June 28, 2010

Pink Fail: A Sober Pride Weekend

It was the biggest party weekend of the year, and while I decidedly felt out of place late Saturday afternoon, trekking around the Castro in my Vibram Five Fingers amidst beautiful men in lavender boa necklaces and four-inch heels, I did set out a few days prior to procure a pink fuzzy drink to enjoy with the very gay flavors being served up at Three Twins Ice-Cream.

And what did I encounter?  Empty fridges.  My favorite booze, Synergy's Guava Goddess kombucha, was nowhere to be found.  Apparently, Whole Paycheck took the raw, fermented beverages out of circulation 12 days ago, with the distributor UNFI soon following suit, suspending delivery of several brands to retailers, and depriving me of my pink drink of choice.  (I first became aware of this when shopping at Rainbow Grocery.  While this is a lesser act of corporate spinelessness than when it pulled raw milk, Whole Foods' style of McGanic Marketing consistently fails to impress me; I don't shop there anymore.)
At issue is that left to its own devices - it is alive! - bottled unpasteurized kombucha may continue to ferment, resulting in a final alcohol content that exceeds 0.5 percent.  This triggers labeling requirements that none of the kombucha manufacturers are currently in compliance with.

I have very little tolerance for alcohol, red wine gives me a headache, cocktails are expensive, and half a beer can cause me to end up naked somewhere.  I like the innocuous buzz that kombucha gives me.  I rarely drink anything other than plain H2O or green tea, but every so often when I've overdosed on heavy foods, a glass of kombucha can help kick-start digestion, cleanse and detoxify the system, and help me quickly regain my appetite for dessert.  Plus, Guava Goddess really does look pretty in pink.  It would have been great to have some on hand to celebrate a USA win in FIFA World Cup's Round of 16 Saturday morning, but alas, victory was not forthcoming.  It would have been great to have some on hand to wash down the pizza I inhaled while watching the ABC / ESPN broadcast.  But no dice.  The commentator went "Going, Going, Ghana" and that was Team America's fizzling finish to a feverish run, no champagne here nor there, and I was left with a heavy feeling that I ate too much pizza.

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If Lindsay Lohan is emblematic of all that is wrong with America, perhaps it's really not that much of a stretch to say she's the mother of Prohibition 2.0.  On June 6, after the MTV Movie Awards, her SCRAM bracelet recorded a positive alcohol reading, prompting TMZ to speculate that Lindsay's favorite drink on her "Allowed" list may have set off the SCRAM device due to its possibly not-so-negligible alcohol content.  While Los Angeles County officials had subsequently determined that Ms. Lohan was in compliance with her probation requirements - "her pee was clean," as TMZ puts it - who is to say that the suits at Whole Foods didn't ponder over the spectacle of this kombucha-pounding American Idle and decided they should make themselves look busy and do something to earn their keep?  (This, by the way, is called CYA.)
Corporate America Takes The Lead.
Government Bureaucrats Push Paper In Support.
Fuck Yeah!
Enters the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB (the first "T" being operative here, if you ignore the two substances.)  Upon learning of Whole Food's initiative, TTB released a statement which in part says, "Anyone who produces alcohol beverages without payment of tax in violation of the [Internal Revenue Code] is subject to liability of tax, penalties, and interests."  Now, if I were a kombucha manufacturer, I would think I am seriously fucked at this point.  If existing products are field-tested to be alcohol positive (> 0.5 percent), the manufacturer is legally exposed for having violated labeling laws.  And going forward, what are the alternatives?  (i) Change the label to indicate that the product may exceed a 0.5 percent alcohol content, with all the associated warnings about fetuses and so on, pay excise tax, make less money.  (ii) Change the formulation of the product to limit fermentation.  I am not a scientist.  I don't know how this would be done, or if it would diminish the potency of kombucha as a health beverage.  Neither option is very attractive.  Thank you, Whole Foods.  You just hurt a bunch of innocent suppliers over a minor issue and non-existent problem.

TTB also says it's coordinating with the FDA "to ensure that kombucha products that are currently on the market comply with Federal laws."  Yes, the FDA, owned and operated by AgriBiz and Big Pharma.  What this means, in practice, is that UNFI has advised retailers to DESTROY kombucha beverages unless they have been tested and cleared for sale.  Unnecessary destruction really hurts my brain.  A common sense approach would be to put a note on the refrigerator case informing consumers that certain kombucha drinks may have an elevated alcohol content, caveat emptor.  But lawyers write corporate directives, so we get senseless destruction instead.

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What to do? 
  • Bitch, moan, and commiserate with fellow kombucha fans on Synergy's Facebook page
  • Get a kombucha culture and DIY. 
  • Scour local, independent health food stores for their rapidly dwindling stock.  (In order to not jeopardize the store owners, I shall not divulge where certain secret stashes are still available.)  
  • Dine at restaurants that have kombucha on tap.  If these establishments already have liquor licenses, they can for sure serve anyone 21 or older.     
  • Switch to rejuvelac ... maybe.
  • Develop a black market. 
  • Wait, just wait.  I'm sure GT Dave (from Synergy) and other kombucha bosses are scrambling to get themselves out of this predicament.  We must be patient.   
Meanwhile, I will try to not eat too much pizza.  And I won't ask you to get me a beer.   

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