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    Published on: February 6, 2008

    Business Week reports on the ongoing war taking place between public health officials who are concerned about the nation’s obesity crisis, and the restaurant industry, which thinks that the so-called “nutrition police” are getting involved with issues better resolved through personal choice.

    There are numerous fronts in this war. One is the menu board issue. As Business Week writes, “On Jan. 22, New York City voted to require that calorie information be posted on chain-restaurant menus as of Mar. 31 … From Hawaii to Massachusetts, more than a dozen state and local governments are considering putting calories front and center on menus. San Francisco will hold hearings this month, and a law passed last year in Seattle goes into effect Aug. 1. To stave off new laws and overturn existing ones, the industry is marshaling a range of tactics,” including a national advertising campaign that would challenge the pro-regulatory forces.

    On other fronts, “New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and a handful of other local governments have passed bans on restaurant use of trans fats, and in Los Angeles there has even been discussion of ‘food zoning’ - barring new fast-food eateries from high obesity neighborhoods.”

    Business Week reports: “So what if a McDonald's menu tells customers that a large chocolate shake contains more calories than two Big Macs? Or a Quiznos menu lets a patron know that its large tuna melt weighs in at 2,090 calories - a full day's allotment for a typical adult? … The restaurant industry argues that there's no good scientific evidence that this would lead to a reduction in obesity, and further, that it may lead diners to base decisions on calorie counts alone. That could mean, said Dunkin' Donuts in a court filing, that patrons might ‘not consider that the item may have protein and other nutrients that may contribute to a balanced diet’.”

    KC's View:
    Not sure about this, but it would seem to make sense that not drinking that chocolate shake – or at least ordering a smaller one – might, if combined with exercise and other, smarter food consumption decisions, lead to fewer obesity problems. It would also seem to make sense that that large tuna melt is a product to be avoided…by almost everyone.

    And, memo to Dunkin’ Donuts. While I’m sure there are ingredients in some of your products that could be considered healthy, if anyone is depending on a doughnut for protein or any other part of a balanced diet, I think they are deluding themselves. Your products are indulgences…which isn’t to say that they are bad. Nor, in fact, are the chocolate shake or tuna melt “bad.”

    It isn’t a matter of good or bad. It is a matter of providing information to consumers, of being completely and utterly transparent so that people can make good choices. If someone wants to eat one of those tuna melts for lunch, wash it down with a large chocolate shake and then wolf down a couple of frosted doughnuts for dessert, that shouldn't be illegal. But it seems to me that having the ingredients on the menu board is akin to having nutrition information on product labels.

    I am less convinced that banning fast food joints from certain neighborhoods is an enforceable or even constitutional idea, though I certainly understand the motivation.

    It seems to me that supermarket retailers actually have a dog in this fight. The last thing they want is for the “nutrition police” to be turning their attention to their segment of the food biz…which makes it ever more imperative to embrace the notion of transparency at all levels.

    One other quick note. The Business Week article makes the point that the fast food folks are turning for help to some of the same folks who defended the tobacco industry. I’d be careful about that. First of all, they weren’t very successful. Second, I’d be doing everything possible to avoid being lumped in with that crowd, rather than encouraging comparisons.

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    In the UK, the Guardian reports on a speech given by Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy in which he defends the retailer against charges that it has gotten too big and too powerful. In the speech, Leahy said that Tesco has been responsible for food prices being cut in the UK by 30 percent over the past decade as well as expanding the number of choices available to British customers.

    Other excerpts from the Leahy address, entitled "A Force For Good In Society: Supermarkets And Sustainable Consumption":

    • "Supermarkets have become a lever of social change, a source of social mobility. Not just in giving people more choice in what they buy, but in providing more jobs.”

    • "Healthier eating is now a real choice for the many on low incomes, not only the affluent few. Surely a society in which more people can afford quality food and products is a society that is progressing?"

    • "If customers are given more information about products' carbon footprints, I believe their behaviour and choices will change and the supply chain will have to change too.”

    KC's View:
    It is a compelling argument, well made. There’s nothing wrong with retailers getting out there and saying that they are force for good.

    One other thought. If I rewrote the story above, and replaced the name “Tesco” with the name “Wal-Mart,” and the name “Terry Leahy” with “Lee Scott,” wouldn’t it sound completely legitimate?

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    The Hartford Courant reports that while Whole Foods may have pledged to eliminate plastic bags from its stores by Earth Day 2008, at the local Stop & Shop “plenty of shoppers are still clutching armloads of double-bagged plastic — in spite of the stacks of green canvas totes the chain sells for 99 cents at registers.

    “And so, 30 years after launching onto the retail scene with its lure of lightweight durability, where stands the fate of the ubiquitous, even iconic, plastic shopping bag?

    “ The bags have come under increasing global scrutiny for contaminating soil, choking waterways and littering roadsides. From China to Africa to Australia, governments have responded in recent years with plastic-bag bans and regulations.”

    It is an interesting piece that points out that there are class distinctions in acceptance of the cloth bags: “Consumers who shun plastic grocery bags tend to be college-educated urban dwellers who live near stores promoting such awareness, such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.” And the suggestion is that these folks are snobs who don't mind carrying Whole Foods cloth bags, while lower-income and less educated folks aren’t as enthralled by carrying Stop & Shop bags.

    Still, the Courant reports: “At Stop & Shop, sales of the store's green cloth sacks have been steady. And the company has recycled 100 tons of plastic over the last year … But a plastic-bag ban at Stop & Shop doesn't sound likely.”

    "We make sure our customers know the options available to them," says Robert Keane, a spokesman for the company. "But basically we give the customers what they want, what they ask for."

    KC's View:
    I understand that a retailer’s impulse is to simply give customers what they want, but this is one of those cases in which retailers maybe ought to give shoppers a shove. The elimination of disposable plastic bags from the culture strikes me as both a moral and economically intelligent decision. Sure, people resist…but more and more, when I visit stores, I see people in the parking lots and the aisles carrying their own bags. It’s catching on, gathering momentum…and I think that there’s nothing wrong with retailers being ahead of this wave.

    For me, by the way, it is great to have so many bags from so many companies. (I don't even own a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s bag, by the way, even though I am a college educated person. Mine are from Stew Leonard’s and Fresh & Easy and Roundy’s and King’s and all sorts of other places, because you folks have been so kind to send them to me. I carry them around in both cars, and I even bring them into drug stores and other nonfood retailers. This has become a moral issue for me.)

    By the way, getting ahead of the wave might prevent state and federal governments from imposing taxes or legislating bans. Which is another good reason to get aggressive.

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    Newsday reports that a Long Island, NY, warehouse that is operated by C&S Wholesale Grocers, and that services Waldbaum's and A&P stores in southern New York State, is scheduled to close on March 28.

    According to the story, C&S has decided to serve the stores from warehouses in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. C&S said that the closure would save the company $7 million annually.

    The story suggests that the closure may in part be because of a union contract that C&S was negotiating for the facility; the replacement warehouses employ non-union labor.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    Inside Retailing reports that Carrefour is rebranding its various French formats looking to focus more attention on the Carrefour name and make its focus less fragmented.

    This is a breakthrough year for Carrefour,” says Carrefour CEO José Luis Duran. “The idea is to make the brand work harder, regardless of format. I want more customers in our stores, whether that is a hypermarket, supermarket, hard discounter, convenience store or over the Internet.”

    KC's View:
    Smart move. At the end of the day, “the brand” is all you’ve got that differentiates you from the other guy. So you have to focus on it relentlessly, exploit it, hype it, make it the foundation of everything that the store does.

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    Up in Boston, the Patriot Ledger reports that “medical groups are training their sights on excessive sodium in food, and the government is pondering new regulations designed to cut sodium levels in Americans’ diets … Food manufacturers and restaurants are taking note, revamping their ingredients and menus in anticipation of a future when sodium is considered as much of a nutritional scourge as trans fats.

    According to the paper, “The typical American diet contains 3,300 to 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day - significantly higher than the 2,300 milligrams recommended by the American Heart Association.

    “The American Medical Association estimates that excessive salt intake kills 400 people a day in the U.S. Excessive sodium consumption is considered the leading cause of high blood pressure, which contributes to heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. The group asked the FDA to limit sodium in processed and restaurant foods, with the goal of reducing sodium content by 50 percent over the next decade. It also called for new labeling that more clearly spells out sodium levels, and warning labels for high-sodium products. A public comment period will end in March, after which the FDA will consider a decision on new regulations, spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    • The Penn Traffic Company announced that it has signed a produce procurement contract with C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc., which will allow Penn Traffic to benefit from purchasing cost efficiencies while expanding access to new and alternative products.

    • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it has established a new service that was developed in response to the processed and fresh fruit and vegetable industry's need to supplement internal quality control programs. The new Quality Monitoring Program (QMP) permits companies to submit specific processed produce samples for review to graders from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

    • The Detroit Free Press reports that “Kroger is to begin selling $4 generic prescription drugs at its Michigan pharmacies today, increasing the availability of cheap medications for the state's seniors and uninsured people. Wal-Mart and Target currently sell $4 prescription drugs. Kmart sells generics for $5. Some antibiotics at Meijer pharmacies are free.

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that the Coca-Cola Co. will spend about $43 million to acquire a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea Inc., which makes premium and organic bottled teas.

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the transcendental meditation movement who served as a guru to the Beatles back in the sixties, died this week in The Netherlands. He was believed to be 91 years old.

    • Actor Barry Morse, who played Lt. Philip Gerard on the original TV series version of “The Fugitive,” died last weekend at age 89.

    KC's View:
    Morse and David Janssen, who played the fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble, combined to make this series an absolute classic that holds up even forty years after it was produced. (The first season is out on DVD and is terrific.)

    And Morse, while he wasn't in every episode, was completely believable – driven and obsessed, and yet always with a kind of moral compass that made for a compelling portrayal.

    Published on: February 6, 2008

    Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the next big food trend in the US may be chewable ice.

    But today, the Journal goes global to look at another food trend:

    “Unexpected changes in Vietnam's food chain and diet have sparked a rodent-eating bonanza,” with rat cuisine moving from the countryside, where it has long been a staple, to big cities. The Journal notes that “rats have been a delicacy in Vietnam's rural areas for centuries, with recipes dating back 150 years. For a long time, however, this country's big city folk were generally less enthusiastic, often associating the animals more with garbage-digging vermin than mouth-watering entrees.

    “But in 2004, flare-ups of bird flu claimed scores of lives here and prompted many diners to search for alternative sources of protein. Demand went up, but paradoxically supply did too. That's because rats' natural predators -- snakes and cats -- are increasingly finding themselves on the menus of posh restaurants frequented by wealthy Vietnamese.”

    KC's View:
    Apparently that nursing home where the old guy was found last year with a rat in his mouth was not being abusive, but rather was simple experimenting with modern Asian cuisine.

    This of course will probably quicken the pace of the coming and inevitable animal revolution...and we soon will find small furry animals munching on Soylent Green.

    By the way, who can resist the following recipe carried in the Journal today:

    Ground Rat Meat And Chili

    Two field rats, chopped into quarters
    Two chopped cloves of garlic
    Half cup of lemon leaves
    Half a cup of dried chili peppers
    Quarter cup of fish sauce
    A dash of salt

    • Mash up the chili peppers and add fish sauce to moisten the mixture. Then added the chopped garlic.
    • Place the lemon leaves in a bowl of water to soak.
    • Heat a frying pan over an open flame and add vegetable oil. Then add the chili pepper mixture. When sizzling, add the rat meat. Stir vigorously until cooked, and then add the lemon leaves. Simmer for five minutes, adding water as necessary to keep it moist.
    • Serve with steamed rice.


    Published on: February 6, 2008

    Responding to yesterday’s column by Michael Sansolo about GMO foods and the need for retailers and manufacturers to provide credible information about this and other issues, MNB user Tom Kroupa sent us an email that included information from a website that preaches about the health hazards of genetically modified foods. And, he wrote:

    It is a viewpoint that you did not include in your article in

    I think that news has been largely unreported on the affects of GM foods. If you or your sister knew about the hazards of GM Foods you might both want to avoid them. At least you should have information to make the choice yourself.

    I hope you aren't being influenced by the biotech industry to voice your opinions. That would be a conflict of interest that you should reveal to your readers.

    I’ll defend Michael on this one. He has no links to the biotech industry, and no conflicts of interest to be disclosed.

    And it seems to me that his column was pro-information, not necessarily pro-GMO.

    Another MNB user wrote:

    You talk of science as being the absolute truth, as in, information from science. Whose science are we to believe, Monsanto's or Dr. North's? How am I, as a layman, to determine which organization has the "best" science - each of them can point to science that provides opposite information.

    "Without information from trusted sources, reasoned debate loses."

    Because your sister couldn't explain GMO to you, doesn't mean that her "trusted source" wasn't right to warn her to avoid all GMOs. I would bet that your sister has many more important things in her life, than to do a study on the science of GMOs and determine which are good for her and which aren't. She listened to a "trusted source" and made her determination. But, because it didn't match your perception from your "trusted source", you took her to task - shame on you for taking her to task. If anyone has a differing view from you really consider them the "forces of ignorance."

    Michael can defend himself, and may choose to at some point. But I will certainly agree with one specific point that he made – when people start to use infomercials on television as “trusted sources,” they are on the proverbial slippery slope into ignorance.

    Another MNB user wrote:

    I don’t know the actual numbers, but suspect the world would be a far hungrier place without the benefit of GMO crops.

    A legitimate point, methinks.
    KC's View: