Faster Times Trader Joes

Private Brand Provenance & Your Hamburger


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?’”

Read the entire article.

Faster Times

Private Brand in Faster Times

\"\"Over the last few years Private Brand has been everywhere from morning news shows to CNN so it is no surprise to see daily mainstream news stories taking one stand or another concerning Private Brand. Combine that with the fact that I receive weekly emails from curious readers wondering about who manufacturers specific products or more often their country of origin. So here is the interesting twist, combine those questions with a healthy dose of paranoia and the increasing call for transparency and traceability across all manufacturing and you get an idea for investigative journalism. I majored in journalism in college and spent several years at a Gannett owned daily so I certainly understand the desire to follow the story, but this investigation is slightly different. It is being conducted by the website “The Faster Times”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the site, according to their About page:

The Faster Times, a new type of newspaper for a new type of world.

The Faster Times is a collective of great journalists who have come together to try something new. As we launch this July, we will have more than a hundred correspondents in over 20 countries. We have someone on the ground in Kenya and someone else reporting from Lebanon. Our arts section will cover not just film and books, but also theater and dance and photography. We will launch with seven writers on books alone. These writers are not “citizen journalists” but among the most accomplished and recognized names in their respective fields.

We’re not kidding ourselves. The Faster Times is not going to solve any major crises by itself. We are an organization owned and created by journalists. We have not sought any funding and, for the time being, we have very limited financial resources.

But while our limited resources will limit the number of reported pieces on the site in our first months of operation, we have no intention of shying away from the challenge. Our goal is to do what great papers have always done: look at the world with skeptical eyes and uncover information that the public needs to know. We will not, in most cases, be publishing 1200-word reported pieces, but we will be making calls and asking hard questions. And when our reporters discover something of interest, they will publish it and invite our readers to help push the story forward with their tips and insights.

This past week Faster Times launched it’s first ever Faster Times Reader Investigation, that was designed to help the online newspaper discover the truth behind “Generic Food”. According to the initial article:

We want you to help us hold the private-label food chain more accountable. Do you have a lead on an interesting private-label food story?  Do you know someone who might be willing to talk, on or off the record? Are you willing to ask the store manager at your local grocer’s or big box store where they get their store-branded goods?

We’re hoping that if some of you can join us in tracking down more information about these goods, perhaps we can influence the retail food industry to be a bit more forthcoming. We don’t want to ruin the economics of private label, necessarily, but we think consumers have a right to know where their food comes from.

This is an intriguing reader based social experiment in investigative journalism and I look forward to reading the results. I also relish the idea of more transparency and accountability for all manufacturers, national or Private Brand.

Read the first post in the series.