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    Published on: August 8, 2007

    Fascinating op-ed piece by James E. McWilliams in the International Herald Tribune about the subject of “food miles” – the distance that food travels from farm to fork – and the impact on the environment. His conclusion is that simplistic conclusions aren’t always correct…but nor are they necessarily wrong.

    “There are many good reasons for eating local - freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion and preserving open space - but none of these benefits compares with the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption,” McWilliams writes. “In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

    “On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer. In Iowa, the typical carrot has traveled 1,600 miles from California, a potato 1,200 miles from Idaho and a beef chuck roast 600 miles from Colorado.” And, he notes, it is hard to justify the fact that 75 percent apples sold in New York City come from places other than New York, “even though the state produces far more apples than city residents consume.”

    These kinds of statistics have led some experts to call for “fool mileage labeling” – that is, each product would have to indicate the distance from farm to the store, and by implication, the impact that the product’s transportation has had on fossil fuel consumption.

    But (and it is a big but)…

    “It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone,” scientists at Lincoln University in New Zealand “expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production - what economists call ‘factor inputs and externalities’ - like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

    “Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.”

    Go figure.

    McWilliams continues:

    “'Eat local’ advocates - a passionate cohort of which I am one - are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn't. Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy.

    “Consider the most conspicuous ones: It is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production - food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer.

    “Given these problems, wouldn't it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn't we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system's naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?”
    KC's View:
    The larger point, it seems to me, is that it is critical to keep examining these issues from different angles and not come at them with political or even economic preconceptions. Local food may be the best choice for a lot of reasons, but not always for the reasons we think.

    It is a complicated world and it is going to get more so; climate and environmental issues are almost certainly so complex that they cannot be resolved in the stereotypical 10-word answer that looks to reassure or inflame without educating or even thinking.

    As Jed Bartlet once said, the 10-word answer can kill you in political campaigns because they are just the tip of the sword. They also can kill you in business, or in life, because they almost never are an answer. They’re usually just 10 words.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    Wal-Mart announced yesterday that it has hired Dr. John Agwunobi, the assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and an admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, to run its health and wellness units.

    According to the company, Agwunobi will have a dual role. On the retail side, he will oversee the company’s in-store medical clinics, pharmacies and vision centers, creating a broad and cohesive health-related strategy for the company’s stores.

    But he also will have a human resources function, helping to make both more efficient and effective Wal-Mart’s health care coverage for full-time and part-time employees.

    Agwunobi is a pediatrician by training who also holds master's degrees in business administration and public health. He starts with Wal-Mart on September 4.
    KC's View:
    Don’t know Agwunobi or his work, but on the face of it, this is a very smart hire.

    MNB has used this quote ad nauseum, but it is always worth repeating the comment by Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future that In 10 years, consumers will be using “health” as a guiding principle in virtually every acquisition.

    Since Wal-Mart would like to have a considerable share of “every acquisition,” it is smart to lay the groundwork now for an effective, efficient and cohesive strategy.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    The Orlando Sentinel reports this morning that “when Publix Super Markets announced this week that it was offering seven generic antibiotics for free to its pharmacy customers, it was also quietly discontinuing a policy that had allowed customers to obtain scores of other medications for just $4 a prescription.

    “Pharmacy employees at Central Florida Publix stores confirmed Tuesday that the grocery chain has dropped its policy of matching — when a customer requested it — Wal-Mart's nationwide discount price of $4 for more than 60 generic drugs in more than 160 doses and varieties. When it announced its new antibiotic program Monday, during a news conference with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Publix did not mention that it was discontinuing the customer-service policy of matching the discount price offered by Wal-Mart, Target Corp. and other retailers for certain medications.”

    According to the story, “Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens would not confirm Tuesday that the Lakeland-based supermarket chain has discontinued the price-matching policy for prescriptions. He said Publix is focusing on the free antibiotic program, which the company thinks is of ‘superior value to our customers and the community as a whole’.”

    Some public health advocates are critical of the shift, saying that antibiotics tend to be short term drugs, and that consumers are worse off if they have to pay full price for generic prescriptions that they need to use for longer periods of time. The Sentinel reports that Wal-Mart claims that “its customers have collectively saved about $350 million on those prescription drugs since September 2006, when the company first began selling $4 prescriptions in Tampa-area stores. The $4 prescriptions now account for more than 35 percent of all prescriptions filled at Wal-Mart stores nationwide, the company said, and almost 30 percent of the $4 prescriptions are purchased by customers without health insurance.”
    KC's View:
    In a moment of startling – and some would say uncharacteristic – modesty, I’m going to admit here that I’m not in a position to judge accurately whether the Publix shift is better or worse for consumers, though the criticism of it would seem valid at first glance.

    I would gently suggest to my friends at Publix that when stories like this emerge, not confirming or denying them isn’t really an option. You just look like you’re obfuscating – which is never the image a retailer wants to have, even a dominant market leader like Publix.

    I don’t know that much about pharmacy services, but I do know something about how to frame a story.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    The New York Times has a story saying that the Bush administration this week has sent senior officials fanning out all over the country – including a Maryland seafood facility and a busy bridge from Canada to New York State – to evaluate existing food safety measures and make recommendations about how imported food can be made more safe and reliable for consumer consumption.

    The move by the White House follows a rash of tainted food imports, especially from China, and a decision by President Bush to appoint a working task force to make recommendations by mid-September about how the nation’s imported food safety infrastructure should be modified or overhauled.

    According to the story, “The Bush administration insists the push is not specifically targeted at China … But it did send a mission to Beijing last week to discuss import safety, and it is asking the Asian nation to take additional measures to ensure safety, including registration of exporter firms and permission for audits by U.S. officials.”
    KC's View:
    Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced by a two-month effort to figure out what is wrong with the nation’s food safety system, especially since it was just a few weeks ago that the FDA was arguing that it should be able to shut down a number of its laboratories, and the USDA continues to minimize the potential threat of mad cow disease in the US.

    But maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age.

    I particularly liked the last paragraph of the Times story:

    China itself is seeking to crack down on unscrupulous exporters, but says worldwide cooperation is needed. It also blames the media and protectionist policies abroad.

    Of course, it was the media that put melamine in the dog food ingredients!

    I thought it was only here that we all blame the media (and I won’t be surprised if the task force appointed by the White House decides the press is the real culprit in the nation’s food safety problems). Apparently the media also is the Chinese government’s whipping boy of choice.

    So it goes.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    The New York Times this morning offers a piece about the increased consumption of raw milk in the US, noting that a movement is developing “of perhaps hundreds of thousands across the country who will risk illness or even death to drink their milk the way Americans did for centuries: straight from the cow.” Two decades ago, the Times reports, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk. This spring the agency warned consumers again that they were risking their health drinking raw milk.” But states still determine whether it is sold within their borders, and there are 26 states where it can be bought without restrictions. (Eleven states have made raw milk sales illegal.)

    According to the story, some people like raw milk for the taste, while others think it is better for their immune systems. But even as the interest in raw milk consumption grows, the Times writes, scientists seem astounded that so many people are turning their backs on pasteurization, generally considered one of the great scientific and public health achievements of the 20th century.
    KC's View:
    You can all do what you want. I’m with the scientists.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    • Talk about cross-merchandising…Wal-Mart is engaged in a little cross-Atlantic merchandising. Reports are that the company’s Asda division in the UK has begun exporting premium private label products under the Extra Special name to its Wal-Mart de Mexico division.

    Walmex started off by importing about 50 Asda products, and now plans to double the SKU count to 100 because of the success of the line.

    And Wal-Mart may not be stopping there, as there are published reports that it is thinking of exporting Extra Special own label products from Asda to its Seiyu division in Japan.
    KC's View:
    This is interesting, because it reflects how Wal-Mart – big and as powerful as it is – still looks for differential advantages wherever it can. And its multinational presence gives it a unique platform from which to operate.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    • Supervalu-owned Albertsons reportedly is teaming up with the Discovery Kids Channel for a joint promotion aimed at getting children to eat healthier foods; the supermarkets will be engaged in an expanded sampling program, while Discovery Kids will be distributing DVDs aimed at teaching kids about good nutrition.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    • Kroger Co. announced that Pete Williams, a three-decade veteran with the company currently serving as president of the company’s Mid-Atlantic division, has been promoted to corporate Senior Vice President.

    Jay Cummins, president of Kroger’s Food 4 Less division, has been named to replace Williams as President of the company’s Mid-Atlantic division.

    Kroger also named Mike Donnelly, who has been president of Kroger's Fry's division in Phoenix, to be the new president of Ralphs Food Stores in Southern California. He replaces Dave Hirz, who is returning to Food 4 Less as President of the division.

    • Haggen Inc. announced that John Boyle, former vice president of merchandising and marketing for Supervalu, has been named the retailer’s vice president of corporate brands. In his new job, Boyle reports to Jeff Wood, executive vice president/COO.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    • Gelson’s Markets parent company Arden Group posted second quarter net income of $6.5 million, up almost 40 percent of the same period a year ago. Q2 sales were up 0.6 percent to $119.8 million, with same-store sales also up 0.6 percent.

    • Chipotle, the Mexican fast food chain, said that its second quarter revenue was up 33.9 percent to $274.3 million compared to a year ago, with same-store sales that were up 11.6 percent. Q2 net income was up 85.1 percent to $20 million.
    KC's View:
    I like the Chipotle results story because it shows that better-for-you fast food – that emphasizes fresher ingredients as opposed to lowest common denominator products – can be successful.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    A new study by the French National Institute of medical Research suggests that women who drink more than three cups of coffee per day may be able to stave off some age-related memory decline. The women in the study who drank that much coffee reportedly had a 33 percent lower chance of having verbal memory declines, and an 18 percent lower chance of visual memory declines, at least when compared to women who drank only one cup of coffee per day.

    The Institute reportedly plans to continue studying the women to find out if caffeine might have a role in slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
    KC's View:
    I asked Mrs. Content Guy how many cups of coffee she drinks each day. But she couldn’t remember.

    Published on: August 8, 2007

    More commentary about Amazon’s new “Fresh” program, which it is testing as a way of delivering fresh foods to customers in its own vans. MNB user W. Alan Burris wrote:

    If Amazon Fresh uses the same customer service system as, there will be some unhappy customers. I think that Amazon needs to drastically upgrade its customer response and complaint handling before expanding into a new market. Up until a couple of months ago I thought that was the greatest and did most of my online business with it. Then someone stole the number of one of my credit cards and made some improper charges. Visa called to inquire if those were my charges and when informed that they were not made by me, cancelled the credit card and issued a new one. Although I provided Amazon with the new number and had other valid credit card numbers listed on my Amazon account, Amazon blocked my account. After considerable effort, I found a phone number for Amazon customer service. Over the last two months, I have spent hours talking on the phone with the Amazon reps who always repeated and repeated the same message that they could only fill out a form which would be forwarded to the “account specialists” who would correct the problem in 3-5 days. However, nothing happens and it is impossible to speak with an “account specialist” or anyone with the authority to resolve problems. I would have just set up a new account except that I want the order history from my old account. Yesterday, after another frustrating phone call, I Googled for a better Amazon phone number and learned that there are none. I also learned that there are a lot of unhappy Amazon customers and blogs and websites devoted to the problem of contacting Amazon and obtaining resolution of customer problems. One blog sympathized with the people hired to answer the Amazon complaint phones and talk with angry customers with no power to resolve problems. Amazon’s answer to resolving customer problems is to stonewall. Is this a company that you want to buy your groceries from?

    However, MNB user Bob Richardson – who lives on Mercer Island near Seattle, where Amazon is testing the service – had a different perspective:

    Boy, was I wrong! My thoughts were the same as many others.... I need to see, feel and smell our produce before I would buy. Growing up in Hawaii we had access to wonderful fruits and vegetables. For two summers I picked pineapples. After college I worked in the supermarket industry for several years. My wife usually asks me to pick out the fruit when we shop. Now it has become an ego thing for me and NO WAY we were going to buy produce without my stamp of approval. My wife wanted to try it. We received our delivery from Amazon Fresh about two weeks ago and boy was I wrong!

    The pineapple and cantaloupe were excellent and gone within two days. I hate being wrong or maybe just don't like changes........ didn't like the idea of cell phones or emails either. The prices were good and the product excellent. We will continue to buy from Amazon Fresh IF they continue to satisfy.

    Michael Sansolo’s piece yesterday about the supermarket industry embracing new laws that would require restaurants and fast feeders to provide nutritional information – because, he said, it would actually give supermarket operators a competitive advantage – also generated some comment.

    MNB user Glenn Harmon wrote:

    Do you realize what a burden you are creating for restaurants as you support this direction? It is ludicrous to propose that independent restaurateurs be required to indicate nutritional information on their “special of the day”. The cost of implementing this alone would drive the one in ten success rate further into the ground. How many people can you imagine will look at the nutritional info for Buffalo Wings and beer at their local pub and say: “Now that I know that’s bad for me, make that a double order.” Give me a break. Fettuccini Alfredo is bad for me. I don’t need a nutritional label on the menu to tell me that. It tastes good, and I don’t want to wait for the chef to go back to his computer and reformulate the label when I ask for him to throw a few garlic shrimp on top. All this legislation will do is drive costs up, sales down, and creativity in the garbage…and in the end, we’ll all still be fat, unless we gain a modicum of self control.

    Another MNB user wrote:

    I love the thought of nutrition information for restaurants and it seems easy for the chains that have consistent national menus and increasingly national kitchens preparing the dishes or ingredients. But I wonder about implementation with the local mom & pop cafés and the high-end restaurants that adapt their menus to the fresh ingredients available during the year.

    It seems quite a burden to create a nutrition table for a diner with 200+ meals or a restaurant chef who decides at 1:00 pm that the fresh Tilapia for the day would go great with a tarragon white wine sauce and a mix of lightly sautéed fresh vegetables. And how to measure the fat and protein content of different steaks?

    Not sure how to bridge the gap, but it seems difficult to have a one-size fits all-meals nutrition rule.

    One MNB user had an addition comment about the hiring of deposed home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli to run Chrysler:

    As a consumer, the biggest problem I had with Home Depot was the continually decreasing quality of the products and services I bought. As a business person and as someone who has a partner who worked for Home Depot, it was the terrible working conditions for its employees and some of the Dilbert-like policies he instituted. The end result for me – I’m not buying anything from Chrysler. The engine will probably fall out.

    Regarding Publix’s decision to make certain antibiotics available to consumers free-of-charge, one MNB user wrote:

    We shouldn't be surprised to see innovation coming from the private sectors. Nothing like a free market in terms of innovative thinking.

    But MNB user Steve Young-Burns wrote:

    Shouldn't a full health and wellness program put the emphasis - and subsequent PR and Marketing push - on prevention? Good nutrition, exercise, Five A Day, read books...Nah, those don't make good headlines. Free antibiotics for all!

    MNB user John Tatum chimed in:

    The generic pharmaceutical market is the best of the free enterprise system with open competition, same products and many competitors. It is not a surprise that the US has the cheapest generic products in the world; yes, cheaper than Canada. And now, they are being leveraged as loss leaders to drive retail traffic!

    The issue is new pharmaceutical formulations that save lives and significantly enhance the enjoyment of people’s lives, but take on average close to $1B to bring to market. The US consumer pays the largest portion of this cost, while other markets fix prices for these branded pharmaceuticals. There is a reason a large percentage of Pharma R&D resides in the US.

    I am an unabashed supporter of free-enterprise and have yet to see better results from a controlled market.

    I made a couple of wisecracks yesterday about former New York City Mayor and current Republican presidential nomination contender Rudy Giuliani shopping at Wal-Mart during a campaign stop, and I wondered when the last time he really shopped at a big box store, as opposed to making disguised campaign appearances. To which one MNB user responded:

    To most of us, I'd guess, liking to shop somewhere and actually shopping there are two distantly different things.

    I like shopping at Neiman-Marcus, a habit I picked up while living in Dallas years ago, but, today, wouldn't necessarily cross the street to shop there.


    It probably is worth pointing out that I’d make the same observation about not living in the real world about virtually every one of the presidential candidates, no matter what side of the aisle they occupy.

    BTW, we kid because we love.
    KC's View: