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    Published on: November 13, 2008

    Now available on iTunes

    To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:

    Hi, I‘m Kevin Coupe and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, coming to you this morning from Vigo, Spain.

    MorningNewsBeat Radio is sponsored by Webstop, your first stop for retail website design services.

    All things considered, I’ve got a pretty good gig. Last week, I was in Argentina, and this week I’m in Spain, working on a video project that will have its debut at the annual CIES Food Safety Conference, scheduled to take place next February in Barcelona.

    Have passport, will travel. That’s what I should have inscribed on my business card.

    It isn’t just fun and games, however. I’ve learned a lot on this project, mostly because I’ve found myself in places I’ve never been before – a fish processing plant in Patagonia at one in the morning, for example, watching people process calamari. Or here in the seaport city of Vigo, documenting the distribution process for a wide variety of seafood and how food safety concerns are observed at every turn.

    I can't go into detail at the moment because it would give away the show, and I want you to consider coming to Barcelona for one of the best conferences staged in the food industry. After all, Walmart and Carrefour and Tesco will all be there…and you can't really afford to ignore the issues and approaches that they consider to be so important.

    Today, however, I’d like to talk about a different side of the food business.

    While I mentioned earlier that my travels aren’t just fun and games, I do have to admit that I enjoy the side benefits – most of which involve food and wine.

    For example, while on this trip I went to lunch with a local seafood expert, and he encouraged me to have a local dish typical of Galician cuisine – cuttlefish, which is basically a kind of squid, served in its own black ink and with a bed of rice.

    I’m a sucker for a new experience, so I accepted his recommendation…and loved every bite. It was unlike anything I’d every tasted before in both flavor and texture, and I’m very glad I took the leap of faith…especially because the accompanying wine was a 2007 Albarino made by the Pazo San Mauro vineyard, which was simply one of the best white wines I’ve ever tasted.

    Here’s the interesting thing about our lunch. While we were eating, my new friend told me that not that long ago, he’d been entertaining people from the US who worked as seafood buyers for some retailers, and he’d encouraged them to have the same dish that I tried. But they wouldn’t do it, and they opted for something more traditional, more safe. It was just too weird for them.

    Now, I understand that we all have different taste buds and different levels of tolerance. But this I don't get. These guys were not just in the food business, but the seafood business. How could they not try something totally new, totally different? If they cannot expand their own horizons, how can they enlighten and illuminate and challenge their shoppers?

    Maybe this is the difference between being a person who eats to live, and one who lives to eat. Maybe it is the difference between the US food culture and that of much of the rest of the world.

    But if you are going to sell food, how can you not be in love with the magic of food, with the sense of adventure that comes from an unfamiliar cuisine, a new use of a spice, or an unexpected combination that holds the promise of delighting the senses?

    It may be the central weakness of the US food industry – that it is more about price and deals and packaging and promotions than it is about what finally ends up on the plate.

    I know one thing. The industry can't hope to help consumers focus on taste and magic until it is willing to do the same thing.

    I could go on about this for a lot longer. But I’ve got to start thinking about what’s for dinner. I’m hoping for some adventure, preferably served rare and with a wine I’ve never had before.

    For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

    KC's View:

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    Tesco-owned Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets announced yesterday that it has opened its 100th store only one year after launching its US business in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada.

    However, perhaps not surprisingly, the press release did not include news that was reported by the International Herald Tribune: that Fresh & Easy also is slowing it pace of US expansion. The company hoped to have 200 stores opened by February 2009, but because of the economic slowdown pervading the US, now believes it will hit that milestone by November 2009.

    “It’s prudent to slow things down a bit,” CEO Tim Mason tells IHT, and says that while it has announced plans to open stores in Northern California, those plans could be put on hold until the economy improves.

    According to the company, “Fresh & Easy has opened 26 stores in Phoenix; 25 in Las Vegas; and 49 in Southern California. The company continues to secure more locations each week and has secured a strong pipeline of stores in California, Arizona and Nevada.”
    KC's View:
    To be fair, Fresh & Easy isn’t hitting the brakes hard and going into a skid; rather, it is pumping them lightly and slowing down. (Though in Southern California, where the roads are perpetually covered with light oil slicks and people have no idea how to drive when they go into a skid, even pumping the brakes can be hazardous. And I think I’ve stretched this metaphor as far as it will go…)

    Reactions will be predictable. F&E skeptics will say this is the beginning of the end. Enthusiasts will say it is just a small pothole. (There’s that metaphor again. Sorry.)

    I’ve reserving judgment. For now.

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    The Consumer Reports National Research Center has released the results of a new survey saying that “by a huge margin, consumers are concerned about food safety, and they want the government to inspect the food supply more frequently and to publicly disclose where food safety problems arise.”

    According to the report issued by Consumer Reports, “While 73 percent polled currently regard the overall food supply as safe, nearly half (48%) said their confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply has decreased. A bare majority of Americans feel the government is doing all it can to ensure food safety (54%). Eighty-three percent of respondents are concerned with harmful bacteria or chemicals in food and 81 percent are concerned with the safety of imported food.

    “At present, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects domestic food production facilities once every 5 to 10 years, and foreign facilities even less frequently. And while U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must inspect meat plants daily, the FDA has no such requirement for other food processing plants. The American public, however, expects the FDA to conduct hands-on reviews of food-processing plants far more often. In fact, two-thirds of respondents said the FDA should inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.

    “More than 8 in 10 consumers strongly agree that when food safety problems arise, the FDA should disclose to the public the location of retailers who sold the potentially harmful food, including fish, produce, and processed foods, as the USDA is currently required to do for meat. Over 80 percent of consumers also want the government to able to require a recall, quickly and accurately trace food from production to sale, and strongly agree that the USDA should disclose to the public information about schools, healthcare facilities, and other public and private institutions that receive recalled meat.”

    In addition, the survey suggests that there is broad support for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL): “Ninety-four percent of Americans want specialty meat and fish stores to label their products by country of origin. Meat and poultry sold in butcher shops and fish sold in fish markets—some 11% percent of all meat and fish—are currently exempt from country of origin labeling.

    “Ninety-five percent of consumers polled believe that processed or packaged food should be labeled by their country of origin and that country of origin labeling for products should always be available at point of purchase.”

    KC's View:
    First of all, permit me a moment of cynicism.

    Wouldn’t we all be a little surprised if a survey sponsored and conducted by Consumer Reports had not come out for improved transparency, inspections and oversight?

    Just to keep things in perspective.

    That said, I agree that the government has to do a better job of inspecting products being sold to and consumed by the American public, and the food industry needs to foster and embrace greater levels of transparency.

    I’m not sure if the real numbers in terms of US support match up to the Consumer Report numbers, but I think there is a general feeling that the food supply is less safe than it used to be, and a greater awareness that we may be more vulnerable to food safety-related problems than ever before.

    The food industry – retailers and manufacturers – ought to be leading this charge as advocates for consumers. Heel dragging is not an acceptable option.

    That’s the bigger lesson and message of the Consumer Reports survey. That trust is eroding and, in the words of the Latin proverb oft-quoted here on MNB, “trust, like the soul, never returns once it goes.”

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    Forbes reports that the recessionary economy has meant that more people than ever before are buying private label products from their supermarkets, which is helping them get more for their money and helping retailers maintain higher profit margins.

    According to a survey by BIG Research, private label purchases currently are up 33 percent over a year ago. And the trend seems to be sweeping through a variety of formats and retailers, with the impact being felt by chains as diverse as Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, and even Whole Foods.

    KC's View:
    This trend is just catching up where the Coupe household has been for a long time…since our three main stores are Stew Leonard’s, Trader Joe’s and Costco – all of which have a broad and deep private label presence – as a matter of habit and necessity we’ve always bought private label. And here’s the key…in each case, the private label products are high quality.

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    USA Today reports that in response to the current economic plight being felt by so many consumers, some of the nation’s foodservice companies are testing new offers that will drive new patrons into their dining rooms and stores … or at least buy their products in some other form

    For example, Ruth’s Chris Steak House is sending out gift certificates ranging from $5 to $25.

    According to the paper, McCormick & Schmick's “has launched a website to sell many of its menu items uncooked and ships them overnight anywhere in the US.” At the same time, TGI Friday’s is selling $6.99 frozen skillet meals in some markets.

    KC's View:
    Companies that specialize in “eat at home” options need to be wary, since the people who are selling the “eat out” option are going to do whatever they can to maintain market share, or share of stomach.

    After all, the Washington Times had a story saying that “a recent survey of 1,500 consumers by Mintel and the National Association for Specialty Food Trade shows 57 percent of respondents saying they are dining out less. In the meantime, outfits including Sur la Table, purveyor of upscale kitchenware and cooking classes, are seeing sales increase in top-notch kitchenware and classes such as Everyday Kitchen Essentials.”

    However, some of this stuff is nuts. For example, USA today also reports that Burger King, hoping to create greater loyalty to its brand, is rolling out a line of underwear and sleepwear bearing its name. How this will work in practice escapes me.

    Though there probably is a “whopper” joke in there somewhere…

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    Ahold-owned Stop & Shop said yesterday that it is acquiring leases for two Grand Union Family Markets - one in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the other in Seekonk, Massachusetts – that have been operated by C&S Wholesale Grocers.

    The company said that “the closing of both transactions will occur in early December followed by a brief shut down of the stores to convert them to Stop & Shop. Both stores will re-open in time to serve customers through the holidays.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    The Los Angeles Times reports that the American Dietetic Association has done a new survey revealing that people are getting smarter about diet and exercise.

    According to the story, “When asked about maintaining a healthful diet and engaging in regular exercise, 43% said, ‘I'm already doing it.’ In 2002, that number was 38%. People in the ‘I know I should’ category -- who understand a healthy lifestyle is critical but haven't done much to achieve it -- numbered 38%, up from 30% in 2002. And just 19% of men and women put themselves in the ‘don't bother me’ category -- not believing that diet and exercise are important. That's down from 32% in 2002.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    • Anheuser-Busch shareholders have approved a $52 billion acquisition of the company by InBev, the Belgian brewing company. InBev’s shareholders already have approved the deal, which still requires a governmental go-ahead from antitrust regulators.

    • Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s has been named the 2008 Connecticut Retailer of the Year by the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association.

    KC's View:

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    • Walmart reports that its third quarter sales were $97.6 billion, up 7.5 percent from the $90.8 billion recorded during same period a year ago. Q3 income from continuing operations for the third quarter was $3.033 billion, an increase of 6.6 percent from $2.846 billion in the third quarter last year.

    However, it is worth noting that a story in the Wall Street Journal this morning reports that some analysts believe that the down economy could have a negative impact even on Walmart, which could see dropping same-store sales as consumer buying habits change.

    KC's View:

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    • Dollar General said yesterday that it has appointed Todd J. Vasos, the former executive vice president/COO for Long’s Drugs, to the role of division president and chief merchandising officer for its 8,300-store network.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 13, 2008

    …will return.
    KC's View: