“Big Hummus” Goes To Washington

by Jonah Shepp

Hummus

Sabra, the company you may know but not necessarily love for their prepackaged hummus, is asking the government to create a standard definition of their signature product:

The Food and Drug Administration already does this with some other products like cream cheese (which must be 33 percent milk fat for manufacturers to market it as cream cheese). Sabra argues the hummus market has run amok; its time for Uncle Sam to step in. “Some products labeled as ‘hummus’ are made entirely from legumes other than chickpeas,” Sabra wrote in its filing with the Food and Drug Administration. “Because these products substitute other legumes, the marketing of these products as “hummus” undermines honesty and fair dealing.”

As a traditional Middle Eastern dip, hummus has two crucial ingredients: chickpeas and tahini (the latter being a paste made from ground sesame seeds). Sabra has surveyed the market and, in documents submitted to the FDA, finds these two ingredients decidedly lacking in many purported hummus products today. … “The marketing of a ‘hummus’ product made from legumes other than chickpeas is akin to the marketing of guacamole made with fruit other than avocados,” Sabra argues.

Strictly on the merits, they are correct here—the word “hummus” actually means chickpeas—though I find some irony in a company founded by Israelis demanding that the American government standardize the definition of an Arabic word. Of course, this move has nothing to do with the merits and everything to do with regulating competitors out of existence. Tim Cavanaugh sees right through it:

If Sabra wants to sell a chipotle hummus, more power to them. Consumers have spent millions of dollars on the company’s dry, bland, plastic-tasting product, and nobody was forcing them. But this FDA petition is about hobbling rivals, not helping restore the consumer’s “confidence in the food supply.” Only the excellent Tablet magazine even hints at the possibility that Sabra, which has about 60 percent of this rapidly growing market, might be looking to lock out competitors.

The phenomenon is called “regulatory capture,” and the reason you almost never hear about it is because the public and the media have fully internalized the language of good government. When big companies exert political influence, they are not trying to end regulation of their industries: They’re trying to create it so that competitors have a harder time completing. Notice how no company ever agitates for stronger regulations before it becomes the dominant player.

(Image: A screenshot from Sabra’s petition.)