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In response to our story and commentary yesterday about trans fat labeling, and the lawsuit that argues that Oreos should not be sold to children because the trans fat in their filling helps cause childhood obesity, we got the following email from Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturer of America (GMA):

"I would like to clarify one point with you regarding GMA and the industry's position on trans fat labeling.

"GMA and its member companies support quantitative labeling of trans fat (i.e. X grams). However, we did oppose the FDA's proposal to include the footnote, "Intake of trans fat should be as low as possible," each time that trans fat is listed in the Nutrition Facts box. We did so on the grounds that consumers would overemphasize the importance of trans fat at the expense of the other nutritional information provided - including saturated fat and calories.

"In fact, a recent consumer survey conducted by IFIC showed just that. When presented with a labeling that includes the footnote, consumers were more likely to choose products with zero trans fat, even if it meant choosing a product with high levels of saturated fats. Additionally, FDA has considered this research and will move forward with quantitative labeling only. On a separate track, the FDA will consider the appropriateness of a footnote and its content at a later date."

Fair enough.

Another MNB user wrote:

"Regarding your comment about manufacturers resisting the effort to label trans fats…. Perhaps the manufacturers are waiting for a clear definition of how much is too much before going to the customer-absorbed expense of re-labeling. Otherwise labels would say “This product contains X amount of trans fats” and it wouldn’t mean squat! That doesn’t benefit the customers – just frightens them."

A different take came from another MNB user, who wrote:

"You are right on, with the encouragement, and preferably shaming of the food industry into labeling the trans fat content in their foods.

"Consumers need to be empowered with the knowledge that will allow them to vote with their wallets. Only then will the food manufacturers “get religion” and begin to “discover new and improved” formulations that will garner market share. In this era, it is not only the nuts-and-seeds natural foods buyers that are commanding huge dollars. The success of Whole Foods in a tough market in California and elsewhere is evidence that people will change their buying habits at the high end of the spectrum.

"The only question is: will middle-America actually pay attention to the “trans fat hysteria” (food-manufacturers’ words, not ours) or will they get brain-fade and ignore the stories as the issue-fatigue moves them on to other headline issues. With CNN going ‘round the world’s ills in 30 minutes, we will bet that the food manufacturers are convinced that this is a temporary media irritation, not a real trend or consumer need. Consumers really do have a short half-life memory for issues. A pity, but true.

"Shame on the manufacturers for stockpiling trans fat ingredients, and shame on them for acting like big tobacco in the face of what looks to be pretty good initial evidence. We expect US food manufacturers, and the entire distribution value chain to hold a higher standard, and be pro-active in eliminating possibly harmful ingredients, rather than have to be dragged, feet first into compliance under some threat, either from the ambulance-chasers with personal injury and class-action suits, or from the legislators, with FDA or other time-consuming actions.

"Even if this ends up like diet-drink phenols, where one must still drink several tens of dozens of cans of soda a day to register on the “damage” chart, it is the responsibility of public companies to allow consumers the option of holding back for a time, until serious research can determine risk, or lack thereof. By resisting labeling, public companies and their boards and executives are opening themselves to personal liability in ways that mirror tobacco, and with Sarbanes-Oxley in the shadows, perhaps even fiduciary misconduct is a possibility, given the inevitability of lawsuits should there be eventual proof of risk.

"I would challenge the top officers and board members of the food manufacturers that are now dragging their feet in new product formulations--- if one company comes up with an entirely new line of “trans fat free” food (that presumably tastes good), then they will force the issue upon the rest of the industry.

"One last point… let’s see how many of the execs of these companies are willing to shove trans fat down their kids’ throats. How about a news bulletin to the spouses and kids of the food industry executives: “Hey Mom/kids, your husband/dad had a chance to provide trans-fat free products and help turn the industry away from harmful ingredients… but he resisted because he was lazy, distracted, greedy, or just stupid.” I think that idea that they could get caught on the wrong side of this issue (as were many otherwise well meaning and good family men at tobacco companies) – and that their legacy to their kids might be that they get tarred as the “stupid” ones at the best, and the “greedy” ones and “criminally negligent” ones at worst- may be sufficient incentive for them to at least take symbolic action to come up with a coherent response that recognizes consumers’ need to know. It’s cheap in the short run, and just plain smart. The lawyers can coach them on how to do it without “admitting” that they think trans fat is harmful. Ignorance is bad, but fixable. Perpetuating ignorance is unacceptable."

MNB user Tom Russell chimed in:

"I suspect Nabisco/Kraft would love to find a filling for Oreos that is lower in fat and tastes just as good as they do now and that they have been working on this for years. Oh well."

And MNB user Earl W. Engleman added:

"Gee I have never seen anyone, holding anyone down and forcing these products down their throats! The only things forced down our throats are people thinking they are protecting us somehow. Sounds like Double Stuff to me!"

