business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB reported yesterday that a bill has been introduced in the US Congress that is designed to force retailers and manufacturers to label meat products that have been treated with carbon monoxide (CO) as a way of keeping them looking fresher.

My comment:

There is something vaguely unsettling about using a chemical to alter the way a product looks. It may be safe, but it does seem slightly deceptive…and I think you can this bill as falling into the same category as new demands for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation. It is all about being up front, honest and transparent – this is the least that many consumers are going to demand from the retailers and manufacturers that supply their food products.

MNB user Scott J. Latta responded:

If the science proves that it’s safe for consumption, I don’t think the practice should be condemned. I don’t have a problem with a requirement to make mention of methods used to “enhance” products, but let’s get down to the reality of this. Human nature says that a crushed box is no good regardless of the fact that the contents are all intact. The fact that it doesn’t look appealing is going to have a big impact on sales and on customer perception of the quality of your display, your store, and ultimately your company. Huge benefits from a safe practice.

I’m not sure that is condemning the practice as much as it is about being transparent. And I think transparency is critical on all these kinds of issues.

Another MNB user wrote:

Sure, you say that now (“there’s something vaguely unsettling about using a chemical to alter the way a product looks”) but would you say the same thing to Mrs. Content Guy about her make-up? I mean the make-up is safe but isn’t it slightly deceptive? My point is that if we can trust the FDA’s conclusion that the use of carbon monoxide does not harm the product or the person consuming the product then what's the problem?

Gonna tell you a story…

Back before we were married – in fact, just two days before we were married – my soon-to-be wife was dragging me through Bloomingdale’s. I have no idea what she was looking for, though I do remember thinking that this better not be a harbinger of things to come. (It wasn’t - my wife hates shopping.)

Anyway … at one point we walked through the cosmetics department and this rather heavily made up woman offered my wife a makeover. Now, my wife didn’t wear much makeup at all (still doesn’t for that matter). But for some unknown reason, she decided to take her up on the offer.

I was told to wander around for an hour or so and then come back. Which I did. Grumbling.

When I returned, the woman swiveled my wife’s chair so I could see her. And – I kid you not – my soon-to-be wife looked awful. The saleslady had made her up to look just like her, and it was like some sort of kabuki mask. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But only a bit. And you get the idea.)

The saleslady, bursting with pride, said, “What do you think?”

And I said, “I think that if she comes down the aisle looking like that, I’m not going to marry her.”

In short, I believed more than 24 years ago that transparency is important. And I haven’t changed my mind. (And, FYI... Mrs. Content Guy still looks great.)

We also reported yesterday on a New York Times piece detailing how some animal rights groups are gaining both maturity and influence in the public debate.

While organizations like Farm Sanctuary would like people not only to stop eating meat but also to stop using animal-based products such as honey, leather and wool, their approach has changed. The Times reported, “They have adopted more subtle tactics, like holding stock in major food corporations, organizing nimble political campaigns and lobbying lawmakers … all of these believers have learned that with less stridency comes more respect and influence in food politics. So they no longer concentrate their energy on burning effigies of Colonel Sanders and stealing chickens. They don’t demonize meat — with the exception of foie gras and veal — or the people who produce it. Instead, they use softer rhetoric, focusing on a campaign even committed carnivores can get behind: better conditions for farm animals.”

One MNB user wrote:

I don't know if you have had a chance to check out Farm Sanctuary’s site but if you get time you should, it's a nice site with subtle and professional approach that I like. I use to work for PETA and actually left b/c I found that they did not deal with issues professionally enough for my liking, and I hope to see more Animal welfare organizations take the route that the Farm Sanctuary is laying out.

MNB user Jeff Davis wrote:

What special interests groups need to realize, and some do, is that communicating your message in a coherent, measured, factual manner is the most effective way to further your cause. Too often, they let their passion get the best of them and they come across as shrill, extremist nut jobs. Here in Atlanta, we've seen a good bit of animal
rights activity with the Michael Vick dog fighting allegations. A spokesperson for The Humane Society was interviewed the other day and he delivered facts about the dogfighting industry and the typical profile of the participants. It was a captivating and powerful message about this despicable practice. Conversely, I've read that PETA, in addition to protesting at the Falcons and NFL headquarters, is selling t-shirts with various anti-Vick slogans on them. That sort of thing, especially since he hasn't been convicted yet, marginalizes their group and trivializes their message.

It has been my experience, when I’ve run into the PETA folks, that they make some of Lyndon LaRouche’s followers look both mainstream and sane. I’ve also wondered why they seem to worry less about human beings than animals…but that’s probably for another day.

In my commentary yesterday, I wrote: The mainstreaming of these groups mean that they have to be taken seriously … It is all part of the ongoing diversification of the American population … Attention must be paid.

One MNB user wrote:

I was pretty disappointed to read that you perceive Farm Sanctuary may be "bad news". I realize that you said it might not be bad news, but even this remark seems dispassionate. Is it really just about the factory farms and the retailers; what about the consumers? Are they happily ignorant not knowing how their tender veal was cage raised in a tiny cage, not knowing if their steak was carved from a downer cow or a healthy cow, that chickens never scratch in the soil but are debeaked and housed in severely overcrowded conditions? While I realize that animals will always be raised for consumption by humans, it seems a great injustice to perpetually provide substandard care and conditions to make an almighty buck. If what goes around really comes around, I am happy to be a vegetarian.

I only said that the activists are better organized and more likely to have an impact, and therefore it would “bad news” to those who would like to marginalize them.

And I am dispassionate on this one. I don’t like the idea of animal cruelty any more than anyone else. But there are other issues that make me crazier.

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

The spirit of this age "Tolerate everyone even those who are out to destroy you".. Following this new direction will ultimately get us all killed. It may be a slower death but they will not be satisfied until we are all dead or all think like they do which is about the same.

I think it is important to try to tolerate everyone, but believe and follow practically no one. This sort of creates a barrier when they – whether they represent a political, cultural, or religious point of view – try to persuade me to think the way they do.

I have enough trouble thinking the way I do.

MNB had a story the other day about organic milk sales on the rise, and I commented:

It isn’t surprising that organic milk sales are rising, especially as they become closer in price to mainstream milk products. But I’d really like to see the frame of reference changed when it comes to big dairies. It simply doesn’t make sense that they would, in essence, kill the golden cow by short-cutting organic regulations. It would hurt them, it would hurt the industry, and it would destroy consumer faith in a high-price product.

MNB user Mark Kastel (who, it is appropriate to note, is a co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute) responded:

This is what we've been saying for a long time; that if large corporations try to make a quick buck in organics they are going to hurt the "brand" for themselves and everyone else.

Recently, when the CEO at Dean Foods was taking heat from stock analysts during a meeting he tried to get them to back off by saying, "Horizon is just 3% of our volume." Dean's might be able to afford to screw around in this market but the family farmers, and many cooperatives and family owned businesses that they compete with, are 100% organic and their livelihoods depend on the reputation of the label. There is no alternative than to fight to maintain the ethics and integrity in organics was built on.

There is such little price resistance in organic food because consumers think they are doing something good for society by supporting a different kind of environmental ethic, humane animal husbandry ethic and social justice for family farmers…. not just providing their family with safer or more nutritious food. If we break that assumption everyone, large and small, loses.

We’re not saying exactly the same thing. I don’t necessarily believe that small farmers are any more ethical, humane or socially conscious than big farmers.

And further discussion about small bookstores vs. big bookstores and online bookstores…and about one MNB user’s comment that he used to be able to let his kids play with the Thomas the Tank Engine train set at Barnes & Noble until they took it away…which he suspected was because too many people came to play but not buy.

Another MNB user wrote:

I agree with the premise of the person who wrote in about the Thomas the Train toy sets at Barnes & Noble, and that if the sales didn’t exist the train sets at the B&N stores would go away (my son has enjoyed playing with them as well). Although a more likely reason for their disappearance would be that a number of those wooden Thomas toys were found to contain lead paint and were recalled.

MNB user Becky Seagraves made much the same point:

The person noted the Thomas trains were gone from B& may have been that these Thomas trains were the ones made in China that were covered in lead based paint...which goes back to the point folks have been making about the safety of products coming into our country...quite a ripple effect...

Interesting how two seemingly unconnected stories end up connecting, isn’t it?

MNB user Tony Bender wrote:

I used to work at a B&N and lots of people would ask us if we had a copier so they could copy some information out of a book. And it always amazed me how some were quite offended when we told them that we didn't and that we weren't a library.

And finally, this email about John Mackey’s online antics:

The reporting on John Mackey's "blogging" has been very poor and clearly not written by anyone with an understanding of message board or BBS behavior. First of all, Mackey wasn't blogging--he was writing messages. Almost no one on message boards uses their own name. They use pseudonyms. In fact, if Mackey had used his real name, my guess is no one would have believed it was really him. His "blogging" actually takes place on the Whole Foods Website, and is under his byline.

Secondly, Mackey is an innovator and stays close to his customers and shareholders, so it would be hard to keep him from reading message boards--even one as bad as the one on Yahoo. Once a person starts reading a board, it's almost impossible to resist the temptation to respond or post. This raises the question: why is it being viewed as odd behavior that Mackey was reading and posting on a message board? So long as he isn't revealing insider information, what's the big deal?

I thought it was ridiculous that Mackey felt he had to apologize for this, and it's even more ridiculous that the WSJ ran a front-page story on the topic and is treating it as if it were a scandal. A governmental investigation? Give me a break. Leave the poor guy alone and let him continue to run the most innovative--and high margin--grocery stores in America.

I’ll take some of the hit on this. To be honest, I’m not sure if the general media has made the distinction between blogs and message boards, but I should have because I know better. I should have been more precise.

You’re right that this may not rise to the level of a real “scandal,” but I think the criticism comes not because Mackey was listening to his customers and soliciting their comments, but because he was taking potshots at the competition he ended up trying to buy.

KC's View: