Do You Know What’s In Your Organic Beef? The TFT Reader Investigation Continues…
If you’ve got any more leads, information, or sources to share, please continue to send them our way by either commenting here or emailing to email@example.com.
First, the good news: We’re finding plenty of information which suggests that the private label food system sometimes works quite well, providing consumers with quality brands at cheaper prices. For example, Trader Joe’s European-Style Organic Yogurt is made by Straus Family Creamery which also makes Straus Organic Yogurt. The only difference is that the Trader Joe’s version is about 80 cents cheaper.
Of course, it takes some digging to figure out who makes what, and it would certainly be nice if Trader Joe’s shoppers had more information about the companies making their store-brand products, but, at the very least, in many cases the companies making the private label version have their own equivalent brands on the shelves and are visible enough in general to be held accountable by consumers.
Where the system can break down, we’re finding, is when a private-label product is made by a company that only makes private-label goods. In this scenario, where the producer is always a step removed from the consumer, there’s almost no accountability.
And lack of accountability isn’t the only problem with private label foods that don’t have name brand equivalents. There is also the problem of industry knowledge and supply chains. While brand name manufacturers either produce their own product or have a network of trusted suppliers, buyers for stores like Trader Joe’s or Costco, responsible for sourcing private label goods in a variety of food categories, aren’t likely to be as knowledgeable of a given sector and are also constantly looking to shore up large supplies of product. That means they can inadvertently end up working with less reputable suppliers, which helps explain why private label organic products at Safeway, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have all been found to be in violation of organic certification in the last five years
This dilemma was explained to us by a source who has at various times bought and sold sustainable and organic meats. And he tipped us off to a potentially big problem with organic private-label beef that we’ll continue to investigate.
It all began with organic milk: There has been a glut of organic milk on the market since 2007. That glut was caused by two things: first, farmers wanted to convert before the standards for organic dairy certification got stricter (and more expensive), and second, in 2005 demand for organic milk outpaced supply so companies were going around offering incentives to farmers to convert to organic so they could buy their milk. It was a regular milk rush.
Then, all of a sudden, vast quantities of organic milk flooded the market and the price for the milk went down; so far down that some organic dairy farmers were having to sell their milk at conventional prices just to get something for it. “There’s still a glut, and so some organic dairies, especially the private label guys, are culling their herds–that basically means they’re killing off cattle so that they’re not producing as much, because they have too much supply,” our source tells us. “It’s a normal thing that happens in the dairy world. But, what’s happening with a lot of these cows is that, because they’ve been living on certified organic dairy farms, these guys are selling the beef as organic beef. So I see these families rolling around with ground organic beef in their carts and I think most of it is probably from some old, decrepit ‘organic’ dairy cows.”
The brand label buyers have established supply chains – they’re not likely to take meat from a supplier that they don’t know. But, according to our source, the buyers from big private label outfits might be tempted. If the supplier they buy organic milk from all of a sudden has organic beef on offer, they might not second-guess it, especially if it’s well priced. And even if they know the beef is coming from the dairy cows, they might not see anything wrong with that. After all, it’s a cow that was raised according to organic standards. But standards for dairy cows vs. cows that are going to be eaten are different.
In still other cases, the problem with private labels is not that we don’t have enough information, but that we place too much trust in brands like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods without looking closely enough at the packaging. As one natural foods buyer explained to us over email, it’s important for customers to get really good at reading labels on store-brand products. “Turns out Whole Foods 365 frozen veggies were being made in China and labeled as organic (all of this was on the label just very small print),” she says. “Shoppers tend to shop at stores like Whole Foods or co-ops because they believe that the retailer has the shoppers’ best interests in mind and would not allow certain ingredients in their store or products made from China. This is not true. Know the food you eat, understand the ingredients and read the labels.”
We’ve put out a few calls to start looking into the organic beef story, and will report back on that. In the meantime, readers, if you’ve got any more leads, information, or sources to share, please continue to send them our way by either commenting here or emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help get you started, following are links to a few handy resources:
Trader Joe’s contact page: This company’s main slogan is that it gives its customers what they want; if you’re a customer, ask to know more about where TJ’s private-label foods come from.
Cornucopia Institute: This is an organic foods watchdog group that has called out many of the private-label dairies for poor practices. Tons of their reports and findings are available online.
Wal-Mart – There’s a wealth of information out there about Wal-Mart’s love of store-brand items, including a 2006 BrandWeek studyconducted during the year when private-label really started to take off in the U.S.; a great Fortune article written last year when the store relaunched its “Great Value” brand; and an Advertising Age article in which Wal-Mart’s CMO defends the store’s shift to more private-label brands.
Private Label Magazine – The private-label industry is big enough to have its own magazine, which profiles a variety of retailers and their store brands.
Discussing the investigation on The Young Turks:
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