business news in context, analysis with attitude

Responding to yesterday’s piece about Aldi’s success in the US, MNB user Lisa Malmarowski wrote:

I confess, I hadn't been in an Aldi store for years...not since, in my opinion, they were grubby with an uninteresting mix of items. My mom, who's 86, loves Aldi's and asked me to take her recently. I was pleasantly surprised. After feeling a bit like an idiot not being able to figure out how to get my quarter to unlock a cart, it was smooth sailing after that. The store was super clean, very organized and offered a good mix of items at really great prices. I have to say I liked it better than a Trader Joe's - it seemed more 'honest', in that I always feel like Trader Joe's is pandering to natural and organic food interests without the authenticity. At least at Aldi's, I felt like I knew the 'no name' stuff was what it was. It doesn't mean I'd shop at an Aldi's (or Trader Joe's) but I'm now keenly aware of the competitive advantage they bring to a market especially in lean economic times. We can all learn something from them.

Another MNB user had some thoughts about the value-oriented Sunflower Markets:

KC, I've been shopping Sunflower Market for about six years now in Colorado. I'm lucky because they are in expansion mode, and one opened about a year ago fairly close to me. Closer than Wild Oats or Whole Paycheck. Another one is opening on a close by bus line, a boon to those who are driving less, if at all. It happens to be next to a mall, and while there is a Super Target on the opposite side, the under-interior-finish Sunflower building already says " friendly food."

Much of the produce is from Mexico, but with distribution starting in Arizona, that can be more "local" than California's Central Valley.

Sunflower mixes conventional and organic produce. Good bulk bins, a bit of a warehouse feel, despite being the size of an average late 60s grocer.

Bad layout. I feel like it is three or four distinct stores, and some aisles cut off traffic in odd ways.

Some brainpower on a complete store circuit would be appreciated.

Needs to court local producers, such as Denver tofu in my area. If King Soopers (Kroger) can do that, I'm sure Sunflower could.

I'm waiting for Sunflower to make its real identity move. Why should we go there compared to the farmer's market, in season? The price is not always "Walmart" level.

I'm truly comparing to King Soopers, but Sunflower can be heftier, even for non-organics.

Secret scores: Sunflower's in store hummus, Amy's burritos.

So what does Sunflower need to be?

Whole Paycheck for the rest of us. We ARE foodies, and we do read labels. We are vegetarians and short on time. We are parents and retirees. We are looking to support a smaller company, or avoid a larger one. It's better to have a positive motivator.

Got the following email from an MNB user:

Traceability, transparency, government agencies that serve the public are all great things! Challenging the private and public sectors to improve is a US tradition that has made us great. Are traceability and transparency important? Without question! Does the industry need to lead here? Yes! And the companies that do, in my opinion, will have a competitive advantage until such traceability and transparency become two of the "costs of entry" into the marketplace. Then the advantage, if any, will be for those who have efficiencies built into their systems so that they do it better.

When it comes to food borne illness investigation, an incredible number of variables in addition to tracing back product to its source must be sorted out. The problem of food borne illness investigation is complicated.

The CDC has a world-class system, PulseNet, for pinpointing organisms that cause illness to the molecular level, and linking illnesses caused by the same organisms in different locations. The system links state and local agencies with federal agencies (FDA and USDA), and serves these agencies in monitoring food borne illness, and
identifying the bacterial or viral agent that causes illness with a high degree of specificity and accuracy.

Food borne illness symptoms can occur, depending on the type of illness and the individual, hours to days or even weeks after the causative agent is consumed. The definitive tests to determine the agent then can take several more days for a conclusive result. Then, the illness and agent is reported. The CDC gathers reports from
around the nation, looking for "outbreaks," or multiple "cases" from the same causative agent. Today this all happens with lightening speed compared to just 10 years ago! These steps can happen somewhat faster in individual states, but for a multi-state outbreak all this data collection takes days.

Once the outbreak is recognized, the investigation begins. The investigation requires those who became ill, or in the worst cases family members of those who became ill because the ill are too sick, to provide diet histories. These diet histories ask for everything the person has eaten in the last seven days, or longer, including where the food was purchased, how it was prepared, what brand it was, etc. etc. Then the histories of all the ill are evaluated for similarities. This data collection and comparison also takes time.

I don't know about you, but I have a hard time remembering everything I ate yesterday, let alone seven or fourteen days ago. In other words, a very precise system tells us something is wrong, and then a very inexact system tries to find the source of the problem. On top of that, the global source of the food supply, the complexities of
manufacturing, the variables that enter from the fragmented distribution system, and the handling of product all introduce potential for contamination that must be investigated.

And as exact as the science of identification is, there still is much that is unknown when it comes to the ecology of bacteria that make people sick. The job of knowing exactly where to look takes some detective skill. And then if the bacteria are found, determining the path of the agent from its source to making people sick still may not be easy (the spinach outbreak is a good example of these phenomena).

This long e-mail is to say that while food borne illness identification is precise, the investigation into that illness is not an easy endeavor.

I applaud your push for traceability and transparency to serve the consuming public (you and me included). I encourage you to continue raising questions about how the government is serving the people.

Finally, we got the following email about one of our MNB sponsors…actually the second one that we’ve received making the same observation about the tile ad for the book, “Death To All Sacred Cows”:

Given the gun violence in our society as well as the increased awareness of animal cruelty, I feel the ad could have been in better taste. I am not a reactionary of any kind, but--a handgun pointed at a cow's head? Not so good.

I’m going to disagree on this one.

First of all, the graphic is a book cover designed to make a larger point. Nobody is actually really killing actual cows.

Second, it is a joke, and I think most people get that.

Finally, and perhaps most important, it is a guiding tent here at MNB - coming right after the point on our mission statement that says “no long pants to be worn at the office between Memorial Day and Labor Day” – that things need to be as irreverent as possible whenever possible. And it is gravy when even the ads reflect that perspective.

Go read the book. It’ll make you smile while making some important points about business.

KC's View: