Chelley Martinka, a Rhode Island mom, found a pickle of a problem recently while shopping for, well, pickles.
She noticed that Cains, a popular pickle brand in New England made by Minnesota’s own M.A. Gedney Co., had an offering called “midgets.” It’s a term that’s offensive to people born with dwarfism, as well as their families. And Martinka’s daughter, now 10 months old, had been diagnosed with the condition soon after birth.
So, she blogged about the issue, made a YouTube video and contacted Gedney, the 132-year-old pickle maker with a national presence and a brand particularly well-known in the Twin Cities. Gedney’s CEO, Barry Spector, called her earlier this month and said the company would indeed junk the midget moniker.
“My jaw didn’t drop to the floor — I hope that companies listen to their consumers — but I was surprised,” Martinka told the Star Tribune.
New labels are being designed now, Spector told her, though there’s six months; worth of product with the “midget” label in inventory. On Friday, Martinka got an e-mail from Gedney, confirming it has “indeed been proceeding with Mr. Spector’s promise,” and signing off with the salutation “Have a Dilly of a Day!”
The Internet long ago opened a forum for consumers, and many companies have kept their proverbial ears open.
Hasbro plans to introduce a new Easy-Bake oven this year in gender-neutral colors of black, blue and silver after an online petition launched by a 13-year-old New Jersey girl took the firm to task for offering only pink and purple hues.
And last year, after TV news reports about a hamburger filler dubbed “pink slime” were amplified on the Internet, several major supermarket chains — including Eden Prairie-based Supervalu — banned the stuff from their burgers. While food safety experts said the filler posed no risks, consumers rebelled against it in a flurry of e-mails.
Martinka’s daughter Adelaide, has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, which is caused by a genetic mutation. For those who have it, their preferred name is “little people.” Martinka, 28, started a blog soon after Adelaide’s birth as a discussion and education forum for her daughter’s condition.
Martinka, of Cranston, R.I., said she first called Gedney’s customer service department in December, registering her complaint about Cain’s “midget” pickles. She asked, too, that executives watch her video on YouTube. Martinka, who described herself as a “huge pickle eater,” didn’t hear anything until late afternoon on Feb. 7, when Spector called.
She wrote on her blog the next day that Spector said “he agreed that in these times [midget] is offensive and he and the company would never want to offend anyone. Because of this, he sent my video to the company’s board who voted to … CHANGE THE LABEL!”
Spector didn’t return a phone call from the Star Tribune. But in an e-mail to the Star Tribune Wednesday, Gedney said it’s “in the process of updating the name of a few small pickle varieties based on recent consumer feedback. The company is not seeking any attention related to this matter and believes that any publicity should be more appropriately placed on the children and families dealing with Achondroplasia.”
Chaska-based Gedney has used the midget appellation in a version of its Del Monte brand of pickles, as well as in one item under the Gedney brand. But with its namesake brand — a big seller in local supermarkets — Gedney uses “Babies” and “Mini-Munchers” to describe most of its small pickles.
Martinka had high praise for Gedney on her blog, and said she got a lot of outside support for her efforts. “I think it’s great,” said Sally Falls, head of the Twin Cities chapter of Little People of America, an advocacy group. “To be honest, we were like, ‘Whoa, [Gedney] changed it; there wasn’t even a fight.’ ”
But Martinka said she’s had plenty of comments from people on YouTube who were “furious” with her. One asked if she planned to try to ban the term “black” beans. Another hoped that her daughter would be hit by a bus. She said she shut down the comments section after that.
Gedney is the fourth-largest U.S. branded pickle maker, with about 3 percent of the market, according to SymphonyIRI Group, which tracks sales at conventional grocery stores. The largest by far is Pinnacle Foods, a publicly traded New Jersey firm whose brands include Vlasic and Milwaukee’s, both of which have “midget” offerings.
In an e-mailed statement, Pinnacle said it uses “the word [midget] in a technical manner. The United States Department of Agriculture defined the standards for grades and sizes of pickles in the United States. According to the USDA, a ‘midget’ pickle was the word designation for a pickle with a diameter of 19 mm or less.”
Martinka said she plans to eventually take up the midget issue with Pinnacle. “My goal is to educate,” she said.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003