It seems to us that the evidence is compellingly in favor of labeling trans fats, though we agree that a specific and consistent criteria needs to created that allows for the fair and informed comparison of products. The key word here is "informed." Along with providing information on the label, there needs to be a comprehensive education program so that consumers understand just what the hell the industry is talking about.

The trend toward consumers examining food labels before buying products is a positive one. However, there are an awful lot of people who don't really understand the facts and the context for the information these labels. And that needs to change.

We had a story this week about a California county considering legislation that would ban the building of supercenters, and we've had some comments on the story. Now, we get some comments on the comments…from MNB user James Curley:

"I read MNB user Andy Casey's comments regarding government protecting competition, not competitors, with some interest. In a democracy, government is not an "it", it's a "we." If people in a county in California want to limit the size and scope of a project (Supercenter or otherwise) that impacts land use, taxation, resources, traffic, air quality, or whatever, it's their right to
adopt a referendum and do so, according to local laws and practices. Whether or not it affects Wal-Mart's long-term outlook as a business is irrelevant (not to mention unlikely).

"Conversely, if the referendum fails, then "we" the government in that county will have spoken and the Supercenter will be built. The issue isn't about whether it stops Wal-Mart or not, even if it is aimed at them. The issue is whether local communities, through the ballot box and/or elected representatives, can determine the parameters that make their community truly theirs, providing no federal or state laws are violated. If they want to travel out-of-county for lower prices, it's their right to do so. If the project were an incinerator or a sports stadium or a "monster truck rally track" across the street from Mr. Casey's home, I wonder what he'd think about "government" then?"

And MNB user Chris Hopkins wrote:

"I lived in a small town in north-west Texas that wanted to "protect" the local businesses from Wal-Mart. The two towns that were 30 minutes away each ended up with Supercenters. It took about 5 years for the complete shutdown of businesses in our town from all of the business and tax revenue that went the way of the weekly pilgrimage to a Supercenter nearby. Today, Wal-Mart stands proudly at the edge of town.

"Counties that do not sell alcohol always have a "County Line" package store. States that do not allow fireworks have "State Line" fireworks stands. When are the local governments and business folks going to figure out that the consumer is going to get what they want -- ONE WAY OR THE OTHER. I would think that the lesson to be learned is that it will only cost you more money in the long run to keep it out. If the "people" want it, you have to give it to them or get out of the way!"

We're not sure we agree entirely with either position here.

Just acquiescing to Wal-Mart -- or any other entity -- because if you don’t let them in they'll destroy you from afar…well, that just doesn’t sit right with us. We think it is important for communities to decide what they stand for, to decide what they want to be, and then live within those restrictions and luxuriate in the possibilities that their vision creates. Too many communities both allow the building of commercial entities that destroy local merchants, and help fund their creation through tax breaks and incentives. If you’re going to permit the building of a supercenter, for example, there should be a quid pro quo -- we supply shoppers, but the taxes you pay (and that your employees pay) help to fund our schools, our anti-drug programs, our day care facilities, and the like. It’s the price of being part of this community.

On the other hand, we do think that just trying to legislate these entities out of existence (or at least out of mind) is counter-productive, because they will find other, nearby locations from which their tax dollars will fund other towns' schools, and to which local discretionary spending will inevitably creep.

There is no easy answer. But we believe that there is some middle position between outright bans and allowing oneself to be taken advantage of.

Regarding the ongoing discussion we've been having about auto replenishment models, one MNB user wrote:

"Sounds like a real use for those "loyalty card" programs. A store that understands my needs on my time frame would be seen as a valuable partner in helping me manage all the things I have to do. Another idea for the use of this "loyalty" information - allow me to login to their website, sign in as me and click my way through my shopping history - making my own custom shopping list. Then, let me print it or, better yet, download it to my PDA so I can carry it with me on my next shopping trip. Now that would be helpful and a service I could really use."

And finally, MNB user Jeff Pillet-Shore wrote us the following email:

"I've been a daily reader of your awesome newsletter for over a year now, ever since I entered business school and began targeting the CPG space for my career. I just noticed something I feel I must share with you:

"A full set of grocery ads just arrived in my mail -- 5 different stores all promoting their wares. The Ralphs ad promotes fresh sweet apricots on special (with Ralphs club card) for $3.79 a pound. The Food 4 Less ad promotes juicy apricots for $0.98 a pound -- almost 1/4 the price. Most bizarre to me: these are sister stores, both owned by Kroger.

"There's something so gallingly blatant...and gallingly irritating...about this pricing. Is this a brilliant move by Kroger -- some sort of price discrimination designed to suck up every buyer's surplus? (Food 4 Less clearly targets a Latino market -- for example, all of their vegetables have names printed in English and Spanish. But the closest Food 4 Less is only 2 miles farther than the closest Ralphs.) Or is this a silly, shortsighted move doomed to haunt them down the line? I can't tell.

"But for now, I know where I'm buying my apricots."
KC's View: