retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday MNB took note of numerous press reports about a series of class action suits filed against ice cream manufacturers - such as Unilever, Danone and Nestlé Dreyer - and retailers - such as Wegmans - arguing that the vanilla in their vanilla ice cream is largely derived from non-vanilla sources as opposed to real vanilla.

The suits are being filed by by attorney Spencer Sheehan of Great Neck, Long Island, who says that "class action cases provide a valuable mechanism that Americans have to address certain wrongs. This is a valid and lawful means for doing so."

I commented, in part:

So on a whim over the weekend I ventured into the frozen food section of a local independent grocer and checked out the ingredient list for various vanilla ice cream brands - and there was no "vanilla" listed. Now, to be sure, when the ice cream was "vanilla bean" or "french vanilla," there was vanilla on the ingredient list. In one case, the presence of vanilla was in a footnote under the ingredients list.

As a consumer, I kind of think these folks ought to be sued. Or at least ought to be held to account in some way. Because what they're doing really is kind of a cheat … like the folks who sell frozen blueberry waffles that have absolutely no blueberries in them. This makes me nuts … I'm not a purist by any means, but there is just something wrong with this system.

Personally, I'm glad I eat Graeter's ice cream. It is what it says it is. (And it's delicious.)

If I were a retailer, I'd go to my ice cream section right now and check to see what the ingredients are in my vanilla ice creams … and if there's no vanilla listed, I'd consider pulling them. Because this lawyer is out there hunting for targets, he's got a legitimate complaint, and if you don't do your best to take the target off your back, you only have yourself to blame.

MNB reader Buddy Martensen responded:

Although I agree that when something is called “VANILLA”, there should be at least a trace of actual natural vanilla included in the recipe. I get it.

But, I also believe that this Law firm has happened upon something that has been acceptable practice for eons. And, over those eons, the term VANILLA has been used as much to describe the COLOR of Ice Cream, as the flavor of Vanilla. I’ll bet the same holds true for all those many Vanilla Shakes I have ordered over the years.

It certainly does not mean that what was acceptable should continue. Ingredients today are more important than ever. But, it is suspect that the firm representing this suit is doing it for the good of all consumers,…or the good of their payout. I think the latter.

If that Vanilla Ice Cream or Vanilla Shake contains no real Vanilla, then maybe we should just revert to the same terminology used by a 3 year old child, that has a hard time pronouncing the word Vanilla.

"I’ll have some White Ice Cream",…or... "I’ll have a White Shake”. After all, even without Real Vanilla, can still taste good.

Good thing the word CHOCOLATE is both an ingredient and a color!

I would argue that just because something is "acceptable" doesn't make it right … and we live in a world where it is a lot more important than it used to be where things are from, how they are made, and who makes them. Personally, I think this is a good thing … and it became more important because there folks out there who were passing things off as something that they weren't.

I'm not sure that people describing things as "white ice cream" or "black ice cream" or "brown ice cream" is going to work, though … it seems likely that this would create some political correctness issues. To me, it would be a lot easier if companies would actually put vanilla in the damned vanilla ice cream, and some actual blueberries in the freakin' frozen blueberry waffles.

Interestingly enough, I happened to get an email from attorney Spencer Sheehan, the fellow who is filing all these lawsuits. He said that mine was a "good article," and added:

I’ve heard about Graeter's … it sounds like the Notre Dame of ice cream factories!

All true.

Regarding the possible sale of Fresh Direct - both Amazon and Walmart are said to be kicking the tires - MNB reader Tom Murphy wrote:

I am not sure there is anything Amazon can learn or gain from FreshDirect at this point and suspect the same holds true at Wal-Mart. Sounds like their client base has abandoned them, their market has dramatically shrunk and their technology doesn't work. What is to buy...goodwill or expertise...I don't think so? Maybe a small local chain can pick them up for a penny on the dollar?

I certainly didn't mean to suggest that Fresh Direct could teach Amazon - or Walmart for that matter - anything. An acquisition might give them expanded presence in a place where it might be useful. Or it could be a defensive play, to make sure the other cat doesn't get it.

I also got the following email about yesterday's MNB:

Please just give the business intel and not the political side…You maybe only printing article captions; however you are the one selecting, and in my opinion need to stay away of your personal political views to stay relevant…The “KC’s View Section” is fine and understand whether I agree or disagree; however, the article captions prior seem to print / underscore your personal narratives.

To be honest, I'm not really sure what this is about. MNB stories don't have "captions." I suspect he may have meant "headlines." I wrote back to him asking if I was correct on this, and wondered which story he might be referring to. No word back.

But for the record … I try to write my stories fairly … be provocative and occasionally funny with my headlines … and be honest in my commentaries while leaving open the possibility that other opinions have merit. And, I've even created a "From The MNB Politics Desk" section to cover stories where politics and retailing are intersecting … like a lot of retailers, I find myself getting into areas where I'd rather not, but the job demands it.

Do I miss sometimes? Sure. But in the end, I have to concede that for almost 18 years MNB has largely been about my personal narratives. For better or worse. I just have to own it.
KC's View: