As tomorrow is April Fool's Day, there are more than a few of us who expect to see the mask pulled off of CyClone Dairy within the next 24 hours.
This is the supposed company touting milk from cloned animals - "Perfect Milk from Perfect Cows" - with an ultra-aggressive marketing campaign splashed across its slick, well-designed pages. CyClone Dairy is so proud of its product that they highlight the clone angle right there in their name, and they've been advertising pretty heavily on sites, especially liberal ones, across the blogosphere..
But wait - there are some oddities about cyclonedairy.com... such as, in the FAQ, the question "Are there any ethical issues about cloning?" receives the monosyllabic response, "No." Seems like a company trying to overturn consumers' "irrational" fears about cloning would offer something a little more slippery and effusive. And why does the "Our Products" page have just one sentence in boldface - "Clone-produced milk can be sold without special labeling"? It begins to look as though the "company" is a front for P.R. campaign by some group that is opposed to food from cloned animals, or at the very least agitating for mandatory labeling of same.
The complete lack of any contact info or "where to buy" info, and the fact that cyclonedairy.com was registered by Domains by Proxy, a service to keep the actual registrants anonymous, only strengthens the impression And the fact that on Friday a CyClone Dairy truck showed up at Union Square in NYC, handing out free samples of "cloned" milk, does nothing to mitigate the notion that the whole thing is a put on. After all, it's not hard to get a logo painted on a truck, and in America in 2009, it's certainly not hard to procure a quantity of ordinary milk (I doubt they were worried anyone would taste it and say "Heyyyy, this doesn't taste like cloned!").
A Philadelphia blogger named Ed Coffin got me started looking into this. He and I and some other bloggers have grown pretty sure that the whole thing is a hoax set to be revealed on April Fool's Day (though it must be said that Ed wavered substantially upon hearing about the Union Square event. Stay strong, Ed!). The real question was, Who exactly was the perpetrator of this hoax? And who, when other bloggers started also speculating about this, was sending out "sock puppet" commenters toturn the discussion away from the hoax and toward the issue of the FDA's under-regulation of cloning for food?
After a couple minutes of googling, I was ready to point the finger at Food and Water Watch. The first write-up of CyClone Dairy that showed up on the Internet was a March 19th blog post on that organization's site, taking the "company" to task and broaching no possibility that the site was not legit. But I called Food and Water Watch and after some back and forth over the weekend, Patty Lovera finally told me point-blank that F&WW was not involved - that they had an intern (not available for questioning at the time) blogging under the name SofiaB who had "google alerts for certain words and terms" and had stumbled across the site.
Still, it must be said, SofiaB's blog is oddly well-constructed for an intern, including no less than three photos that are not on the site in question, seven supplementary links and a list of companies that have "made it known that they will not be using products from cloned animals." That list includes Ben & Jerry's, and the first comment on the blog, the simple statement "It is satire" comes from "Ben&Jerry." Add to this the claim (which I have not personally verified) that the site was designed by Vermont Design Works, right outside of Burlington, and there's now a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing toward the South Burlington, Vermont-based ice cream makers, long known to be anti-cloned-animal-food and pro-labeling. Bloggers William K. Wolfrum and "El Dragon" at Fair Food Fight pushed these connections forward, and they sure made sense to me.
All that remained was to get a confirmation or denial from Ben & Jerry's P.R. office. So I called them first thing upon arriving this morning. I was put through to the voicemail of the man who could, I was assured, quickly answer the simple question "Is Ben & Jerry's involved in any way in the CyClone Dairy site?" I also sent him a direct email containing the same question at 11:30 a.m. Five hours and two additional phone calls later, I've been unable to get Ben & Jerry's to deny involvement. All day, it seems, right up to the close of business, the P.R. guy has been very busy. Very, very busy.
I suppose we'll find out tomorrow. I'm not going to go so far as to state, on the basis of circumstantial evidence, that I think Ben & Jerry's is the group behind the curtain, but I won't be at all surprised if it is. I will say this, though: If CyClone Dairy turns out to be a real company and not a hoax, I will be the first in line to drink a glass of their cloned milk. Yes, Ed, I'm that sure.
UPDATE 4/1: In retrospect, of course, I wish I had been more definitive, but the cat's out of the proverbial bag now - Ben & Jerry's acknowledges that CyClone Dairy was an April Fool's Day prank meant to raise awareness of clones in food. There are a lot of grumblings in the blogosphere about whether this campaign was really effective or not. We'll have more post-mortems later, but for now it's enough to say I (almost) Told You So.
UPDATE 4/3: OK, so Liz at Ben & Jerry's has confirmed in a voice mail late yesterday that yes, indeed, Food and Water Watch was knowingly involved in the CyClone Dairy hoax. "We worked with them, and we asked them not to tell anybody."
That's fine. Not telling anybody was certainly within their prerogative. They could certainly have played the run-out-the-clock game that Ben & Jerry's PR guy did and just not get back to me, or answer "no comment." But what actually happened was that I asked the F&WW press spokesperson point-blank whether or not the organization had any involvement or, and this was the exact question on Tuesday, whether they knew if Ben & Jerry's was the creator of the site. Food and Water Watch, in the person of Patty Lovera, answered with a firm "no." She even embellished the lie with additional lies about how F&WW found out about CyClone.
(The "back and forth over the weekend" mentioned above referred to my calling at first on Friday, March 27, and asking only if Food & Water Watch created the site. "No." Fair enough, but my first call with the revised, Ben & Jerry's-based question was noon on Monday, March 30.)
Interestingly, Lovera continued: "I probably shouldn't mention this, but we've been ginning up fake studies for years. Pretty much every press release our organization has put out has contained between five and ten false statements that we thought were entertaining. You see, our mission statement is incorrect - our primary objective is to obscure and distort the truth about environmental threats. Oh, that and helping Ben & Jerry's with marketing their product. By the way, don't tell anyone, but global warming is just a myth."
Ha! April Fools! Get it? She didn't really say that. I just made it up.
What's that? Today is not April Fool's Day? Well, neither was March 31st. On April first, sure, everybody has a tacit license to say things that aren't true, as long as they then ackowledge the deception the same day. It's one day out of the year where this is the case. But if Food and Water Watch believes this now extends to other days of the year, how are we to know, on any given day, whether they're lying or not? Will they hand out a calendar so that we can keep track of their "true" and "false" days? And is it really a good idea, in a realm where there are still high-profile climate-change deniers, for "green" activists to be willfully promulgating falsehoods?
Some would say this is a lot of sturm and durang over nothing, and indeed, a fake, "joke" Web site is not a huge issue of public concern. But still, let's bear in mind what happened here: A journalist asked a non-profit organization a yes-or-no question, on the record, about that organization's work, and the latter chose to lie rather than dilute, even slightly, the P.R. campaign of a for-profit business. And that's a damn shame.