Make Food for Babies, but Act Like an Adult

May 28, 2020

Another dispute over advertising claims.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I read about disputes between businesses over advertising claims, I often get this mental image of kids in the backseat whining “Daddy, Justin called me a booger-breath!”

In that spirit, let us look at Campbell Soup’s complaint about getting dragged for making, through its Plum Organics division, heat-treated, shelf-stable baby food. The dragging is coming from competitor Little Spoon Baby Food, which uses high-pressure processing (HPP) to extend the shelf life of its refrigerated baby food.

On a website, Little Spoon slams conventional baby food for having been retorted: “Did you know that baby food in jars and pouches is typically older than your baby? (Gross right?!)” The website, nomoreoldbabyfood.com, is headed by a GIF of babies crying over open jars of conventional baby food. The website takes you through every step of the retorting process, explaining how evil it is: “These high temperatures damage most valuable nutrition that is left in the puree.”

Campbell thought this was unfair and went to the National Advertising Division of BBB National Programs (formerly known as the Better Business Bureau), which polices advertising complaints. The NAD sided with Campbell, ruling that high-pressure processing is still processing, so Little Spoon shouldn’t call its stuff “fresh,” and that Little Spoon was being mean to retorted baby food. Little Spoon blew off most of the criticism, so NAD “has referred the matter to the attention of the appropriate government agency for possible enforcement action.”

Well, if ever there were a David-Goliath situation, this is it.

I’m not even talking about the respective revenues of Campbell Soup Co. vs. Little Spoon Inc. I’m looking at the respective business models, and potential, of retorting vs. HPP as methods to process baby food.

HPP, let us not forget, is intended almost entirely for refrigerated foods. It can only extend a product’s shelf life by a few days or, at best, weeks. That’s why Little Spoon is only available directly from the company, which recommends that it be consumed within 14 days. To top it off, HPP is expensive compared to most retorting because it’s a batch process that has to be done on highly specialized, costly equipment.

Retorted baby food, on the other hand, is like every other kind of retorted product: It can last for years, even decades. This puts every channel, in every market, within the processor’s reach, and increases convenience exponentially, since caregivers can stock up on the stuff as much as they want or need to (and don’t have to keep it in the fridge).

In other words, “lasting for years” gives conventional baby food enormous advantages over products like Little Spoon. If Little Spoon is trying to do a little commercial jujitsu, turning its competitors’ advantage against them, I have a hard time seeing that as unfair.

I hope the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA, to which the NAD referred Campbell’s complaint, give it the short shrift it deserves. Just because you make food for babies doesn’t mean you have to act like them.

(This post has been corrected to reflect that Campbell no longer uses HPP for any of its products.)