Demise of an American icon

Demise of an American icon

November 17th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Twinkies, the snack cake with an apocryphal shelf life, apparently has reached has reached the end of its line. Hostess Brands Inc., the company that makes the iconic pastry, filed for bankruptcy on Friday and sought court permission to close down operations. The company also said that it had sent home employees at its 33 factories, idling about 18,500 workers. Friday's actions followed a bitter union strike that crippled production and slowed sales.

The shutdown likely means that Twinkies -- and Ding Dongs, Wonder Bread, Dolly Madison and Hostess' nearly 30 other brands -- will disappear from store shelves quickly. Twinkie lovers no doubt will despair, but the end of production of the snack and other Hostess products had been expected. Company officials had said for months that the company was losing money and that the strike meant the loss of sales essential to Hostess' survival.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union with workers at Hostess, had agreed to contract terms. Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and the Grain Millers International Union had not. The latter pair went on strike last week.

No one is sure, yet, what will happen to the Hostess brands. Company officials said there had been some interest from prospective buyers in some of its products, but would not specify which ones. If there is no buyer for Twinkies, they certainly will fade from the scene rather quickly.

The swiftness at which current stock of Twinkies will disappear might surprise some folk. Legend has it that Twinkies are virtually indestructible and that they can last for years, if not decades or longer. Those who promoted the legend said it was because the snack was made entirely of artificial ingredients. It was a good story, but it was not true.

Twinkies -- more than 500 million of them were produced annually during their heyday -- are not indestructible, though at 25 days they did have a longer-than-average shelf life than similar products. The longevity had nothing to do with artificial ingredients or other mystery. The secret to the longevity was a an absence of dairy products in the ingredients. Because they contained no such products, Twinkies spoiled considerably slower than other bakery items.

Labor issues were the main reason for Hostess' decision to shut down operations, but changing consumer habits probably played a role as well. The confection contained 160 calories per cake and sales and profits had slowed over the years as Americans became more calorie-conscious about food choices.

The likely demise of the sugary, cellophane-wrapped American icon is a sad cultural milestone that is generating lots of talk. The real cost related to Hostess' decision to seek bankruptcy deserves far more attention and concern. That's the loss of nearly 20,000 jobs.