Saturday, July 28, 2012

When is a great brand a disadvantage?

I note that 'Occupy Monsanto' -- a loose knit ("non-hierarchical") group protesting the presence of Genetically-Modified Organisms in foods -- has targeted Trader Joe's stores across the U.S. this weekend.
This 'Occupy' spin-off made a mistake when it claimed that "We also know that TJ’s parent company, Aldi, uses GMO ingredients in their low-cost food products throughout America." There are two different Aldi companies, with separate ownership. The company that operates Aldi stores in the U.S. has no connection with Trader Joe's.
Trader Joe's shoppers shouldn't expect to encounter the hazmat suit-clad protesters, since I get the feeling there might be a few dozen protesters scattered across several hundred stores. Still, you might spot them in politically sensitive or active locations like the Bay Area or D.C.

Trader Joe's does claim "no genetically-modified ingredients" are found in any own-brand products. According to Occupy Monsanto, however, Trader Joe's hasn't provided proof to go with that assurance. Proof would come, presumably, with certification from an organization like CERT ID.

I'm not surprised that Trader Joe's management has stonewalled inquiries from Occupy Monsanto. I doubt Trader Joe's knowingly sources products from companies that use GMO ingredients, and imagine they ask suppliers for assurances that they eschew GMOs (so that TJ's customers don't chew them, ha ha.)

But I doubt that Trader Joe's knows whether or not its products contain GMO ingredients. Trader Joe's doesn't make any of the foods they sell. So picture the guy in Italy who makes pizzas by the million and ships them to Trader Joe's here in the U.S. That Italian pizza maker, in turn, buys corn meal that he sprinkles on the the crust. He buys that from a company that buys it from a mill; the mill buys it from a farmer. Is that farmer planting GMO seed?

Now that the genie is out of the GMO bottle, only expensive lab testing and ongoing vigilance can really assure shoppers that they're buying GMO-free. That's not Trader Joe's (penny pinching) style. But why should Occupy Monsanto pick on Trader Joe's, which is almost certainly not a worse-than-average offender?

Ironically, Trader Joe's strong brand and loyal customers make it a target. The mindless drones randomly shopping at Von's or Walmart probably don't care whether or not they're consuming GMOs, and certainly don't expect those stores to look out for their welfare; effectively, those chains are insulated against such bad press by their own -- and their customers' -- indifference. Occupy Monsanto hopes that Trader Joe's passionate, educated customers will care about the presence of GMOs and pressure the company to comply with transparency.

Trader Joe's head office could (but probably won't) take a strong (and expensive) stand on the issue. It doesn't have a history of being a leader on such issues; it only took steps to stop selling unsustainably harvested 'red list' fish after it was publicly and aggressively shamed by Greenpeace, an organization with a lot more clout than Occupy Monsanto. The chain's top management is never transparent anyway, so it's the victim of its unique combination of brand strength and secretiveness.

For more on Occupy Monsanto, go here.


  1. I'm quite sure TJ has GMOs. If they didn't they would take steps like Whole Foods or even discounter Meijer and get verified by I personally only buy two or three products there. Nothing else. They're owned by Aldi so can't trust them to care about real food.

    1. But Whole Foods can only verify that some of there products are GMO free (organics and 356 value products). They sell brands like Kashi and pirates booty which use GMOs but few people know that. There are several brands such as Bobs Red Mill and Annie's that don't use the non gmo label but say they are gmo free. Those labels cost $ and I can understand why not everyone uses them. I trust Trader Joes not to lie. Also the food Aldi makes is not made by the same people as Trader Joes.