Eden Foods Sues HHS, Prompting Media Attacks and Boycott

The Michigan-based natural and organic food company’s Catholic president angers some liberal critics by filing suit against the HHS mandate.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Not every “crunchy” producer of organic foods is a social liberal, and this “shocking” truth has prompted calls for a boycott of Eden Foods, which has been accused of advancing a stealth “right-wing” agenda.   

Last month, Eden Foods, which dubs itself “the oldest natural and organic food company in North America,” and its Catholic president/co-founder, Michael Potter, filed suit in a Michigan federal court against the Department of Health and Human Services.

The suit charges that the federal contraception and abortifacient mandate “forces employers and individuals to violate their religious beliefs” and “attacks and desecrates a foremost tenet of the Catholic Church.”

Weeks after Eden Foods filed suit, an April 11 post on Salon.com drew its readers’ attention to what the liberal media outlet viewed as an unacceptable violation of political correctness: “Organic Eden Foods’ Quiet Right-Wing Agenda.”

Salon’s Irin Carmon accused the organic-foods company of violating the liberal precept of reproductive rights, while seducing its consumers with a message that she said “seems designed to appeal to liberals, from the slogan ‘Organic agriculture is society’s brightest hope for positive change’ to the ’60s imagery and the use of the word ‘revolution’ in some of its print marketing.” 

Carmon complained that a company with a mission statement that vows to “contribute to peaceful evolution on earth” sharply departed from that goal by adopting “another form of purity — to Catholic doctrine about sex being solely for procreation. That goes not just for Potter, but for all 128 of his employees.”

The columnist did not document the suggestion that organic-food purveyors are predictably “liberal.” Indeed, as Carmon herself noted, allies of President Obama are still smarting over attacks on his health bill by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who called Obamacare “like fascism.”

Still, the scolding from Salon was enough to generate a wave of hostile coverage on partisan news sites and tweets calling for a boycott of the company.


Containing the Controversy

Eden Foods has scrambled to tamp down the protests and clarify the reasons for the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit does not block, or intend to block, anyone’s access to health care or reproductive management. This lawsuit is about protecting religious freedom and stopping the government from forcing citizens to violate their conscience,” read an April 17 statement from Potter.

But Eden Foods’ CEO plans to stand his ground on the legal challenge and will appear in U.S. district court on May 10 for oral arguments in the case.

An initial ruling denied the plaintiffs’ application for a temporary restraining order against the application of the HHS mandate, but set the May 10 date to hear arguments regarding the company’s request for a preliminary injunction while the case proceeds.

The Thomas More Law Center is representing the company and Potter. The organization has also represented Legatus and Dominos Pizza founder Thomas Monahan in additional legal challenges to the HHS mandate.

Erin Mercino, a trial counsel with the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based law center, which “defends and promotes America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values,” said that Potter’s failure to secure a temporary restraining order forces his company to provide mandated co-pay-free coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortifacients “in violation of his beliefs.”

“We hope for a fast response from court and then make decisions from there,” Mercino told the Register. “There is still hope that this can be tackled in the court.”

She reported that Potter moved forward with the lawsuit shortly after “he discovered that Blue Cross Blue Shield had added the provisions without his knowledge.”

Potter told Blue Cross that he did not want the provision in the health benefits he provided employees, but the law required the insurance carrier to comply with the mandate, said Mercino.

Five days later, “on March 20, we filed for an emergency temporary restraining order.”


Potter’s Perspective

During an April 21 interview with AnnArbor.com, Potter said Eden Foods’ board of directors and management weighed the possibility that the lawsuit might alienate customers, but he decided to press ahead.

“We had to object to the blatant government overreach that we saw happening,” he said in the interview.

“The affront to the exercise of religious practices is quite obvious,” he added. “We felt that the safe thing to do would have been to be an ostrich and stick our head in the sand, but we decided not to do that.”

Now he is concerned about the long-term impact of the social-media campaign against his legal action.

“There have been a lot of threats and declarations of boycotts on the Internet, so that’s certainly alarming,” he said.

“We’ve had some people saying they’ll buy more and a lot of people saying they won’t buy anything.”

Some of Eden Foods' critics are angry about the company’s efforts to deny employees access to contraception. But others reject Potter’s refusal to subscribe to a secular creed of privatized religion.

“If you’re a business, then the government has a right to regulate commerce and institute mandates. If you’re a religious organization, then you need to clearly state that and maybe get out of the ‘business’ end,” argued the Daily Kos’ “Tiger Mom.”

But Mercino responds that Potter’s Catholic faith and values had influenced the creation of Eden Foods back in the '60s and still anchored his company policies.

Said Mercino, “It is impossible for him to check his religious beliefs at the door.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.