Is the System Stacked Against Us?

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Pam Linn

This all started when I tried to buy a Tom’s of Maine toothpaste labeled “clean and gentle.” The store that previously carried it no longer does and blames their distributor. Guess what; I’ve heard all this before. When in doubt, blame the distributor. Could it be that when Colgate-Palmolive acquired Tom’s, it dumped clean and gentle?

I settle on another Tom’s product called “whole care.” Under a large magnifying glass (available only at home), I ascertained the major difference was the inclusion of sodium lauryl sulfate in whole care.

So, like all modern folk, I Googled it. Twice. The first site said that laureth and lauryl were essentially the same. “Laureth is an accepted contraction of lauryl and ether,” according to the first. The second site, Paula’s Choice, calls laureth the milder of the two and rated it “good.” Lauryl, Paula described as “one of the most irritating cleansing agents used in skincare products” and is rated “poor.” Go figure.

The March 30 edition of the Wall Street Journal titled a long article on the Business & Tech page, “’Natural’ product claims can be murky.” But did they tell us something we don’t already know? Like “natural” may as well be called “nada,” according to United States agencies, which don’t regulate use of that word. Well, maybe.

Focusing on laundry and dish detergents, the WSJ piece had a clever graphic showing four products, owned by the same companies, only one of which was labeled “natural” and cost considerably more. Colgate’s brand was 15 percent cheaper than Tom’s of Maine. 

Of course, I would gladly pay extra for the milder product, but (thanks to the nameless distributor) it is no longer available here.

One of the biggest problems concerning U.S. regulations is that they are handled by too many agencies (most of which have had their funding decimated by Congress). For instance, the Food and Drug Administration regulates foods and personal care products, and requires detailed ingredient labeling, according to the WSJ article.

However, the Federal Trade Commission enforces truth-in-advertising laws, which also apply to labeling.

And then there’s the Environmental Protection Agency, which has flagged sodium laureth sulfate as contributing to a contaminant (1,4-dioxane) that may be carcinogenic.

Sodium lauryl sulfate is not to be confused with sodium coco sulfate, a mixture that may contain a significant amount of sodium lauryl sulfate. It’s too much for my feeble old brain.

It seems if you want purity, your best bet is to look for something labeled “organic,” which is more closely regulated and follows guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still with me? 

Hovering over all these regulators are the industry groups representing everything from food to chemicals. And just to complicate things, the current debate over labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has wound up in court.

States have the right to regulate labeling of food and products containing GMOs. However, large corporations would prefer a federal standard for the whole country to avoid the cost of different labels for different states. Vermont passed a law requiring such labeling and adjacent states are waiting to see what happens there. Voters have elected to enforce GMO labeling but will have to wait until a final verdict in Vermont.

General Mills announced last month that it would start labeling products containing GMOs to comply with the Vermont law. The U.S. Senate narrowly voted against a bill that would have blocked such state laws.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has challenged the Vermont law in federal court, hoping for a national solution to what it calls a patchwork of state labeling laws. Congress, however, may choose to avoid wading into the disagreement. It seems to have done a lot of that lately. Its standard answer seems to be “not in an election year.”

Of course, Congress wasn’t doing much before this year. Could gridlock be caused by our campaign finance laws, which might need more than a tweak? When the lobbyists contribute to the campaigns, they pretty much own the Congress, which funds the agencies we rely on to regulate everything.

There is one candidate who seems to understand the enormity of what’s wrong with the system. But the system is probably stacked against him.