Monday, May 24, 2010

That Not-So Fresh Feeling: Why Is Trader Joe's Tight-Lipped About Its Food Sources?

Posted By on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 2:14 PM

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If you're a fan of Trader Joe's, then you're probably either the eco-minded type who likes natural foods, the pseudo-eco-minded type who likes pretending to like natural foods, or the broke eco-minded type who likes natural foods that are really cheap. Walk into a Trader Joe's in any city, and you'll find the leisurely paced tropical chain bustling with yuppies, hipsters and veganistas trolling for dates and/or organic eats at bargain prices. I survived for nearly a year in Los Angeles thanks to their unbelievably affordable (and tasty) frozen meatballs and the mushroom alfredo, not to mention the insanely drinkable Two Buck Chuck.

But if those cheap eats seemed a little too good to be true, maybe it's because they were. The magazine Sustainable Industries is arguing that the environmental claims the chain makes may be as dubious as that chilled-out surfer dude in the Hawaiian shirt trying to chat you up at the checkout.

The magazine says:

Products carrying the Trader Joe’s private label have helped differentiate Trader Joe’s from other grocers in its price bracket. But Trader Joe’s leaders are notoriously tight-lipped about the sources of those products, as are the stores’ suppliers. Sustainable Industries was unsuccessful at getting an interview with [Trader Joe's chief, German billionaire Theo] Albrecht or other members of the management team for this article — which apparently is not uncommon.

They also say a likely culprit could be Trader Joe's parent company Aldi, the German grocery market chain that also offers dirt-cheap products on a private label:

Aldi is largely credited with giving Germany the lowest grocery prices in the European Union. In fact, its prices are so low that Wal-Mart [NYSE: WMT] couldn’t compete and left the country in 2006. Aldi made its fortune selling a large assortment of private label products that it could get made on the cheap and thus sell for far lower prices than name-brand products — not unlike 85 percent of the non-alcoholic products in Trader Joe’s, which are also private label.

Trader Joe's may have a strong business motive for keeping its sources secret (to prevent competitors from cutting even better deals with the same suppliers). But the company can't expect to maintain its claim as a "natural" food market unless there's more transparency about how and where its products are made.

Organic dairy watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute recently gave Trader Joe's just one star (actually one cow icon) out of five because TJ refuses to reveal the source of its organic milk. (The ratings, which Cornucopia says are updated continually, can be found here.) And though the store claims its eggs are cage-free, they have no third-party verification to back that claim up.

What gives, dudes? Don't make us start calling you Traitor Joe's again.

[HT: Utne Reader]

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