Once upon a time, in some country far, far away, probably on another planet with a different legal system entirely, there was a girl scout. She could be a bit of a brat at times, but she had a good heart and believed in doing the right thing. Most of all, she loved being a girl scout.
One of the best parts of being a scout was selling (and eating) the girl scout cookies. Not only were they tasty, but their sales provided most of the funding for her scouting activities: the sleepovers and pajama parties, or whatever it is that girl scouts do.
Today happened to be the beginning of that most exciting time of year, called "Spring" in her bizarre language, which was set aside for the sales and consumption of scout cookies. She felt good about being part of something that made so many people happy. It was even worth putting up with the same tired jokes, repeated year after year by the same borderline creepy middle-aged males, about whether the cookies were made from real girl scouts.
"They would have to print it on the ingredient list," she explained sensibly.
Usually the creepy middle-aged male would nod and say, "Ah, I see," satisfied at having received this bit of free amusement with his cookies.
But this time the creepy middle-aged male gave her an odd look and said, "Have you read the ingredient list? Then he did something even more unusual.
He walked away without buying any cookies.
On her planet, no one ever walked away without buying scout cookies.
Since she was in a bit of a hurry, she quickly did the following:
- She read the ingredient list and saw that the cookies contained partially hydrogenated oils.
- She researched partially hydrogenated oils (also called trans fatty acids, or TFAs) on the internet and found that many people believe they may increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. She learned that Harvard researchers concluded that trans fats were responsible for over 30,000 heart disease deaths a year. She learned that others believe trans fats may be carcenogenic.
- She did not want to engage in food hysteria (as in the alar crisis), but at the same time she didn't want to be forced to sell a food that might potentially be unhealthy. Realizing that nutrition is a complicated subject, one in which the conventional wisdom changes frequently, she recruited other scouts to help her do a thorough search of the medical literature on the subject. (Sensing that there might be some resistance from the scout organization, she did this as an unofficial project, at least initially.) She also talked to researchers at her local university, to help her evaluate the literature.
- After concluding that they could not support the addition of TFAs to the cookies, the girls discussed various options for direct action.
- Her fellow scouts decided that if their troop went on strike and refused to sell the cookies, this would yield a great deal of national publicity and perhaps cause the scout cookie manufacturer to stop adding trans fats. Other manufacturers might follow suit. The publicity might also result in legislation forcing manufacturers to reveal the amount of trans fats included in foods, enabling consumers to make better choices.
- The scouts went on strike, knowing full well that they might not get any merit badges this year. (On the other hand, they received an excellent education in such fields as nutrition, chemistry, public relations and corporate politics.)
- They researched other ingredients that would taste as good or even better, and they made and sold their own cookies instead of the official brand.
- They sent out press releases and gave interviews. Other scout troops joined in their campaign. Soon Congress began an investigation.
- Seeing the success of class-action lawsuits against the tobacco companies for selling unhealthy products, they considered a similar strategy but decided for the time being to use a less litigious approach.
Despite pressure to be "good girls" and drop their campaign, they persisted and won the battle. Incredibly, the scout organization discovered there were more ethical ways to raise money than by selling junk food to a society already experiencing an epidemic of diabetes and other obesity-caused diseases. In addition, the attention forced the cookie companies to drop trans fats, thereby saving literally lots of lives. Yaay!
2006 update: On our planet, it looks like Girl Scout cookies are now "zero trans fat per serving." Yaay!