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    Published on: June 11, 2008

    Here’s a brief update on relevant stories relating to the salmonella outbreak that seems to be related to the consumption of raw tomatoes…

    • The New York Times this morning reports that federal health officials seem confident that they shortly will be able to say how the salmonella outbreak originated, noting that they are “getting closer to identifying the source or sources.”

    As the Times writes, “The agency warned consumers over the weekend to avoid certain raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes and products containing them. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and those sold with the vine still attached are not associated with the outbreak, officials said.” At least 167 people in 17 states appear to have been affected by salmonella poisoning, though nobody has died.

    • The Chicago Sun-Times reports that “supermarkets and fast food chains that threw out tomatoes suspected in a salmonella outbreak were acting aggressively to protect their customers' health and avoid a consumer backlash,” and that it seems possible – even likely – that even once the source of the contamination is determined, consumers may “stay away from one of the joys of summer.”

    • The Washington Post reports that “federal food safety officials yesterday cleared Florida's latest tomato crop as safe to eat, a move that is likely to speed the return of tomatoes to many restaurants.”

    In addition, the Post says that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision is “expected to help grocery stores replenish their supplies of Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes, which remain the subject of a nationwide alert.”

    • Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports, “the Bush administration increased its budget request for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by $275 million after the agency's commissioner told Congress that more funding was needed to protect against unsafe products.”

    The White House originally asked for $2.4 billion in funding, but was undercut when FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach admitted under questioning that this number was inadequate.

    KC's View:
    Woefully inadequate, I’d say. Though while I firmly believe that additional funding is called for, I do have to wonder where the hell the money is coming from. And I have to wonder about what will happen, and how priorities will be set, when a new administration takes office next January.

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    Consumers Union has called on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to back off its lawsuit challenging an attempt by Creekstone Farms, a Kansas meatpacker, and other companies from testing all of their animals for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. Creekstone won the right to do so in a lower court case, but the USDA has appealed that ruling.

    “The best thing USDA could do would be to drop its anticompetitive, anti-consumer ban on voluntarily testing for mad cow disease and also allow meat from tested animals to be labeled as ‘tested for BSE’ so that consumers have a choice and free markets can function,” said Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union. “It is hurting our trade with other countries and consumer confidence in our beef supply at home.”

    Less than one percent of all slaughtered cows are testing for BSE under current federal guidelines. Larger meatpackers also have objected to Creekstone's plans, saying that it could create unfair pressure on them to test all their animals for BSE, which could result in higher costs and, ultimately, higher consumer prices.

    The appeals court is expected to rule in this case shortly.

    KC's View:
    The USDA is so wrong on this issue that it almost defies belief. The consumer of 2008 demands and expects transparency, and both companies and governments that do not deliver on this will be viewed with distrust and suspicion. In this case, the government is preventing companies from achieving a level of transparency, which strikes me as deliberate obfuscation and anti-consumer.

    It ought not be tolerated by the electorate.

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    The Los Angeles Times writes about a University of Minnesota study suggesting that “parents who think their teenager is overweight are no more likely to banish junk food and keep healthful foods around the house than those who don't -- or to encourage habits such as family meals, less eating in front of the tube and more exercise. But they are more likely to urge their teen to diet.”

    The study showed that in such an environment, the encouragement to diet is, in fact, counterproductive…and that teenagers encouraged to diet were more likely to be overweight than those who were not.

    KC's View:
    Go figure.

    This isn’t really a study about dieting. It really is more about hypocrisy. Or, at the very least, inconsistency. It also isn’t as much about teen behavior as it is about parental behavior.

    It all begins at home. Parents who want to encourage their kids to eat healthy foods and live a healthy lifestyle have to make sure there is more fruit in the house than potato chips, more vegetables than cookies, more milk than soda. They have to go bicycling with their kids, or shoot hoops, or go have a catch. (Encouraging your kids to diet and get exercise while sitting on the couch watching endless hours of TV doesn’t count.)

    This is not to say that chips or cookies or soda are inherently bad. It is overindulgence that is bad. It is lack of perspective that is bad.

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    The Orlando Business Journal reports on new numbers from the Natural Marketing Institute saying that “green and healthy products account for $209 billion in sales, but that figures may reach more than $400 billion by 2010.” The study suggests that one in five consumers can be defined as living ;lifestyles of health and sustainability and are “top spenders in categories focusing on organic, natural and environmentally friendly options, such as produce, cereal, soup, eggs, pasta, nuts and noncarbonated drinks.”

    According to the research, “green consumers spend more in warehouse clubs than other channels, such as grocery stores, drug stores or supercenters.”

    This research was presented at The Nielsen Co.’s Consumer 360 Conference in Phoenix.

    KC's View:
    No reason to doubt these numbers, though it has to be noted that it is impossible to know how the projections will be impacted by an economy that is spiraling downward with little evidence of a rebound on the horizon. You have to think that the health of the green category will depend on 1) how much green it costs to acquire such products, and 2) how much green people actually have in their pockets to spend.

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    The Los Angeles Times this morning reports that California's Attorney General Jerry Brown has filed suit against four companies, including Whole Foods Market Inc., accusing them of failing to label soap products that contain a potentially cancer-causing chemical.

    According to the story, the suit “didn't name the specific body washes, gels and liquid dish soaps that allegedly contain 1,4-dioxane. Under Proposition 65, companies must label products that contain chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.”

    The Attorney General’s office said that the goal of the suit is to get the companies to reformulate the products so that they are free of dioxane.

    Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, responded: "We have conducted our own investigation into the allegations that some of our products contain 1,4-dioxane and do not believe these products represent a health risk or are in excess of California's Proposition 65 safe harbor level for 1,4-dioxane. We're cooperating with the attorney general's office to resolve the claims as quickly as possible.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    Published reports say that Supervalu plans to eliminate 135 corporate positions, a move said to be a result of the company’s decision to outsource some of its financial functions to a third party service provider.

    According to a memo from Supervalu CEO Jeff Noddle that was distributed yesterday, the transition will take 12 to 18 months, and “will ultimately affect approximately 135 Finance and Accounting associates across the Minneapolis and Boise campuses.” Noddle wrote that the “timeline will help minimize any disruption to the business, and to make the change as seamless as possible to our customers, associates, our vendor business partners, and our independent retailers.

    “While we’re confident that this new partnership with the third-party service provider is the right thing to do for Supervalu, we understand that the decision to move forward with this initiative impacts our associates and as a result, it was not taken lightly. It is important to us that our associates are treated with dignity and respect throughout this process.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    • The Washington Post reports this morning that Safeway is offering $4 prescriptions on hundreds of generic drugs at its stores in the eastern United States and in Chicago, “following in the footsteps of the program popularized by Wal-Mart two years ago.”

    According to the story, “The list of $4 drugs includes the antibiotic amoxicillin, blood pressure medication atenolol and levothyroxine for thyroid disease.”

    • The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Food Marketing
    Institute (FMI) and MatchPoint Marketing announced yesterday that they will join with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to become official USDA MYPyramid corporate partners. The goal is to promote “the government’s nutrition education program in grocery store aisles, where consumers ultimately make their food choices,” and to showcase “the role industry can play as a partner to government in encouraging healthier eating and physical fitness among families.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    • Penn Traffic Co. reported first quarter losses of $12.4 million, a 67 percent increase over the $7.4 million loss reported during the same period a year ago. Q1 sales were $287.1 million, down from $298 million last year; same-store sales were off 1.4 percent.
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 11, 2008

    Got a number of responses to yesterday’s “Sansolo Speaks” about the need to reinvent and reinvigorate the in-store shopping experience.

    MNB user Dick Shulman wrote:

    Michael, the answer is simple. Visit Costco (sampling & product surprises) or Whole Foods (prepared foods of every imaginable type) to see how to make shopping fun.

    MNB user Brian Anderson wrote:

    So what you’re asking is “How can Supermarkets create the ‘treasure-hunt’ ambiance that Costco has mastered?” Supermarkets don’t have the luxury of having such a high percentage of in & out items… which also doubles for Costco as a stimulus; better buy it now or it will be gone by the time you get back. Most of those items are non-food, but they draw people in to see what they can find. Supermarkets also have to have a lot more items on hand everyday that they can’t shift around the store every few days. Most supermarkets are not designed for fun.

    So can supermarkets pull it off? I think so. My advice would be… get out from behind the counters in your perishable departments and interact with the shoppers. Have the Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker demonstrate their products; rather than just have the kindly semi-retired folks from an agency handing out samples and coupons. Get the expert on the floor… with things like live demos, maybe a kiosk where they can answer questions, describe additional usages for products, and distribute their favorite ways of preparing products (i.e., personalized recipes). How cool would it be for a butcher to cut off 4 NY strip steaks for you, the thickness you want them, apply a dry rub and hand you the package to go home and throw them on your grill? Or if the baker customized a loaf of bread for you… “Will that be jalapeño cheese or would you like onion and garlic? It’ll be out of the oven in 20 minutes, just swing by and pick it up!” The store gets the bonus of the shopper shopping while their bread is baking.

    They don’t have to be there all day. A supermarket could rotate departments from day-to-day and have an ‘expert’ on the floor from 5-7 PM each day. Maybe pick earlier hours for Saturday and Sunday; just be consistent. Once shoppers are educated that there is always something interesting and fun going on at that time each day, they’re likely to linger and make more time for their shopping trip.

    MNB user Bev Bennett wrote:

    I enjoyed your column today 6/10 in MorningNewsBeat.

    It reminded me of a news item about an IRI study on consumer behavior, which I found fascinating. Shoppers are doing more from-scratch cooking and buying fewer prepared meals. If I ran a supermarket, and I say this from the self-serving perspective of a recipe developer and food writer, I'd offer shoppers cooking classes (Saturday 6 pm cocktails and cooking?), recipes, custom culinary magazines and a store arrangement that groups foods into recipes.

    I agree with you, the timing is perfect. Not only are shoppers looking for budget saving measures, they’re also not going out as often as they used to. A little useful entertainment at what has become to be considered a mundane but necessary chore could truly rejuvenate the supermarket experience. That can translate to long-term increases in sales for those that do it right!

    Another MNB user wrote:

    Michael is right! My trips to Trader Joe's are like going on a "Field Trip". I look forward to visiting to pick up my TJ staples, and then browse the store while always stopping by their sample area to try foods that I probably would never have tasted. Part of the reason for my enjoyment is that the store is manageable in terms of size and the employees are both eager to help answer questions and seem really happy to work there. Most employees know about their products and can actually engage in a genuine conversation about their experience with them (this is a real key for providing the service level that I expect and a real miss by most traditional grocers). I usually buy one new item each trip to try it out and I am rarely disappointed.

    A quick stop by their excellent wine department and I'm outta there. The tropical shirts, chalkboards, and find the parrot game (my daughter taught me that each store has a hidden parrot and if they find it, they get a few stickers --effective viral marketing to kids--) make our trip to TJ's a positive experience. Why can't more grocery stores figure this out?

    And another MNB user wrote:

    I read Michael Sansolo's article and it made me reflect on our own shopping experiences as of late. My wife and I shop at Winco, a regional no-frills grocery chain. It has become such a mundane chore over the last few years since the store doesn't ever remodel, or really change the way they present products to us. Our "fun" over the last few years has been to see how quickly we can get in and out of the store with our weekly shopping needs. Our record so far is 35 minutes from car to car. I hope that their CEO reads Michael’s column.

    Actually, I think it is okay if a company like Winco determines that the fast-not-fun shopping trip is the niche it wants to occupy. But a retailer has to make that determination, and then go after that niche relentlessly. What you can't do is not make a decision and get caught in the mushy middle.

    At least, that’s what I think.

    MNB user Mike Heinaman had thoughts about another story:

    This is just a quick note on the response about consumer responsibility and the media with regards to food safety. The one death at least partially attributed to the salmonella outbreak was a cancer patient, but he ate the contaminated salsa at a restaurant, not a raw, unwashed tomato. I can say from experience that going through chemo is no fun, and patients certainly try to restrict their diet, but the assertion that they need to take “personal responsibility” in a situation like this is absurd. Also, the media reports of cases like this allow other cancer patients and people with weak immune systems to take the steps to avoid the same situation.

    Agreed. When the FDA determines who or what is responsible for the salmonella outbreak, it is a safe bet that “the media” won’t be implicated. Though you never know.

    Also on the subject of the tomato crisis, one MNB user wrote:

    We are on the cusp of the summer tomato season being in full swing and I for one can’t wait to taste my first favor of locally organically grown heirloom tomatoes.

    I trust our local tomato ladies implicitly. The care and pure enthusiasm they have for these less marketed varieties is infectious. Constantly giving samples of their tomatoes at the farmers market and it just screams quality. And then you taste one and wish you’d brought more money and hadn’t bought that zucchini or that eggplant from the store because they are all right here and fresh. And it feels good handing your money to someone who actually has dirt under they’re finger nails.

    And in case you hadn’t guessed, Yes my wife and I are food snobs, unabashedly so, for life is too short to eat bad food.

    To compensate for the rising price of food we are eating in more which is actually a good and tasty thing as both my wife and I love to cook. When we do venture out it’s for ethnic or fine dining.

    I think I remember an article about that Hells Kitchen chef recommending, actually loudly lobbying for local seasonal eating. Doesn’t sound so crazy any more does he? least for me and my situation.

    No fear here, not one seed of doubt. Can’t wait till we get our first taste of tomato with fresh mozzarella, basil leaves all drizzled with some extra virgin olive oil, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.

    You’re making me hungry.

    Another MNB user wrote:

    There's still time to put a few tomato plants in a pot on your deck.

    Except that I don't have a deck. And I do have a brown thumb.

    KC's View: