Are Americans Too Ignorant to Buy Good Mediterranean Food?

Dip maker Sabra claims that its competitors’ hummus is not “hummus-y” enough. To help consumers tricked by this horrible deception, Sabra has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the definition of hummus. That definition just happens to coincide with the products that Sabra already sells.

I’m not an expert on hummus or the hummus business, but my guess is that many people like the idea of eating hummus more than they like the taste of traditional hummus. The result has been a proliferation of dips that contain some of the characteristics of hummus but otherwise appeal more to American tastes (such as Red Lentil Chipotle Hummus with Poblano Pepper & Corn Topping). Sabra wants the government to mandate what portion of a dip’s ingredients must be traditional hummus ingredients before a company can market that dip as hummus.

The move has been widely panned as a transparent attempt at regulatory protectionism.  

These development in the hummus industry are eerily reminiscent of recent attempts by the U.S. olive oil industry to “protect” consumers from its European competitors. The U.S. manufacturers have been trying to portray Italian olive oil as tainted and inherently untrustworthy. The U.S. firms want the federal government to impose new labeling and testing requirements on olive oil that would insulate the U.S. market and benefit domestic producers, who currently hold less than 2% of market share. 

Last year, Sallie James and I wrote a Cato policy analysis identifying some red flags that can help us identify protectionist regulations. Two of the most obvious ones are industry support of the proposed regulation and lack of a plausible theory of market failure. Basically, if a firm is asking the government to make the firm better serve its own customers for their own good, don’t believe it. The firm is looking for something else—probably to disadvantage its competition.

One of the best ways to get the government to stifle your competition is to frame your anticompetitive policy preference as advancing some altruistic public cause. The altruistic cause in the hummus case seems to be protection from tasty dips that are not made by Sabra.

Tim Cavanaugh at National Review astutely points out that Sabra, which is owned by PepsiCo and is by far the largest provider of retail hummus, is much more capable of dealing with the compliance burdens of FDA regulation than its competitors. He notes, “The claim that getting the FDA involved will promote a ‘spirit of fairness’ is a crock. And the crock is not filled with hummus.” 

Hopefully, Sabra will decide to dedicate itself to making and marketing competitive products–something it apparently does well–and stop trying to regulate away its competitors.