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    Published on: December 2, 2010

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    Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is a Thursday Eye-Opener on MNB Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

    There was an interesting confluence of items in the New York Times on Thanksgiving morning, one on the front page and one in the op-ed section. They were sort of about the same thing, but the information and angles were completely different.

    The subject was sweet potatoes.

    On page one, the story went like this:

    “The irrepressible sweet potato is having its moment.

    “American farmers expect to harvest a record two billion pounds this year (and) ...have achieved a status that just a few years ago would have seemed laughable.

    “They may even be hip.

    “Like skinny jeans, bamboo-frame bicycles or Disney stars, what is in and what is out can change in a flash. Just three years ago, The Wall Street Journal expressed the food world’s consensus view and declared on its front page that after the Thanksgiving dishes were cleared, the sweet potato was no more special than a turnip.

    “Yet the rough-skinned vegetable is arriving these days on plates both elevated and humble, from fancy state meals made with produce from the White House organic garden to a seasonal side dish served with cinnamon dipping sauce at White Castle. Europeans, too, have begun romancing the American-grown sweet potato, and the sweet potato fry is getting so popular that research has shown almost half the children in America under 12 have tried one.”

    And, the story went on:

    “There is no denying that sweet potato fries are at the center of the revolution. What began as innovation at the trendiest restaurants in San Francisco and New York in the 1980s has finally worked its way into the culinary mainstream. Over the past two years, the number of restaurants offering sweet potatoes as a side dish has increased by 40 percent, most of that from sweet potato fries, according to a survey of the menus at 900 restaurants by Technomic Inc., a market research firm.”

    Now, I must admit that as I read the story, I knew at least some of this information ... and have been part of the trend, ordering sweet potato fries whenever I get the opportunity.

    But I had to go to the Times op-ed page to get another view of the sweet potato, from columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote the following in a column about world hunger:

    “Our hero, appropriate for this season, is a high-tech and heroic version of the vitamin-packed, orange-fleshed sweet potato. Along with a few other newly designed foods, it may help save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives each year.

    “If there’s any justice in the world, statues may eventually be erected of this noble root, the Mother Teresa of the dinner plate. But, first, the back story. We think of starvation as a shortage of calories, but researchers are finding that the biggest reason people die of malnutrition is simply lack of micronutrients.

    “Without enough zinc, children die of diarrhea. Without enough iron, children are anemic and women die in childbirth. Without enough vitamin A, small children often go blind or die. More than one-third of African preschoolers lack vitamin A, and hundreds of thousands die as a result. (Americans get enough vitamin A because of a more varied diet and fortified foods.)

    “Unicef and other aid organizations like Helen Keller International have been working frantically to distribute vitamin A capsules and iron and zinc supplements in poor countries, or to fortify foods with minerals and vitamins.

    “But it’s a long, hard slog. A vitamin A capsule costs only a couple of cents, but delivering the capsules to remote villages can cost as much as $1 each.”

    Kristof continued:

    “Orange sweet potatoes on our Thanksgiving tables are full of beta carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. But our sweet potatoes don’t grow well in Africa. Africans eat an estimated seven million tons of sweet potatoes a year, but theirs are white ones that lack vitamin A.

    “So scientists cross-bred sweet potatoes until they came up with vitamin A-rich orange varieties that grow well in Africa. Hard-bitten health specialists go weak-kneed over them.

    “More than 170,000 Ugandan and Mozambiquan families are now growing these sweet potatoes. And the sweet potato is just the first of a number of crops that have been bred or engineered to address micronutrient deficiencies. This mix of agriculture and nutrition is called biofortification, and it’s one of the hot words in the global poverty lexicon.

    “Also in the works are rice and wheat packed with zinc, pearl millet and beans with iron, bright orange corn and golden cassava that give people vitamin A.”

    Kristof notes that biofortification, which essentially is a kind of genetic engineering, is controversial in some circles:

    “No battle against poverty goes smoothly, or as planned,” he writes. “And the European left’s sad hostility to scientific tinkering with crops may slow acceptance of biofortification. If that hostility gains ground, it will be harder to save children from blindness and death.”

    But the science is promising, the arguments persuasive, and the uses for these biofortified sweet potatoes - and other products - undeniable.

    “Children have been dying for lack of vitamin A, iron and zinc for thousands of generations,” Kristof concludes. “These new seeds may finally help end the scourge of starvation in this century, on our watch. And that’s a special reason to give thanks.”

    I’ll say.

    I’ll never look at the sweet potato fries on my plate quite the same way again, nor will I think of issues of genetic engineering without remembering Kristof’s column.

    These issues are not black and white, are not always easy to resolve. But some things - like solving malnutrition in children - ought to be more important than others.

    And that’s the Eye-Opening I got on Thanksgiving morning.

    For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that just a day after the US Senate passed landmark food safety legislation, a procedural error has put the bill on hold at least temporarily, unable to be reconciled with the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives.

    According to the story, “Democrats are looking at several options to get the bill turned into law, aides said, but the House can't approve it ‘as is’ because the legislation contains provisions that allow the government to collect fees. Those fees are technically considered tax provisions because they raise revenue for the federal government, an aide said, and House rules say tax provisions must originate in the House version of any bill.”

    The Journal explains: “The bill was first approved by the House in July 2009. The Senate passed its version with a provision excluding small farms and food processors with annual sales under $500,000 from new Food and Drug Administration regulations, if they sell their products directly to consumers or restaurants no more than 275 miles from the production site.”
    KC's View:
    You’d think that the US Congress - the best legislative body money can buy - would have enough cash to have someone on staff who would know these things. How does a bill years in the making get through the Senate with a provision that simply cannot be there?


    Published on: December 2, 2010

    USA Today reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared Iowa-based Wright County Egg - the company owned by the DeCoster family that was implicated in the salmonella contamination that resulted in more than 1,800 people getting sick and 550 million eggs being recalled - can start selling eggs again.

    According to the story, the FDA “outlined the steps that the company has taken to clean up its henhouses, including testing for salmonella enteritidis and clearing up its rodent problem.” The company has promised that it will do “more than is expected of us as we resume operations ... both to ensure our ongoing compliance with FDA regulations and to re-establish successful relationships with our customers."

    “During the outbreak, I said that FDA would not agree to the sale of eggs to consumers from Wright County Egg until we had confidence that they could be shipped and consumed safely," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement. "After four months of intensive work by the company and oversight, testing and inspections by FDA, I am satisfied that time has come."
    KC's View:
    Okay, I have three questions.

    1) You’re sitting at a table. There are two eggs in front of you. One is from any facility owned and/or operated by the DeCoster family. The other is from any facility owned and/or operated by anybody other than the DeCoster family. Which egg do you choose?

    2) Margaret Hamburg is sitting at that same table, faced with the same choice. Which egg does she choose?

    3) Austin DeCoster is sitting at the table, and has the same choice. Which egg does he choose?

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that competition is heating up between Lunds/Byerly’s and Whole Foods, which share similar customer demographics; the latter company is planning to expand in the Twin Cities, with a third and fourth store there on the drawing board.

    According to the story, Lunds Food Holdings is considering tearing down and replacing an existing Byerly’s near a new Whole Foods scheduled to open in 2012. And there are reports that the company could also make changes in another store near a planned Whole Foods.
    KC's View:
    The great advantages that Lunds/Byerly’s has, it seems to me, are a proud legacy in the region and a willingness not to sit on its laurels. When I’ve spoken with Tres Lund and members of his team, it always has been my sense that they share both a restless intelligence and a strong focus on the company’s core competencies.

    That’s what good companies need.

    This isn’t to say that Whole Foods is easy to compete with. But I think Lunds/Byerly’s is well positioned to bring its A-game to the fray.

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    The NPD Group is out with a new report saying that “nearly 3 out of 4 U.S. households typically plan at least some dinners in advance and half plan breakfast and lunch meals,” meaning that retailers are now dealing with more tightly focused consumer attitudes than in recent years.

    “The frequency of meal planning is an indication that many purchase decisions are made prior to grocery shopping,” said Ann Hanson, executive director of product development at NPD and author of the report. “Retailers and manufacturers who can help consumers address meal planning challenges have the potential to become ingrained in the family meal planning and shopping cycle.”  

    Among the specific findings in the report:

    • “Of the 71 percent of households that plan at least some dinners in advance, 24 percent planned nearly all dinners in advance.”

    • “Of the 53 percent of households that plan at least some lunches in advance, 13 percent planned nearly all lunches in advance.”

    • “Fifty-one percent of households planned at least some breakfast meals in advance, and 26 percent planned nearly all breakfasts in advance.”

    • “The most common challenges for...meal preparers are getting new ideas for main meals, finding meals that are quick to make, and staying within a budget. One way for meal preparers to address these challenges and find new ideas is through recipes. Thirty-four percent of households indicate they use recipes weekly and 69 percent said they use recipes at least monthly.”

    • “The top reason for making an impulse purchase was because the item was on sale.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    • The Financial Times writes that “Walmart, the world’s largest retailer by sales, is launching a push to reach lower-income and rural consumers in China with a new ‘compact hypermarket’ format originally developed in its Latin American markets.”

    Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart’s international business, tells FT that the compact supermarket “is a smaller store, typically a cheaper physical plant; a cement floor, perhaps brick walls, sometimes we don’t have air conditioning. It is going to help us reach more people ... not only in urban markets but also reaching people in rural areas...”
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called for the “development of a ‘do not track’ system that would enable people to avoid having their actions monitored online - prompting immediate objections from the online-advertising industry.

    The government believes that a legislative solution may be needed since private industry has not done enough to address people’s privacy concerns.

    The do-not-track system would be sort of the internet equivalent of the do-not-call system put into place a few years ago, preventing phone marketers from calling people who ask not to be called.
    KC's View:
    I have to believe that even in an anti-legislation environment, this is the kind of approach that could get a lot of support from consumers. Sure, it would make life tougher for marketers, but they’ll simply have to figure out ways to reach customers differently.

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    The Houston Chronicle reports that HEB has opened its second Joe V’s Smart Shop, a discount format that carries “about 9,000 items, compared with 37,000 in a traditional grocery store, and offer brand names and private labels. Joe V's sells groceries, meats, produce, personal care products and pet items. The bakery at the new location will feature Mexican-style bolillo bread, tortillas, pastries and cakes.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    Bloomberg reports that Starbucks plans to buy companies that will allow it to build up its grocery sales business. CFO Troy Alstead says that “there’s no question inorganic growth will be a bigger part of our next 10 years than it has been of our previous 10 years,” and adds that acquisitions could be complementary to the company’s primary coffee business.

    Chicago Breaking reports this morning that, as Starbucks engages in a public fight with Kraft over what it sees as mismanagement of its grocery sales business, it “plans to expand its relationship with Acosta Inc. — which is based in Jacksonville, Fla., and distributes Via (its hit instant coffee product) — to include distribution of Starbucks packaged coffee after March 1.”
    KC's View:
    Y’think that at odd moments, Howard Schultz stands in his office, looking out the window, thinking of Kraft, and muttering, “From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    • The Financial Times reports that PepsiCo is buying Wimm-Bill-Dann, the Russian dairy and fruit juice manufacturer, for $5.8 billion (US).
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 2, 2010

    Interesting reactions to yesterday’s piece about Amazon Prime, its role as a loyalty-building for Amazon and the imitations that are being developed by its competitors.

    One MNB user wrote:

    I had Amazon Prime for one year.  I became very frustrated when many of the items from third party vendors were not eligible.  I still buy from Amazon, but it is not my automatic store.  And, as you point out, some of the benefits are becoming available whether you have Prime or not; but not all of the benefits all of the time.

    But another MNB user disagreed:

    Self proclaimed Amazon Prime addict for life.

    The two day free shipping for anything, the option to ship to various addresses for gift giving had me at hello.

    I’m with the latter reader.

    We had a story the other day about how Fiji Water is pulling out of Fiji, which led me to suggest that they’ll need to change their name or face charges of false advertising. Which prompted an MNB user to write:

    I agree with you 100%. But shouldn’t Coke and Pepsi call their water “Tap Water”? Few companies really want transparency – it would cost them in profits.

    At the end of the day, it won;t matter whether companies want transparency. it will be forced on them by a technological world that makes it possible, and a consumer population that demands and expects it.

    More commentary on proposals to ban premixed caffeine-and-alcohol drinks such as Four Loko, and how the move might affect the small company that makes the caffeine-infused beer Moonshot 69.

    I don’t have a strong position on what, if any regulation should be passed, but it is easy to draw a line; one cannot artificially add caffeine to a drink that exceeds a maximum alcohol content or one can’t artificially add caffeine to an alcoholic drink at all.   It’s ridiculous to think that regulating these types of drinks isn’t within the government’s purview to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.  Is the brewer of Moonshot ’69 really an innocent victim of unintended consequences?  According to the story, she is adding caffeine not as part of the natural brewing process, but as a stimulant.
    KC's View: