Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lawsuit labels Trader Joe's as liars

I see on the Huffington Post that Trader Joe's will have to defend itself in a class-action lawsuit over misleading labeling. Specifically, the suit refers to 'evaporated cane juice', listed as an ingredient in Trader Joe's yogurt. Evaporate cane juice, by another name, is simply sugar.

'Evaporated cane juice' = sugar. Although much commercial sugar is extracted from beets, sugar from the two sources is chemically identical. In fact, virtually all sugars are nutritionally identical. But 'evaporated cane juice' certainly sounds a lot healthier than 'high-fructose corn syrup'.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially banned the use of the term, but Pierce Gore* - a San Francisco-based consumer affairs attorney who has launched dozens of similar suits - claims Trader Joe's continues to use the term in a fraudulent attempt to make its prepared foods appear healthier than they really are.

I was interested to read some of the comments that appeared on Huffington's post about the suit, because they underline key points that I made in Build a Brand Like Trader Joe's -- mainly that the company's devoted fans will leap to its defense even when, as in this instance, critics have a solid case.

One poster asked, "How stupid would consumers have to be, not to realize that 'evaporated cane juice' was just another name for sugar?" Obviously, Trader Joe's doesn't think consumers do know that it's just another name for sugar; if they did, they'd just list 'sugar'.

Another pointed out that since a lot of sugar comes from beets, which are often GMO, by listing evaporated cane juice, Trader Joe's was reassuring customers of the non-GMO source of the sweetener. Leaving aside the fact that there is no genetic material in sugar, rendering GMO fears moot, that defense begs the question, why not list 'cane sugar' as the ingredient? Doing so would obviate any criticism of disingenuous labeling.

When I worked at Trader Joe's, I rolled my eyes when I saw that 'evaporated cane juice' ingredient. Notwithstanding Trader Joe's ardent defenders on HuffPo, the truth is that the company actively seeks to abet the conflation of terms like 'all natural', 'organic', and 'healthy' in its customers' minds.

Prepared foods account for the lion's share of Trader Joe's profits, and per square foot, the frozen foods section is the most profitable section of the store. And while virtually everything in there is 'all natural', and much of it is 'organic', those convenient meals are loaded with fat, calories, and especially sodium. (When I was being trained, I was warned that one question I was bound to get was, "Why is there so much salt in Trader Joe's foods?" I was told to answer that Trader Joe's never used artificial preservatives, and salt was necessary as a natural one." I was, like, Yeah but we're talking about food that's frozen.)

For those in the know, Trader Joe's spokesperson Alison Mochizuici's official statement that the company won't comment on pending litigation is kinda' funny; the company won't comment on anything, more like it. Gore, the lawyer, will either win this one or force Trader Joe's to settle and change at least one (highly) questionable labeling practice. If the management is smart, it will take this opportunity to bring both labeling and, over time, formulations of prepared foods into line with the perception people have of the brand.

*Yes, he's the Al Gore's cousin.

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