Score one for the little guy. On Friday, January 25, PepsiCo announced it would eliminate brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from Gatorade products after a swell of consumer voices raised concerns about the safety of the food additive. Used as a stabilizing agent to evenly spread citrus flavoring throughout beverages, BVO has been an ingredient of concern among consumer groups and regulators for over 40 years. Nevertheless, it can be found in about 10 percent of drinks sold in the United States, according to The New York Times.
BVO is banned in the European Union, and faces a possible ban in Japan. Often used as a flame retardant in plastic, BVO has been linked to neurological disorders, thyroid disruption and reduced fertility in human and animal studies.
Leading the charge among concerned consumers was a 15-year-old Mississippi girl, Sarah Kavanagh, who in December 2012 created an online petition to remove BVO from Gatorade. Kavanagh garnered over 200,000 signatures for her petition, and claimed victory for PepsiCo's decision in a Friday statement on Change.org.
A PepsiCo spokesperson asserts, however, that the change was not because of Kavanagh's petition, but that the decision had been in the making for some months. Either way, it would be hard to argue that consumer pressure did not play a part in the food giant's decision, considering that BVO has been a controversial ingredient for so long.
The change is also indicative of the larger trend of engaged, connected consumers eradicating one-by-one the quiet villains of the food supply. Pink slime, for one, fell victim to a Change.org petition that gained traction in mainstream media. One retailer's decision not to stock Kashi's GMO-containing products produced a viral explosion of consumer reaction and forced the company to reformulate. And recently, a swath of consumers and non-GMO activists bombarded Cheerios' Facebook page with furious comments about the brand's use of genetically-engineered ingredients.
Politics, however, still seem to play by the old rules. Support for California's failed Prop 37, for example, grew as a grassroots, crowd-sourced initiative, but was ultimately quashed by big money.
Consumers (i.e., citizens) have much more agency in the private sector than in the public sector because businesses depend on their money for continued existence. Now that social media has introduced a platform where consumers can rapidly build consensus, brand-owners have more responsibility than ever before to be receptive and attentive to the voice of the people.
Maybe PepsiCo's decision to drop BVO was economically motivated. Maybe they can get hydrocolloids on the cheap. But it's undeniable that the new, unified (albeit unpredictable) consumer voice has grown to become one of the ultimate impactors on every company's bottom line.