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Equal Victims: Rice Farmers, Trader Joe’s

By Owen Taylor

Consumers Union (CU), the same organization that earlier this year raised artificial concerns about arsenic levels in rice, has taken after Trader Joe’s, the supermarket chain. CU lambasted Trader Joe’s for selling meat and poultry products from animals that received antibiotics.

Briefly, the notion is that antibiotics in livestock production foster antibiotic-resistant bacteria that might somehow escape into the general human population and render mainstream medical antibiotics resistant, as well. It’s a long debated contention with hardly any validity except that it might happen. Or might not.

trader-joes-logo-06092013So, here’s Trader Joe’s, a rather funky, eccentric supermarket chain whose staff members wear Hawaiian shirts. The company locates stores in urban areas near populations looking for groceries that carry various “healthy” or green labels: locally grown, organic, sustainable.

Trader Joe’s, if anything, should be the darling of CU. By CU’s own admission, Trader Joe’s already had said no to GMOs, artificial colors and trans fats.

But evidently that’s not enough for CU. In the PR business it’s said that no good deed goes unpunished, meaning that image-conscious companies like Trader Joe’s do plenty of the “right” things but still might be bullied into more concessions on some group’s agenda. The goal is to ultimately beat down a somewhat vulnerable company and perhaps force its competitors or an entire industries to capitulate, too.

Trader Joe’s has obviously stacked up plenty of good deeds, hence the punishment.

In trying to debase Trader Joe’s, CU threw some serious money into the effort. By its own account, CU:

  • Sprang for a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times in early May that scolds the Trader for selling meat that came from animals fed antibiotics.
  • Mounted what it termed “aggressive social media promotions” that included an on-line petition drive urging Trader Joe’s to sell meat raised to CU’s standards.
  • Organized what it called “sidewalk leafleting” campaigns. In other words, Trader Joe’s shoppers approaching the entrance were confronted on the sidewalk by what amounted to low-key picketers who could shove a piece of paper into the consumer’s hand, maybe evoke CU’s name and taint the image of Trader Joe’s meat selection. The goal, of course, was to subtly run off shoppers and put a financial hurt on Trader Joe’s.

The leaflet drives – CU termed them “outreach efforts” – were held in front of Trader Joe’s stores in Los Angeles, Portland and Washington, D.C. All these locations are ripe with consumers who know little about how their food is grown but might be repulsed by the notion that the chain is selling something that sounds vaguely harmful.

In the press release, CU’s Jean Halloran said that Trader Joe’s “should take the obvious next step and help move the livestock industry in the right direction towards healthy animals raised without drugs.”

Halloran is CU’s Director of Food Policy Initiatives. If her name sounds familiar to rice growers, Halloran also was the front person when CU put the arsenic onus on rice.

All this begs the question, is it really Trader Joe’s responsibility to force the livestock industry to change directions?

No, it’s not. Nor, for that matter, would it have the power to do so. I’m not sure that even big boys like Kroger or Wal-Mart could herd the livestock industry up that chute.

Trader Joe’s is really just the victim in a drive-by shooting, PR style. As press releases go, the one from CU was about as cynical an example of “no deed goes unpunished” as I’ve ever read, which brings out my own natural cynicism.

So, here it goes…

This slamming of the Trader likely has more to do with marketing CU and its parent organization, Consumer Reports, than safeguarding antibiotics. CU describes itself as the “policy and action division of Consumer Reports,” a magazine that tests everything from cameras to appliances to SUVs.

The magazine prides itself on not running advertising, hence giving it the patina of impartiality. But it still has to sell subscriptions. And one way to do that is to keep circulating its name as the protector of America’s health and safety. Rice and arsenic, Trader Joe’s and antibiotics…who’s next on the promo list?

I suspect, too, that Consumer Reports is feeling some pressure from social media and consumer-level web reviews that so many sites carry now. With a few key strokes I can find dozens of reviews on any product I want to buy. Sure, some reviews are probably planted, but I can glean enough opinions from enough real people to form a buying decision.

Honestly, I can’t recall the last time I cared what Consumer Reports thought. The magazine and the people behind it have to be desperately searching for relevancy. So, why not get into the advocacy business on a broad scale?

As near as I can tell, Trader Joe’s hasn’t blinked. I hope it doesn’t.

And if you happen to be visiting a city with a Trader Joe’s, drop in, look around and pick up a pork roast and a large sack of rice while you’re at it.


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About the Author
Owen Taylor
Owen Taylor is senior editor and publisher at AgFax Media LLC. He writes a number of crop and pest advisories during the regular cropping season, covering crops as diverse as almonds, cotton, rice, grains and peanuts in 14 Sunbelt states (subscribe to his crop advisories here). A native of Rosedale, Mississippi, he grew up in his parents' aerial application service. His career includes stints as a political writer, magazine editor and long-time freelance writer. His work has appeared in most of the major U.S. farm publications.

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