business news in context, analysis with attitude

Time to catch up on some of the email we’ve received while on our trip to Singapore…

We got a lot of email about the new E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell…

MNB user Steven Ritchey wrote:

Many years ago, when my father was Park Ranger at a local Corp of Engineers Lake while out making his rounds one day he saw some day laborers washing just pulled green onions, in a stock tank that cattle used. He decided then and there to grow his own green onions, something I still do for him today. In light of the latest E Coli occurrence, I wonder if this is still happening today.

Another MNB user wrote:

When first the California Spinach and then more recently, the Taco Bell Green Onions have become associated with the E. Coli bacteria it is disappointing that the actual reason for the produce contamination, poor cattle ranching techniques that allow animal feces or remains to contaminate the irrigation supply, is not identified as the cause. These plants produce no natural E. Coli. Our plant food supply has significant risk associated with close proximity to cattle.

I am sad to see the farmers going out of business when excessive and unsafe animal ranching is the probable cause.

Yet another MNB user chimed in:

It's simple, and ignorance will always be bliss, but the truth is, the more migrant workers we have working the fields the more this will happen. Why? The workers are not given proper toilet facilities, need I say more? And they are terrified of being sent home or getting into trouble so they do business in the field. Are believe we will continue seeing more and more of these cases involving fruits and vegetable, particularly those that grow on the ground as opposed to trees.

MNB user Glenn Cantor wrote:

I think I will sit in the parking lot at my local Taco Bell, and blast the song, "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MG's, in recognition of the occasion. Do you think anyone will get it?

The cops. Maybe.

Finally, we suggested that we were going to start up a new business – selling toupees to produce managers, who must be tearing their hair out these days. To which MNB user Dale Tillotson responded:

Send me a toupee, I am one of those produce managers.

Might be easier for us to start up a line of MNB hats…

The NYC ban on restaurants using trans fats in their cooking oils continues to generate a lot of reaction. One MNB user wrote:

I was talking about this issue with a friend of mine yesterday. While I see the benefits of the trans fat ban I also see some potential drawbacks. There has been a lot of attention focused on how this legislation will affect large restaurant chains. Despite the fact that these organizations are large and not as nimble as a one location store, they have R&D resources at their fingertips to help them ensure that they maintain the flavor profile of their original product.

My concern is for the hot dog vendor in mid-town or the independent café owner in the village who don’t have the resources to help them implement change. There are also many restaurants where the recipes are classics and to change those recipes is an attack on history and traditions. There is also a cost to these small players as zero trans fat shortening or oils are more expensive than traditional shortening. It is difficult to stay in the restaurant business without legislation making it harder.

And finally, New York City had better do a fantastic job of communicating to the public that zero trans fat does not equal healthy. With all of the increased attention on health I would be concerned that consumers would think that their doughnuts all of a sudden were good for them.

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

OK, you win. so now no one will ever die from clogged arteries in NY. In a few months they will find out that the lack of trans-fat causes cancer or something else just as bad. Like coffee, and wine, first it is not good for you and then it is and then it isn't. When ever we eliminate something from our diets it seem to cause something else just as bad. Time will tell.

Another MNB user wrote:

I think it’s terrible that McDonald’s is digging their heels in over the trans fat issue, but it is worth noting that due to the success of their apple dippers and walnut-apple salad McDonald’s is now the largest purchaser of apples in the US.

Still another MNB user wrote:

You are correct in your assessment that it is time to stop fighting about the NYC trans fat ban and just move ahead, switching to cooking techniques that do not contain the dreaded fats. McDonalds and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) care little about doing the RIGHT thing, they care about doing the EASIER thing.

As you have so eloquently detailed over time, McDonald's simply is dragging its feet. It has been "working" on a new cooking oil formulation for years, but they claim it is exceedingly difficult to do and maintain the same taste consumers love. If a company like Frito-Lay can voluntarily change the formulations of its iconic brands like DORITOS, LAY'S, and TOSTITOS to remove trans fats, then so can McDonalds. The difference is that a company like PepsiCo is forward thinking, especially when it comes to health and wellness, while McDonalds has been reactionary at best.

The NRA's statement of "We don't think that a municipal health agency has any business banning a product the Food and Drug Administration has already approved" is one of the weakest arguments I have seen on this issue. Using their logic, an individual state or municipality has no business mandating a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum wage. States and cities can, and in many cases should, impose tougher restrictions than the feds. I applaud NYC's efforts.

MNB user Randal O'Toole wrote:

I hope you get a chance to read Steven Milloy's take on the NYC
trans-fats ban…Milloy has debunked junk science for many years.

Your comment on the trans-fats ban was that people need to do "what's right for the consumer." But Milloy points out that, according to the scientists who claimed that trans fats are dangerous, potatoes, peas, peanuts, beans, and orange juice are just as dangerous. It is one thing for some consumers to let themselves be stampeded by junk science, but it is quite another for governments to join the stampede.

To be fair, you later wrote that a "grass-roots approach to getting rid of trans fats is far better than government mandating such moves." But first it would be good if leaders such as yourself took a serious look at whether getting rid of trans fats is all that important.

I don't object if people don't want to eat trans fats (I don't eat them myself). They don't have to patronize McDonalds if they don't want to. (I don't.) But I don't need or want governments barring my way from foods that some junk scientist has declared dangerous.

We’re pretty sure that Milloy is incorrectly characterizing what all anti-trans fat scientists are saying.

The simple fact is that you can find so-called scientists who will say anything. It is up to each individual person to decide who to believe. (Heck, there are some who would suggest that evolution is a liberal anti-deity conspiracy, and that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. And they even call themselves scientists.)

We think, based on our reading and admittedly pedestrian understanding of these issues, that evolution is scientific fact, that global warming is a serious problem, and that people ought to avoid consuming trans fats. And as a consumer and taxpayer, we think that it seems reasonable for a government health department to try and regulate against the consumption of a product that is causing serious health problems in the population.

MNB user David Livingston had some thoughts about the new lawsuit against David Marsh for allegedly misusing company funds:

This sounds like sour grapes to me. If David Marsh was the president, then he has the authority to approve how money is spent. Maybe he stopped in a few supermarkets in Africa and New Zealand while on vacation and did some research. It was not the most ethical way to spend money, but he was the president. Why is Marsh just now bringing this up? Believe me, I worked in the corporate supermarket world for over 20 years and what happened at Marsh is nothing. Still it doesn't make it right.

It’s been no secret how the Marsh family ran the company. Anyone who is acting appalled and surprised about this is just playing dumb. I recently drove by the closed Arthur's store in Syracuse, Indiana recently. Syracuse is a small, rural, lower income community in northern Indiana. Why on God's green earth did Marsh build an upscale, gourmet Arthur's here? Several sources told me it was because Marsh family members had summer homes nearby and didn't like to shop at the competition. Unfortunately in the past few years, some family members were a bit foolish and naive about how to run a supermarket. If Marsh would have been a private company and not a public company fewer of us would care.

But it was a public company. And he had a fiduciary responsibility, not to mention an ethical responsibility?

Isn’t that supposed to matter?

We did a radio commentary last week about the need for food retailers to do a better job marketing and merchandising cooking utensils and housewares, and suggested that one thing they could to generate loyalty is offer free knife sharpening to shoppers.

MNB user Jane Steiger responded:

Love your idea about cookware, but don’t think bringing knives to the grocery store is such a winner. I hate the thought of my fellow shoppers carrying knives…especially if the check out lines are too long.

Another MNB user wrote:

Just what we need – people with knives jockeying for position in line at the deli or seafood counter during the busy holiday season. “Clean up on aisle 12” takes on a whole new meaning…

We’re sensing a pattern…

Another MNB user wrote:

Great call on the free knife sharpening. Just what we need; cranky, disgruntled customers bringing their sharp objects into the store. That way, prices can literally get slashed.

You folks shop in some tough neighborhoods…

But MNB user Steve Crowell thought we had a good idea:

Knife sharpening! There’s an idea whose time has come and (sadly) gone. Every real cook and many pseudo-cooks understand the value of a sharp knife and what better way to engage consumer than by providing a service that’s a bygone of yesterday? Personal attention, engaging the consumer, instilling loyalty and encouraging related product purchase, what a novel concept!

Every so often I run into the scissor sharpener at the barbershop- he travels through 2 states and charges about $20 per pair. Ever tried to cut hair without razor sharp scissors? He makes a killing out of the back of his van.

Somehow I think there’s a business out there for a traveling sharpener visiting Stop & Shop once per month...

MNB user Dan Onishuk wrote:

Kevin, you are absolutely on target about housewares in the supermarkets. Buyers have the opportunity to clearly differentiate themselves in this area-you couldn't ask for a better tie in and cross merchandising opportunity. However, buyers need to change and adjust the approach and strategy in order to be successful. too often they have been spoiled with high margins basically selling poor quality housewares and that is why there are the Bed Bath &Beyond, Linens & Things, Kitchen Collections, and other kitchenware retailers being able to tap into this creative market. Most supermarket retailers simply do a poor job buying-more importantly merchandising. often hidden or buried in line in an aisle that never allows the customer the time or space to browse. You are not biased, I think you are more typical of all of us, the supermarkets just don't get and just don't invest in the talent - with one exception: Wegmans.

Another MNB user wrote:

I couldn't agree with you more. I work for a major grocery chain in the Southeast and am regularly disappointed in the selection of cooking utensils sold in our own stores. I can only compare it to being Home Depot and selling paint and lumber but not selling the brushes, hammers or drills needed to work on that same stuff. How stupid would that be? I agree with you.

Supermarkets need to educate the masses on how to cook and give them the tools to do the job easily. As a self-proclaimed handyman, I believe the ease of any job is dictated by the level of tools used to accomplish the task. The better the tool, the easier to finish the job. I can hardly imagine how anything got built with out cordless screwdriver/drills. Same goes in the kitchen. I, too, shop for kitchen gadgets and utensils and never find them in a grocery store. I struggle with this seemingly silly phenomenon.

We love the Home Depot metaphor…it is exactly the right one. We wish we’d thought of it.

But MNB user Mike Griswold wasn’t so sure:

Let me preface this by saying I can barely boil water and the fascination with cooking is lost on me. That being said, I will be interested in reader response to your recent radio commentary. As a food purist, I cringe every time I see a grocery store stray from what is should be focusing on which is selling food. Most grocers are challenged to offer a compelling food offer much less deviate into other categories. The air conditioners, TV’s and DVD players are not what I have in mind when I am looking for my cheerios. I feel the same way about the cooking utensils. The cooking friends I do have, have a passion for their “tools” and tend to conduct extensive research into selecting the right tool. They are typically not impulse buys, and the local supermarket is not where they would go to make their purchase. I agree the margin might be high but consider you need to sell the product in the first place and the person procuring the frying pans is typically the same person procuring the air conditioner and DVD player (a non-foods or General Merchandise buyer). I might be wrong on this one, but I think this is one area you might be off target.

Wouldn’t be the first time. But we actually think that this time, we’re right.

We would never suggest that supermarkets sell televisions or DVD players. Somehow, though, selling food processors and corkscrews and garlic presses seems a little more relevant.

Finally, we have to post a couple of emails from folks commenting on our 18-hour trip to Singapore in coach (which, on Singapore Airlines, was about as wonderful as an 18-hour flight can be).

One MNB user wrote:

18 hours in coach? You need a better agent.

No kidding.

A man of your caliber not traveling first class…You've been hanging around Wal-Mart people too much and not enough around Marsh. Enjoy the trip.

Funny comparison.

In all seriousness, we could’ve flown business class…but then the client would have had to pay a lot more money to sponsor the project, and we’re big proponents of putting the money into the product, not into our comfort.

That strikes us as being fiscally responsible. And doing the right thing.

That said, maybe we need a better agent.
KC's View: