I have written before about fascinating journalistic experiment known as The Faster Times Reader Investigations. Faster Times asked readers to vote on the topic they wanted to investigate together with the TFT reporter. Readers chose Private Brand foods.
By and large the investigation appears evenhanded although it does suffer from the paranoia that retailers and Private Brands are a conspiring to dupe consumers. As I am an advocate of transparency, local food and clean ingredient lists I can certainly understand their concern, however I would expand it to all brands national or Private Brand. With the numerous National Brand food safety scares over the last few years the origin and provenance of both human and pet food should be a concern. Whether it is peanut butter, spinach or dog food one ha to wonder.
The following is an excerpt from one of the The Faster Times articles that feature Nicolette Hahn Niman of Niman Ranch discussing Private Brands and organic beef.
With regards to private-label foods in general, Niman says the problem is really information and quality assurance. “The Niman Ranch model is such that there’s a set group of farms they get meat from and they don’t get it from anywhere else and all of those farms have to follow certain standards,” she explains. “That’s a great approach stores could take. They could say something like ‘We only source from within 100 miles and here are the standards we demand.’ Consumers still have to rely on the store to enforce those standards, but I think it’s a strong system and I do think they’re kind of moving in that direction. I mean Whole Foods has put a lot of effort into drafting their humane standards, and I know Trader Joe’s is following standards for their sourcing as well.”
According to Niman, Trader Joe’s is probably more able than most stores to move in the direction of having standards and transparency because it’s part of their business model to have relatively few products on their shelves. “They do almost everything in private label. They had Niman Ranch do stuff and didn’t private label it because the brand has so much value, but there was a lot of discussion about that – they really wanted it to be private label, as much as they liked having the brand,” she says.
But while other TFT sources have said the store, like Wal-Mart and other retailers, often applies pressure on suppliers to lower their prices, Niman says her husband’s experience was not that at all. “What Bill found was that they were not constantly applying price pressure on them; they have ways that they reduce their costs in order to deliver lower prices, so it’s not about trying to nickel and dime their suppliers, in our experience.”
As for super private-label producers–companies that only do private-label items for stores, and about which it’s difficult for consumers to find any information at all–Niman says consumers should put the pressure on stores to tell them more. “I think it really boils down to the idea that consumers really need to do some homework and see what they can trust,” she says. “If it’s a store that people have faith in–and consumers should really think about that and ask themselves: Is this a store that demonstrates to consumers that it’s doing its homework? That it’s trying to be transparent, has animal and land stewardship standards in place, that sort of thing? If you can see a store is doing that, then I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic that a farm doesn’t have its own brand. But with a private label product, consumers should be asking, literally at the meat case or dairy counter, ‘How do you know this is organic?’”