Danger – Renegade Hummus Among Us!

Only government can guarantee the purity of your hummus


If you are reading this then you clearly are a smart, well-informed and worldly individual (and probably darn good-looking, too). As a smart, well-informed and worldly individual, you no doubt have educated yourself about the recent technological transformation called the Internet.

The Internet carries with it many blessings. But every silver lining has a cloud, and one of the darker aspects of electronic communication is the proliferation of so-called news sources, whose fidelity to the truth is like a stripper's g-string: It is usually elastic, and frequently absent.

Traditional media take a dim view of these interlopers. Aggregators, blogs, e-mags, Facebook, etc. cut into the traditional media's revenue, often by doing things traditional media would not — from re-using content without attribution to reporting wild rumors as if they were fact.

What is to be done?

One possible answer: Get the government involved. Why not pass some federal rules to bring these mangy dogs to heel? For starters, the rules could forbid any Internet upstart to use the word "news" anywhere on its site unless the site employs actual reporters and subscribes to an actual news service. After all, if a site is not doing those things, then it is simply repeating information someone else already has uncovered. In which case the information can hardly be called news.

Of course, any traditional news outfit that tried to get such a rule passed would immediately become the object of widespread and well-deserved scorn. Everyone would immediately recognize that the proposer of said rule was acting out of the most naked self-interest, and that its professed concern for the public welfare — the people must be protected from unscrupulous operators! — was nothing but a tissue-thin ruse.

Which brings us to Sabra Dipping.

The company, whose Chesterfield, Virginia, plant produces millions of tons of hummus each month, is lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to write new rules governing who can claim to make the stuff. In a "citizen petition," Sabra has asked Washington to declare that only certain dipping sauces qualify as hummus, and only they may be labeled as such.

Specifically, Sabra wants Washington to forbid the use of the word "hummus" unless the dipping sauce is made out of chickpeas and contains at least 5 percent tahini, or ground sesame seeds. Hummus made from black beans? Or navy beans? Or lentils? A fraud! An abomination! A desecration of the noble word itself, and an insult to the memory of Daniel Webster!

By an amazing coincidence, the definition of hummus Sabra wants the government to impose just happens to coincide with the constitution of the hummus that Sabra currently makes. Products that "substitute the traditional chickpea with other legumes," says Sabra, "destroy the basic nature and essential characteristics of hummus." The horror.

To help federal bureaucrats further understand the profound gravity of the issue, Sabra draws their attention to a variety of imposters, such as a certain "red pepper lentil hummus" (made with lentils) and a certain "fat-free original hummus" (made — gasp! — without tahini). By another amazing coincidence, all of those products just happen to be made by companies not named Sabra.

Sabra also offers some fancy etymology of the word hummus, notes that the first recipe was recorded in 13th-century Cairo, and takes pains to explain what people in the Middle East mean by hummus when they say the word in "Arabic and Hebrew alike." But none of that is enough to disguise the fact that the company — the love child of PepsiCo and an Israeli conglomerate — is simply trying to cement its position as the leading market incumbent by using the government to squash the smaller competition.

Naturally, Sabra doesn't put it that way. It claims to want only "a level playing field." But as Tim Cavanaugh pointed out recently in National Review, "this is what politicians and lobbyists mean when they talk about a 'level playing field.' You and PepsiCo both get to deal with red tape, but only one of you has an army of lawyers and a host of administrators to deal with it." Lobbying like this illustrates the truism that support for business and support for free markets are often not synonymous but antonymous.

Sabra's dedication to definitional exactitude does have its limits. Last year Sabra became, and now proudly promotes itself as, the official dip sponsor of the National Football League. Minor detail: Throughout the rest of the world, "football" refers to the game we Americans call "soccer." Using the term to denote the game played by the Cowboys and the Broncos is just like — well, like calling something without tahini "hummus." Shouldn't the government put a stop to this?

This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.