Saturday 03 Dec 2016

Tastes as Cardboard
David Simmonds

Sometimes real life just writes the story. Two examples hit me this week.

On the inspirational side, I went to the Regent Theatre last Thursday afternoon to see “Searching for Sugarman.” It’s a documentary, the first in a new weekly Cinefest series, about the Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded two flop albums in the early 1970s. Unbeknownst to him, he had become “more popular than Elvis” among Afrikaaner South Africans, who in turn thought him dead. More than 25 years later, the two discover one another and thus fulfilled. You couldn’t make up a much better fairy story if you tried.

Then there’s the more prosaic story of Cheetos. Cheetos are a puffed cornmeal cheese-flavoured product made in the United States. Cheetos, invented in 1948 by Charles Elmer Doolin; he also invented the famous Frito chip. Cheetos and Fritos joined forces with the H W Lay & Company in 1961; that company, Frito-Lay, then became a subsidiary of PepsiCo in 1961.

Cheetos are the top selling cheese puffs in the US. Annual sales are about $4 billion. Cheetos, as you probably know, are available in Canada, too.

Therein lays the problem. Between 2003 and 2006, Frito-Lay labeled several shipments of Cheetos coming into Canada as “cardboard boxes,” when they should have been more accurately labeled “crisp savoury snacks.” According to the company, this was a clerical mistake and not some rogue employee commenting on the quality of the company’s product. Cardboard comes into Canada duty free, by Canada’s own rules. So, too, do crisp savoury snacks, but under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 2007, Frito-Lay caught its mistake and applied for a retroactive reclassification, figuring it was academic. Not so fast, said the Canadian Border Services Agency. The terms of NAFTA only permit you to go back one year to claim duty exemptions. Instead, it applied, retroactively, the tariff applicable to crisp savoury snacks imported from non-NAFTA countries, which amounts to a whopping 11 per cent.

Five years later, the Canadian International Trade Tribunal is not amused and tells the Canadian Border Services Agency to give Frito-Lay all its money back. The lawyer for Frito-Lay describes the whole debacle as “Kafkaesque.”

All of which does raise a few questions. First, might Frito-Lay have been better off to say, “Well, these things taste like cardboard, so let’s just keep calling them cardboard?” Second, how many more misclassifications are out there. For example, is someone importing wieners into the country and avoiding tariffs by classifying them as “edible rubber product” instead of “barely edible animal by-product?” Third, and here I acknowledge the inspiration of conspiracy theorists, was this all a brave Canadian attempt to shore up the Hawkins Cheezie, made just up the road from us in Belleville?

Two Chicago men, James Marker and W T Hawkins, invented the Hawkins Cheezie about the same time as the Cheeto. They discovered a way to extrude cornmeal into bite-sized pieces and cover it with real cheddar cheese. Cheezie production started in Tweed, Ontario, in 1949; it’s been going on in Belleville since 1956. The grandson, of Mr. Hawkins, Kent Hawkins, currently heads the company. Hawkins’ Cheezies are not sold in the United States, which makes one suspicious that US border agencies might be threatening some sort of reverse reprisal, levying a tax on the Cheezie as a “wholesome cheese product” instead of letting it in to the country duty-free as a “crisp savoury snack.”

I called Tony McGarvey, the Director of Finance at Cheezies, to run my questions by him. Ever the company loyalist, he opined that the Border Services Agency “probably got it right the first time.” Let me say this about that. I have tasted Hawkins Cheezies. Hawkins Cheezies are my friends. Mr. Cheeto, you’re no Hawkins Cheezie. Check the side-by-side internet comparisons for yourself.

The Hawkins Cheezie, as Mr. McGarvey points out to me, is a Canadian icon and Canadiana Dictionary Official Word. It is happy in its own skin, so to speak, and doesn’t care to market itself in the U.S. If it did, it wouldn’t need inside subterfuge to help. All of which doesn’t change the fact that Frito-Lay, as part of the PepsiCo behemoth, has much more money to put into advertising and store shelf space than does Cheezies.

With reluctance, I must dismiss both the conspiracy and reverse reprisal theories. Bureaucratic intransigence is a much more banal and therefore more likely explanation. In the end, this fiasco has brought to you by the Canadian taxpayer, who has been funding this drawn out dispute for the past nine years

Let the culprits eat cardboard and have them think they’re eating Cheetos.

Unrelated addendum: Those of you who read this column closely will note the irony in the fact that the NHL lockout ended on the very day that Season Three of Downton Abbey aired. The planets are back in alignment.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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