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    Published on: April 16, 2008

    Inside Tucson Business reports that ethnic markets and restaurants in the region “have been under increasing stress lately due to falling value of the U.S. dollar against many other world currencies … The dollar is currently worth about 64 percent of a Euro (as of April 10). A year ago it was worth 76 percent according to the European Central Bank.''

    The newspaper notes that this has the potential for real consumer impact: “Ethnic markets and groceries are a significant source of food in the United States. A study released by Iowa State University in 2005, found that Americans spend an average of nearly 15 percent of grocery money on ethnic food.”

    And yet, according to the article, there are differences in how some retailers and restaurants are coping with the price increases. Stores, by and large, say they are passing along the increases to their customers because they cannot afford not to, and customers seem to understand; restaurants, on the other hand, are holding the line on prices, concerned that increases could compel patrons to eat elsewhere or even (gasp!) cook at home.

    KC's View:
    Of course, it isn’t just ethnic food that is getting more expensive…and whatever the strategies that retailers and restaurants devise for meeting the challenge, they better have long-term plans. Because food isn’t likely to get cheaper anytime soon.

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    The New York Times reports that “the consumer spending slump and tightening credit markets are unleashing a widening wave of bankruptcies in American retailing, prompting thousands of store closings that are expected to remake suburban malls and downtown shopping districts across the country.”

    In recent months, midsize chains such as Sharper Image and Levitz have filed for bankruptcy protection, and now bigger companies such as Linens ‘n Things are seen as being at risk – the bedding retailer is expected to file for bankruptcy as son as this week. And, even retailers not facing too few sales and too much debt are closing ranks. Announcing that they are closing stores to save money, and anticipating that this is going to be a long slog.

    The Times characterizes the problems this way: “The surging cost of necessities has led to a national belt-tightening among consumers. Figures released on Monday showed that spending on food and gasoline is crowding out other purchases, leaving people with less to spend on furniture, clothing and electronics. Consequently, chains specializing in those goods are proving vulnerable.

    “Retailing is a business with big ups and downs during the year, and retailers rely heavily on borrowed money to finance their purchases of merchandise and even to meet payrolls during slow periods. Yet the nation’s banks, struggling with the growing mortgage crisis, have started to balk at extending new loans, effectively cutting up the retail industry’s collective credit cards.”

    KC's View:
    The sense I get from this story is that many of these retailers in trouble had faulty foundations to begin with, and simply were not structured to withstand the ill winds of declining consumer spending.

    But here’s what I don't get.

    Mrs. Content Guy was in a Kohl’s store the other day, and she said that the checkout people were all pushing customers to apply for Kohl’s credit cards by dangling discounts in front of them. It seemed to be a concerted effort – everybody was doing it, and a lot of customers were biting.

    But isn’t this at least part of the problem with the US economy at the moment – too many people buying products with money they don't have? And if a company encourages that sort of behavior – conceivably putting itself at risk if these customers default – isn’t it the worst kind of irresponsibility?

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    Carrefour, the French retail company that is number two in the world, second only to Wal-Mart, is seeing its 122 stores in China targeted by an Internet campaign calling for a boycott.

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that the boycott call is ''part of a nationalistic counterattack against protests that marred the Beijing Olympics' torch relay in Paris, London and San Francisco earlier this month.'' The calls say that ''protests during the Paris torch relay against Chinese policies in Tibet were an attack on China. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also said he is considering not attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics because of China's crackdown on recent protests in Tibet.''

    Carrefour has responded to the controversy by saying that it has fully supported the Olympics in Beijing, and said that the boycott call is ''wrong'' and ''baseless.''

    KC's View:
    Is it just me, but does all the controversy about the Beijing Olympics seem inevitable? Award the Olympics to a country like China, it seems to me, and these sorts of heated debates and exchanges are going to happen.

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    Reuters reports on a new study done by the University of Alberta in Edmonton saying that “kids who eat better perform better in school,” and who “ate an adequate amount of fruit, vegetables, protein, fiber and other components of a healthy diet were significantly less likely to fail a literacy test.”

    And, the story continues: “The better a student's eating habits based on several measures of diet quality, including adequacy and variety, the less likely he or she was to have failed the test, the researchers found, even after they adjusted the data for the effects of parental income and education, school, and gender. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, and getting fewer calories from fat, was also associated with a lower risk of failing the test.”

    KC's View:
    No doubt in anticipation of wisenheimer headlines like the one on this story, the researchers tell Reuters that “while a healthy diet is generally assumed to be important for good school performance, there has actually been little research on this topic.”

    Next up, no doubt, will be a study of whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

    Actually, while I’m joking around here, the cold reality is that a lot of kids are probably slipping through the cracks because of lousy nutrition. So if a study like this can wake up parents, then that’s a good thing.

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    The Association of Health Care Journalists reports that more than two-thirds of health care reporters taking part in a First Amendment survey have had stories held or left unpublished” because the Food and Drug Administration did not respond in a timely fashion to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

    And, according to a story on the Association’s website, “Only a third of reporters said they received a response within the required 20 days called for in the federal Freedom of Information Act. Many waited months or years – or never received requested data, according to the survey,” which resulted in stories being delayed or going unpublished.

    Two other interested points from the story:

    • “The FDA fared poorly in this survey even in comparison to other federal agencies. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said their experiences were better with other agencies and about half said FDA officials contacted for help in fulfilling requests were unhelpful.”

    • And, “while some reporters believe FDA understaffing is a problem, FDA officers said the number of requests made to the FDA annually has dropped significantly as more information is placed on the government Web site.”

    KC's View:
    In other words, there are no real excuses.

    Once again, it is good to see our tax dollars at work.

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    Published reports in Canada say that Loblaw has opened the third of a new format store, Loblaw Great Foods, in the province of Ontario.

    "We want to be the food authority," David Primorac, a spokesman for the company, tells the Collingwood-Wasaga Beach Connection.

    The company has described the new formats in its press materials as "a return to Loblaw's strength in innovation for fresh food selection and quality, and in the consumer retail experience.”

    Connection reports that “the redesign and product offering reflect the changes in consumer tastes and include choices such as meal solutions for time crunched shoppers such as chopped vegetables for stir-fry cooking and pre-seasoned premium meats, along with new artisan breads and more than 350 varieties of local and international cheeses.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    “Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices,” according to a piece in the New York Times.

    The Times writes: “The idea of turning farms into fuel plants seemed, for a time, like one of the answers to high global oil prices and supply worries. That strategy seemed to reach a high point last year when Congress mandated a fivefold increase in the use of biofuels.

    But now a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people … In some countries, the higher prices are leading to riots, political instability and growing worries about feeding the poorest people. Food riots contributed to the dismissal of Haiti’s prime minister last week, and leaders in some other countries are nervously trying to calm anxious consumers. At a weekend conference in Washington, finance ministers and central bankers of seven leading industrial nations called for urgent action to deal with the price spikes, and several of them demanded a reconsideration of biofuel policies adopted recently in the West.”

    However, ethanol supporters don't see it that way, and the Times writes that they “maintain that any increase caused by biofuels is relatively small and that energy costs and soaring demand for meat in developing countries have had a greater impact.”

    Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called the recent criticism of ethanol by foreign officials “a big joke” and said that there remains much support for ethanol despite rising food prices.

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    • In its annual report yesterday, Tesco noted that its online food sales were up 49 percent in the just-completed fiscal year, with profits that were the equivalent of more than $240 million (US). Total online sales were up 36 percent, according to the company,

    • Ball’s Food Stores, which operates 29 Ball’s Price Chopper and hen House stores in the Kansas City, area, will launch a new customized Internet service that will include an interactive circular, an online advertising program, online shopping list, an integrated recipe database and a new customized website.

    The new Ball’s site will be built by MyWebGrocer.

    KC's View:
    As a matter of full disclosure, I should point out here that MyWebGrocer and its MyWebLink division are both MNB sponsors. However, I think that whenever a retailer makes a greater commitment to the Internet it is worth noting, and didn’t want to hold the sponsorship against MyWebGrocer.

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    • The New York Times reports that “the Hawaii Department of Agriculture will rollout a three-year pilot project this month to track and trace tomatoes and other produce using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The system uses microchips with paper-thin antennae stuck onto produce boxes that emit radio waves when scanned. While the technology is already being used by a few supermarkets and farms across the nation, Hawaii would be the first state to test RFID from farm to market in hopes of improving food safety.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 16, 2008

    …will return.
    KC's View: