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    Published on: March 7, 2023

    As Major League Baseball pitchers and hitters wrestle with rule changes, Max Scherzer of the New York Mets is pushing the envelope, looking for the weak spots where he'll have the advantage.  At the moment, it isn't always pretty … but I think there's a lesson here for retailers.

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    Kroger yesterday announced "a more than $770 million incremental investment in its associates during 2023. The company will use this investment to raise average hourly rates, improve healthcare options, build new training and development opportunities, and more."

    The company said that this "builds on the $1.9 billion incremental investments in wages and comprehensive benefits Kroger has made since 2018, which has raised the company's average hourly rate to $18 or $23.50 per hour with comprehensive benefits."

    The benefits include:  "A world-class educational benefit program that offers associates up to $21,000 toward continuing education opportunities … Affordable and accessible healthcare options, which include free counseling through the company's Well-Being Assistant … (and) First-of-its-kind free financial coaching services available to all hourly associates."

    "Our associates enable our success, and we are committed to investing in theirs," said Rodney McMullen, Kroger's chairman and CEO. "For so many Kroger represents a first job, a new beginning or a change in career path. Continuing to raise wages and provide excellent benefits to our associates is one way we demonstrate how much we value and respect their contributions."

    "Investing in our associates' holistic well-being is an essential part of what makes Kroger an employer of choice, and ultimately becomes an investment in our customers and communities," said Tim Massa, Kroger's SVP and chief people officer. "When we think about how we build our benefits, we want to enable every associate to thrive financially and emotionally – both in their careers and at home. We look forward to continuing to celebrate our associates and the many ways they show up for our customers and each other every day." 

    KC's View:

    I don't mean to be cynical about this, but moves like this by Kroger have to be designed to help convince regulators that its merger with Albertsons will not be negative for employees, that it will continue to invest in wages and benefits.

    Which is not to suggest that this move is meaningless.  Far from it.  Everything that Kroger (or any retailer, for that matter) can do to create a culture of caring - in which front line employees are treated as the essential assets that they are - is a good thing.

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    Axios reports that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released a proposed rule that would significantly toughen its requirements for what products can be labeled as having been Made in the USA.

    If the rule is enacted, it would "allow for voluntary 'Product of USA' and 'Made in the USA' labels on meat, poultry or eggs only when they are 'derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed' in the country."

    The story notes that "the existing rules for the labels allow them to be used by companies if the animals were born and raised in another country but processed in the U.S."

    “American consumers expect that when they buy a meat product at the grocery store, the claims they see on the label mean what they say,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.  “These proposed changes are intended to provide consumers with accurate information to make informed purchasing decisions."

    KC's View:

    Excellent.  Labels should reflect an accurate assessment of what a product is, not a sort-of, reasonably close description.

    I hope that as part of toughened rules will be stronger penalties for companies that misrepresent their products.  Companies ought to be able to easily provide data based on accurate track-and-trace procedures, on demand when the USDA requires it.

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    Walgreens announced that its Village MD subsidiary is acquiring Starling Physicians, described as "a multi-specialty medical group operating over 30 locations in Connecticut" and offering specialty services that include "cardiology, ophthalmology, endocrinology, nephrology and senior care."

    This is just the latest acquisition for the company, which also has bought health care practices in places like Kentucky and Texas.  Its biggest purchase, for almost $9 billion, was of Summit Health-CityMD, a primary, specialty and urgent care provider.

    Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that California Governor Gavin Newsom has "directed the California Department of Health and Human Services to review all relationships Walgreens has with the state," a reaction to Walgreens' decision not to sell mifepristone, an abortion pill, in 20 states.

    “California won’t be doing business with @walgreens — or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” Newsom said in a tweet.

    Walgreens announced that decision last week after it - along with CVS - was warned by Republican state attorneys general that it could face legal action if it sold mifepristone, which has become the nation’s most popular method for ending a pregnancy, in their states.  Several of those states - including Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana - are places where abortion remains legal.

    Walgreens has said that it is not yet distributing the pills anywhere, though it is seeking certification to do so in some states.  But at one point, it also said that it would "dispense Mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so.”

    KC's View:

    I think that companies like Walgreens and CVS, not to mention Walmart, that want to become critical factors in the healthcare industry, are being put in an impossible situation.

    On the one hand, there are political considerations in a polarized climate.

    On the other hand, there are medicines that most US citizens believe are part of a legitimate healthcare functionality, but that some people do not want distributed.

    In my opinion, Newsom isn't helping the situation.  He's posturing every bit as much as the GOP attorneys general.

    It is all going to get messy.  And divisive.  But I continue to believe that if these companies prioritize their customers/patients, in the end they'll be okay.  

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    Wired has a long story about a Brazilian doctor who has done some significant research into how ultra-processed foods affect people's health.  Here's how it frames the story:

    "In the late 2000s, Carlos Monteiro noticed something strange about the food that Brazilian people were eating. The nutritionist had been poring over three decades’ worth of data from surveys that asked grocery shoppers to note down every item they bought. In more recent surveys, Monteiro noticed, Brazilians were buying way less oil, sugar, and salt than they had in the past. Despite this, people were piling on the pounds. Between 1975 and 2009 the proportion of Brazilian adults who were overweight or obese more than doubled.

    "This contradiction troubled Monteiro. If people were buying less fat and sugar, why were they getting bigger? The answer was right there in the data. Brazilians hadn’t really cut down on fat, salt, and sugar - they were just consuming these nutrients in an entirely new form. People were swapping traditional foods - rice, beans, and vegetables - for prepackaged bread, sweets, sausages, and other snacks."

    Monteiro believed that what is needed is "a new way of categorizing food that emphasized how products were made, not just what was in them. It wasn’t just ingredients that made a food unhealthy, Monteiro thought. It was the whole system: how the food was processed, how quickly we ate it, and the way it was sold and marketed."

    And so, Monteiro created a new food classification system—called NOVA—that breaks things down into four categories. Least worrisome are minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. Then come processed culinary ingredients (oils, butter, and sugar), and after that processed foods (tinned vegetables, smoked meats, freshly baked bread, and simple cheeses)—substances to be used carefully as part of a healthy diet. And then there are ultra-processed foods."

    Overconsumption of ultra-processed food, Wired writes, "has been linked to all kinds of health issues: colorectal and breast cancer, obesity, depression, and all-cause mortality. Figuring out how our diets influence our health is extremely difficult, and any armchair statistician will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, but it does seem clear that consuming too much ultra-processed food isn’t good for us."

    You can read the entire story here.

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    •  Mars Inc. announced that it is working with store-hailing service Conjure to pilot an on-demand ice cream delivery service.

    According to the announcement, "The store-hailing pilot will equip Conjure's fleet of mobile stores with offerings from Mars' popular ice cream portfolio just in time for summer, allowing customers to order ice cream from their smartphones and have it delivered to their location in minutes … With its one-tap ordering process, consumers can hail a mobile shop to their location using Conjure's proprietary app. Within minutes the shop arrives, and Conjure's patented, checkout-free system allows consumers to handpick their ice cream products and simply walk away. Conjure's mobile shops deliver the ice cream store filled with frozen products directly to consumers in as little as two minutes.

    The pilot is taking place in Hollywood, California, with plans to expand if success warrants it.

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  From the New York Times:

    "The Biden administration, keeping a watchful eye on an outbreak of avian influenza that has led to the deaths of tens of millions of chickens and is driving up the cost of eggs — not to mention raising the frightening specter of a human pandemic — is contemplating a mass vaccination campaign for poultry, according to White House officials.

    "The bird flu outbreak, which began early last year, is the biggest in the nation’s history, affecting more than 58 million farmed birds in 47 states, as well as birds in the wild. It has already spilled over into mammals, such as mink, foxes, raccoons and bears, raising fears that the virus that causes it, known as H5N1, could mutate and start spreading more easily among people.

    "Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose focus is human health, say the risk of a pandemic is low. As a precaution, the agency has sent drug manufacturers flu virus samples that could form the basis of vaccines for people. The C.D.C. is also exploring whether commercial test manufacturers would be willing to develop tests for H5N1, similar to those used for the coronavirus."

    The problem is that there is a cadre of birds out there lobbying against any sort of national vaccination program, saying that it is just an excuse to inject them with microchips that will allow the government or global elites like Bill Gates to track them.

    •  The Hill reports that Costco "isn’t raising its membership fee now, but company officials are signaling a change could happen soon … Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti reiterated that a price hike for its Gold Star membership will happen, but said 'it’s a question of when, not if'."

    The story notes that "Costco last raised its base membership fee in June 2017. Historically, the retailer has raised the Gold Star annual price every five years."

    •  The New York Times reports that "Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday confirmed that his committee will hold a vote this week to open an investigation into federal labor law violations by major corporations and subpoena Howard Schultz, the billionaire chief executive of Starbucks, as the first witness.

    "Mr. Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, last week announced his intent to try to compel Mr. Schultz to appear on Capitol Hill, stating that Starbucks had declined an invitation in February for him to testify about his violation of federal labor law and defied congressional oversight inquiries, including by refusing requests for meetings and documents."

    When they schedule that haring, I plan to be prepared.  Gonna make popcorn.  Buy Twizzlers.  Grab myself a beer.  Put my feet up.  Turn on C-Span.  Watch fireworks.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "WW International Inc., known as WeightWatchers, is buying digital health company Sequence, marking the diet company’s move into the hot market for diabetes and obesity drugs including Ozempic and Wegovy.

    "Sequence is a subscription service that offers telehealth visits with doctors who can prescribe the drugs. WeightWatchers, which has long promised to help customers lose weight through food-tracking and lifestyle changes, is moving to also offer customers a medical weight-loss solution."

    Purchase price:  $106 million.

    The story goes on:

    "WW plans to promote Sequence’s telehealth services to WeightWatchers members. Gary Foster, WW’s chief scientific officer, says WeightWatchers plans to create programs geared to people who are using weight-loss drugs that would include an emphasis on strength training and consuming high-protein foods, since when people lose weight they often lose important muscle mass.

    "Sequence members pay $99 a month for services that include telehealth appointments with doctors, who can prescribe Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro and other weight-loss medications. Sequence’s program includes an app to track weight loss and meetings with dietitians and fitness coaches. Potential subscribers first take a quick quiz that asks for height, weight and about certain medical conditions."

    •  From the New York Times:

    "The Biden administration said on Monday that it would take initial steps toward challenging a ban that Mexico has placed on shipments of genetically modified corn from the United States, restrictions that have rankled farmers and threatened a profitable export.

    "Mexico has planned to phase out the use of genetically modified corn, as well as an herbicide called glyphosate, by 2024. About 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.

    "Senior administration officials have expressed concerns to the Mexican government about the measures for more than a year in virtual and in-person meetings, saying they could disrupt millions of dollars of agricultural trade and cause serious harm to U.S. producers. Mexico is the second-largest market for U.S. corn, after China.

    "On Monday, U.S. officials said that they were requesting consultations over the issue with their Mexican counterparts under the terms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which governs the terms of trade in North America. Biden officials said that parties to that agreement, which was signed in 2020, had committed to basing their regulation on scientific research, and that Mexico’s ban on genetically modified corn did not conform to those promises.

    The consultations are the first step in a process that could lead to the United States bringing a formal dispute against Mexico. The parties must meet to discuss the issue within 30 days, and, if the talks are not successful, the United States could turn to a separate dispute settlement procedure under the trade agreement. That process could result in the United States placing tariffs on Mexican products, if no other resolution can be reached."

    •  The BBC reports that as fresh produce shortages continue in the UK, residents have embraced an old-fashioned solution - gardening.

    Yup.  If they can't buy the produce they want at the supermarket, they're just going to grow their own.

    According to the story, "The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) said seed sales across its retail outlets had risen 20% in February compared to the same month last year."

    Published on: March 7, 2023

    Got the following email from MNB reader Monte Stowell about Walmart's decision to close its two stores in Portland, Oregon, a decision forced by a broad retail theft issue affecting the area:

    It is very sad that Walmart is closing these two stores here in Portland. The amount of theft going on in other Walmart PDX stores is not good. If you ask the employees at Walmart what they can do about theft, the answer is they cannot do anything; however, a law enforcement officer can arrest thieves if they are caught.

    Another big name store here in PDX recently closed its doors, NIKE., due to theft. NIKE asked the mayor if he could provide police officers to work at this store. NIKE offered to fund the police officers needed, but  with the financial issues and a shortage of police officers, NIKE’s request was denied. 

    Yesterday we took note of a Washington Post report about US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) efforts "to update the current definition of 'healthy' - manufacturers would only be able to use the term "if they contain a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the main food groups such as fruit, vegetable or dairy, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines," and would be required to "adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars" - are facing strong resistance from a number of manufacturers.

    The opposing argument, the Post writes, is that under the proposed new rules, almost no products currently labeled as "healthy" would be allowed to do so.

    The Consumer Brands Association (CBA) is making that argument, as is Conagra, which is concerned about how the shifting guidance could affect its Healthy Choice brand.

    I commented, in part:

    I struggle with this.  "Healthy" isn't exactly an absolute term.  Some products, even if not perfect, certainly are healthier than others.

    And I can understand why Conagra is more than a little concerned, since "Healthy" is the name of the brand.

    But the FDA's job isn't to protect brands.  It is to protect consumers/citizens, and that's a good thing.  A tension between business and government, in this case, is a good thing.  "Overly stringent" may be how the CBA and its members would characterize the FDA's approach to added sugars, but if it is a threshold supported by medical science, then that ought to be the bottom line.

    I am chagrined that Conagra's reaction to the debate is that if it doesn't get its own way it simply will focus on making less healthy foods, rather than work on figuring out how to make its "healthy" foods healthier.

    One MNB reader responded:

    A couple thoughts about the “Healthy” revisions. 

    “But the FDA's job isn't to protect brands.  It is to protect consumers/citizens,”  Why can’t the burden of proof be on the government?  Where is the proof that products claiming to be heathy are causing harm/death?  And if there is proof, let it be scrutinized before Congress who has oversight in such matters.  This is clearly a controversial and contested new policy.  Shouldn’t Congress be the tie breaker over such a highly contested change?   

    And then you stated “but if it is a threshold supported by medical science” – I hate to say it but Government led medical science has completely lost it’s credibility.     It's not that I distrust science, far from it, but I do distrust biased science!

    Two thoughts.

    First - and we're all guilty of this - "biased science" often means science that conflicts with our own biases.

    Second, my problem with the Congress - all parties - is that votes are easily influenced by a lobbyist with a healthy checkbook.  

    MNB reader Austin Noll Jr. wrote:

    I totally agree with your opinion regarding “healthy” on food labels. The overt use of added sugar and salt is a tragedy that has already manifested itself in obesity, heart issues, diabetes and many other health issues. And of course there is the issue of disguising these ingredients with names that most consumers do not know about or have even heard about. It’s about time the FDA stood up the the manufacturers and started representing the American public.

    Responding to my review of the new Fat Tire, which is replacing my favorite Fat Tire amber ale, MNB reader Rich Heiland wrote:

    Like you, I am a red and amber fan. Always have been, and that includes Fat Tire. I guess my take is not so much whether the new version is good. I trust your veteran judgment. It's just there are tons and tons of light-colored ales and beers. There are some I like a lot so I am not feeling compelled to add this one to the fridge. What this might make me do is begin a search for another go-to amber to replace Fat Tire. I notice there are several on various shelves around the area. It's going to take a while and it will be a tough challenge, but it is one I am willing to take on…..

    If you find one you like, let me know.

    And, responding to my FaceTime about jazz, MNB reader Bob D'Amato wrote:

    I started listening to jazz in the early 80’s.  Grover Washington Jr’s "Winelight" pulled me in and I never left.

    From another MNB reader:

    Happy to know you found jazz; it’s a wonderful medium. Many genres fit in to the jazz category so I refer you to a group of New Orleans buskers, “Tuba Skinny” who have captured rave reviews in the traditional jazz genre. Not appreciated by all, but I am a frequent YouTube viewer waiting for their new releases. Simply fun.

    You've got me listening to Tuba Skinny, "Jam in the Van," a 2022 live album.  You're right - it is fun.  

    And, from another MNB reader:

    It is said that if you are a jazz or rock musician, you know you have made it if Steely Dan asks you to play with them. Wayne Shorter's solo on "Aja" only took 35 minutes of studio time but his reputation as a great jazz saxophonist had already preceded him before he walked into the Village Recorder studio with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.