business news in context, analysis with attitude

We received some interesting reaction to yesterday’s story about Kaiser Permanente, the health and hospital company, planning to expand a program that it has been running in the Bay Area – hosting farmer’s markets that sell both organic and pesticide-free produce from a variety of local farmers, as well as buying as much as 20 percent of the food used in its hospitals, cafeterias and business meetings from local organic growers.

MNB user Andy Gromen wrote:

This is one of those things that we get all warm and fuzzy over. Surely anything that was grown “organically”, pesticide free and fertilized naturally, must be better for you. Most people believe organics are more nutritious than “regular” fruits and vegetables and free from harmful residue and compounds.

The problem is that the rather extensive science-to-date does not support any of this. Those that want to believe that anything that was grown utilizing today’s pesticides and fertilizers will result in harmful compounds coursing through our bodies will never accept that organics are no better, safer or nutritious than regular produce. Again, the science does not support this. In fact, at times it is just the opposite.

Take fertilizer for instance. The big “culprit” is nitrogen-based fertilizer. Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air we breathe. Sure, nitrogen can be combined with things and can become harmful to humans and other living things. So can water, oxygen, silicone and numerous other things that we come in contact with everyday. There is no science that says crops grown with nitrogen based fertilizer put me at more risk than organics. If there were I would gladly pay the premium prices that the organics cost. The bad news for organics is that they often carry far more bacteria than regular produce. Organics are often fertilized with manure, (fecal matter), that is under-processed or not processed at all. (It is recommended that manure be heated to a minimum temperature for a specific length of time to kill bacteria before it is used on crops for sale.) Many small organic growers, (like the ones that sell their produce at local farmers markets), don’t bother or have] the ability to do that at all. Manure isn’t water soluble and can be difficult to remove from certain produce. And oh, by the way, manure is used primarily for the nitrogen it will add to the soil. I recommend washing your “organic” broccoli about three times as long as you normally would.

The pesticides used on crops today have been proven to be very safe. Studies of farm workers, with far more exposure to today’s pesticides and fertilizers than the rest of us, consistently show that they have the same health risk levels as other groups, professions and populations. Some people working in traditional agriculture DO get sick, develop cancer, ulcers, rashes or go nuts. So do bus drivers, caterers, hospital workers and newsletter publishers everywhere.

I am trying NOT to rant. I CAN be convinced of all the great things so many of you believe about organics. But I would like to see some real proof. I am not one to blindly accept vague statements and unsubstantiated claims about organics just because the whole concept seems so … progressive. (See warm and fuzzy above) When spokespeople for the organic associations go on the record, they choose their words very carefully. The only claim they usually make is that organics “are just as nutritious as other produce”. WOW! That makes me want to pay 33% to 50% more.

Some will claim that the growth in organic is in response to demands from the market. I think that the market is being created through marketing and the ease with which urban myths are so easily perpetuated today. Who could possibly believe that a regular zucchini tastes as good, (maybe better), is just as good nutritionally and is no more harmful than an organically grown zucchini? I DO … but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Just show me the facts.

Just guessing…but we suspect there will be some responses from the MNB community to this email…

MNB user Paul Schlossberg had some thoughts about yesterday’s story about “hot” vending machines from Kraft:

How interesting to see a vending related story as the #1 item in today's MNB. For those who don't know - vending is the most pervasive US retail business with two million locations and five million machines. That is about one machine for every 54 people. Only Japan has more machines per capita - one machine for every 25 people.

With such broad availability in the US, vending accounts for roughly 6-7% of foodservice volume.

Your comments about vending in colleges are important. In my snack selling days, we called colleges "snack heaven." Campus vending operations are among the highest volume, most productive and most profitable sites.

The vending industry is largely a work-related service business. A number of serious challenges face vending operators today, including: (1) Manufacturing sites were downsized or closed taking away a meaningful share of volume and profits; (2) There has been an incredible increase in competitive alternatives in the last 20 years including fast food restaurants and convenience stores - allowing once "captive" customers to go out for lunch or a break; (3) The need to upgrade and invest in hardware (new vending machines and peripheral/payment devices) and software (computer systems and remote monitoring or telemetry systems); (4) Schools are removing vending machines or restricting what can be sold - impacting volume/profit at school sites. Smart and progressive vending operators are addressing these challenges.

For manufacturers, vending represents a great opportunity for brands across a wide spectrum of product categories. If you want your brand to be where your customers are, vending is a distribution channel to pursue.

The next evolution of vending will take on unique and different executions. We have seen exciting things in Europe and Asia which have not reached the US yet. And don't forget automated convenience stores. Shrink the store as branding did with quick service restaurants - then locate it to be much more convenient for your customers.

Another MNB user wrote:

>b>It seems to me that The Auto-mat was a store where everything was dispensed from a vending machine. Glad to see the corporate food giants are wise enough to know that sometimes you have to look back, to see where you are headed.

We almost hate to admit it, but we’re old enough to have eaten in Horn & Hardart Automats in New York City when we were a kid.

For some historical perspective, according to the Horn & Hardart website, the company brought the first automat to the US from Germany in 1902, opening it in Philadelphia; it is now on display at the Smithsonian. “The company expanded to New York City in 1911, and became the most famous restaurant chain in America. Horn & Hardart were the forefathers of the fast food industry. It was upon the excellence of its coffee that Horn & Hardart was founded. At one time, Horn & Hardart fed upwards of 800,000 people daily in the tri-state area. At its height, there were some 180 locations throughout New York and Philadelphia.”

And now, of course, the automat has been relegated to history…which is an object lesson for all of us.
KC's View: