the internet’s functions will be aimed at strictly social purposes. But as we have seen, something created for social purposes will not necessarily remain there. A Facebook page for CocaCola with 35 million followers is not the same as a group of friends on a university campus sharing info. I suspect the terminology will evolve as well and I appreciate Gary bringing this elephant in the room into clearer view.


Try this to persuade the higher-ups

“Yeah, I get it, but those a floor or two above me won’t buy it.” That’s one of the most consistent responses I get when talking to communicators about the changes in how the world gets and expects to get information. It is a bit hard to believe but in a lot of executive suites there still is a lot of resistance to the ideas related to “transparency,” “stakeholder engagement” and even social media–particularly in a major crisis.

While this holds true in the corporate world it has also been true in government communications. While sometimes it appears that there is real progress in adopting the new “fast, direct & transparent” approach to communication, sometimes it is shocking how far we have yet to go.

The answer of course, is to talk to them. I’ve had a few opportunities in the past couple of years to brief senior executives on the communication environment, particularly related to our involvement in the gulf oil spill. But I find that Communication Managers, Public Affairs Managers or PIOs (Public Information Officers) don’t necessarily carry a lot of weight with the men and women in the C-suite. And it certainly is true for Incident Commanders–they might listen to other incident commanders, but to take advice from a PIO, well that takes a hard-earned reputation and a special relationship.

If you can relate to this problem, I’d like to propose a solution. Watch this 6 minute video. In it my friend Bill Boyd provides a compelling example of why social media is now essential. His primary point is carried with power and conviction: when it hits the fan “you can’t be fast enough.” That may be nothing new to you, but here’s the kicker–Bill is a fire chief in a mid-size Northwest city. He’s not a communicator (well, he is, and served as an effective PIO before chiefdom, but don’t tell your boss that), he’s an experienced response manager, incident commander and very respected voice in national emergency management circles. He’s one of 2-3 speakers at the FEMA webinar on social media coming up January 18.

Bill directly addresses fire chiefs, emergency response professionals and elected officials. But don’t think your senior execs won’t relate to them. Send them a link. Or, I’ll get you a download version so you can add to a presentation or training program you are working on.

View the Bill Boyd “You Can’t Be Fast Enough Video.”


A dog rescue, a fishing story and a DUI victim

OK, this is very strange. Not sure how it fits crisisblogger other than to show how the internet and social media help us connect the dots like nothing else.

My son Chris has a good friend, Rory, who is one of the most avid fishermen in the world. He fishes out of his kayak almost continually, visiting many different places. He’s in Sarasota, Florida fishing about a half mile off the shore when something very strange happens. A dog comes swimming up to his kayak. Being a technology guy, Rory video tapes his fishing escapades and shares his highlights on Facebook. So the dog swimming up to his kayak, him pulling it out of the water and drying it off, talking to boats around there trying to find the owner, all of that was videotaped and put up on YouTube.

But, the mystery remained. Why was a dog out swimming by himself a half mile off the shore? The mystery apparently was solved by someone watching the YouTube. The dog belonged to a woman who was out walking it when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The story is told in this ABC news post.

It is a sad story. The fact that you can share the sadness of such an unnecessary death and the pathos of a frightened dog, with a rescue caught on video and shared with the world, describes in a powerful way, more powerful than words, how our world has become connected.


A behind the scenes look at Penn State PR efforts

I found this article from espn about Penn State’s post-crash PR efforts very interesting. According to the story four memos from new Penn State president Rodney Erickson to his board detailed the behind the scenes effort to stabilize the school’s reputation after the arrest of Sandusky and the firing of Paterno and the former president.

A few highlights:

– a lot of focus on donor contributions along with the message that previous contributions would not be returned. The donor picture was very positive with donations increasing substantially and the public statements of support from donors.

– some interesting comments about “aligning our message” and the confident declaration that “we are taking control of the narrative of the story.” That kind of triumphalism in light of the deep problems no doubt would serve as a red flag in front of the journalistic bulls.

– memos contained details of their monitoring efforts that showed sharp declines in interest in Penn State

The memos were released as part of a public records request, which is interesting because according to the article the school is largely exempt from such requests and declined to provide additional documents including memos beyond Nov 18.

Some important lessons here:

– everything you document in a high profile situation likely will find its way into the public arena–particularly if tax payer dollars are involved, but even if not, it’s a very transparent world

– Despite the overall negative tone of the espn article and the smarmy headline: “Officials focused on image” (like, duh!) the article demonstrates to me anyway some clear headed and effective leadership being demonstrated by the new president. It also gives an interesting inside perspective to a limited degree of the much maligned public relations team which suggests that whatever happened before, they are doing the things they need to do including focusing on key relationships, prioritizing major issues, and closely monitoring the internet for public sentiment.

– with all the press about the stupidity of the mistakes that were made, few commentators or reporters gave much recognition to the position the administration was in as the Sandusky story broke. They had the winningest coach in university football history, an icon, practically a god to some folks. They had fans and a donor base who would not stand for (indeed many did not) any perceived injustice against Paterno. In fact, many supporters still believe he was not treated fairly and take great exception to the way the university is trying to distance itself from his aura.

Crises like this, particularly complex reputation crises, are much more nuanced than how the story is typically told. Journalists have to tell a story in a way that simplifies, eliminates confusion, and to make it interesting, tell it in a melodrama fashion where the good guys are clearly separated from the bad guys. Bloggers and the millions of social media commentators seem to slide easily into extreme corners, amplifying the demonizing that happens in the media, or demonstrating what appears to be blind, unthinking support. The truth is somewhere in there, but with all the words spilled, it is often hard to find.

The problem with this is those on the inside who have to make the decisions see the complexity while those of us on the outside do not. What is critically important is that oversimplified outside perspective be brought inside, to the highest levels, to help guide the decisions that need to be made. Because, despite the complexity and conflicts in the Penn State debacle, the officials making the decisions did not have the clarity of vision to see how their action and inaction would be communicated and seen.