Several of the largest U.S. retail chains have direct ties to the horse meat scandal that has rocked the supermarket industry in the UK, even though the tainted meat drama has been unfolding an ocean away. Walmart (WMT), Trader Joe's, and Fresh & Easy are all directly connected to the grocery store companies that have allegedly been selling hamburgers containing up to 29% of horse meat. The Burger King chain is allegedly one of the retail chains that has been selling horseburgers for as long as a year in the UK.
Looking at the connections between U.S. retailers like Walmart, Trader Joe's and Fresh & Easy to some of the largest UK retail supermarket chains reveals what may be a disturbing pattern and a lack of standards and values with some of the world's largest food retailing chainsthat is resulting in serious food safety issues for U.S. consumers.
In September, 2012, Fresh & Easy had to remove 8 different kinds of its proprietary branded peanut butters from its shelves after 42 people were affected with Salmonella bredeney in 20 different states. The supplier of Fresh & Easy branded peanut butter was found to have a manufacturing facility that was crawling with Salmonella (and crawling with other things too.)
What does peanut butter in U.S. grocery store coolers have to do with horseburgers in UK supermarkets? Fresh & Easy is owned by Tesco, of course, which is the largest UK retail chain and the supermarket chain that is in the center stage spotlight for the huge amount of horsemeat (29%) that was found in its proprietary branded Tesco Everyday Value "Beef" Burgers. (The quotations in the product name are my addition. It just seemed appropriate.)
Tesco's leadership team received many kudos for its smooth PR moves as the horseburger scandal unfolded. But we should expect nothing less from a PR team that's had plenty of opportunity to practice throughout a long and rich history of Tesco proprietary brand recalls.
In August, 2012 Tesco recalled its Tesco Branded Prawn Masala and Pilau Rice because the expiration date was wrong on the package and eating it past its expiration date could make someone sick. Tesco brand Finest Belgian Chocolate Salted Caramel and Hazelnut Ice Cream was recalled in 2012 because it was the wrong packaging for the Orange Blossom Honey and Almond Ice Cream that the containers were filled with which could cause illness or death to customers with allergies.
Tesco also recalled its Chokablok ice cream in June, 2012 because of the possibility that there were broken ice cream sticks floating around in the ice cream. There's no telling how big the rogue ice cream sticks were, so it's hard to say just what kind of injury or illness might have resulted from consuming them.
The historical Tesco Branded Products Recall Hall of Fame includes a 2011 Tesco electric heater that was a fire hazard, a 2010 Tesco baby teether with defective parts which were a choking hazard, a 2010 Tesco bath mat which caused a slipping hazard, 2009 Tesco directors chairs which had a nasty habit of collapsing under the weight of the person sitting on them, 2009 Tesco mouthwash that was microbiologically unsafe, and 2007 Tesco toy binoculars made of hazardous chemicals.
All Tesco proprietary branded products. All posed serious dangers to Tesco customers. All recalled. Many not recalled until after customers were ill or injured.
Trader Joe's was also involved in the previously mentioned peanut butter salmonella disaster and had to recall its branded Trader Joe's Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter. The Trader Joe's brand peanut butter was reportedly identified as being a cause of at least one of those Salmonella poisonings after a jar of it was reportedly found in the kitchen of one of the Salmonella patients and it reportedly tested positive for Salmonella.
The supplier of the peanut butter, Sunland, Inc. was found to be running a facility that was maybe not so much a peanut-butter manufacturing plant, as it was a breeding laboratory for Salmonella. Besides employees who reportedly handled peanuts with their bare, unwashed hands, Sunland violated both food safety regulations and good common sense by storing raw peanuts in uncovered trailers outdoors.
So basically bugs and birds were reportedly frolicking freely through tons of peanuts before before they were crushed, along with whatever the birds and bugs left behind, into peanut butter. That healthy mixutre was reportedly then packaged into tons of proprietary branded peanut butter jars bearing the Fresh & Easy and Trader Joe's name and logo.
If all of this is reportedly true, I want to believe that this was not okay with Trader Joe's. It's an exemplary retail company in many ways and I want to believe that food safety matters to it more than money. But let's not forget that Trader Joe's is owned by a German company which also owns Aldi stores. And, of course, Aldi is one of the grocery store chains that has also recently been clearing horseburgers out of its freezers in the UK.
Admittedly this is some pretty thin circumstantial evidence on which to make a case that Aldi Nord and Tesco neither know nor care to know whether the foods in its stores around the world are being produced properly or whether they're going to make the customers who buy them sick or dead.
Two aspects of all of this should be the cause for great concern. First, these are not even the worst supermarkets in the U.S. Imagine what happens at those. And the second disturbing part of these food safety failures is the fact that there are so many food safety issues associated with the chains' own branded products.
Really, if the products that are being manufactured specifically for a supermarket chain, that bear its brand, and directly affect its brand value are not even being scrutinized, tested, or policed, then what are we to think about the thousands of other products that are not even identified with the supermarket's name?
Should Aldi Nord, Tesco - or any other huge national or international grocery store chain - bear some responsibility for the safety of the food that it commissions to be produced exclusively for them? Should they have some accountability for not seeing or responding to the FDA violations of their suppliers?
Should somebody from one of the largest U.S. supermarket chains that was selling the 240 infected peanut products be accountable for uncovering the gross food safety violations of their peanut product supplier? Do 35 people in 19 states have to become seriously ill before a food retailer becomes aware of how its manufacturers conduct their food production operations?
The average supermarket in the U.S. carries more than 38,000 items, and perhaps it is unrealistic to think that they can police all of those suppliers. But right now we're talking about proprietary branded products. If supermarket chains can't be accountable for the food that bears their logos, then perhaps they shouldn't be allowed to be part of the food manufacturing process at all.
If we allow the food retailing chains to take the position of victim in this horse meat scandal or in any other food safety supplier scenario, then we allow them to continue to distribute food products to consumers without having any accountability for what they are selling. If consumers allow food retailing chains to be victims with no accountability, then it's the consumers who will be the next victims when the next food supplier or food manufacturing facility creates a food-related crisis because nobody is holding them responsible.
Which leads us to wonder... Isn't the food manufacturing process supposed to be policed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? Presumably so, but here's the reality of handing that responsibility over to the FDA.
The FDA is the agency that allows 225 bug parts to be included in every 225 grams of pasta before it is considered unsafe. So the FDA thinks that 226 bug parts is one bug part too many for the average U.S. consumer to eat, but not 225. And by the way, 225 grams is about one cup, so that's 225 bug parts in the next cup of pasta that you eat. But don't worry because the FDA says that's okay.
The FDA is also the food safety agency that is still allowing the chemical BPA to be used in food and drink cans even though the chemical has been linked to breast cancer, prostate abnormalities, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. The FDA also thought the pink slime ammonia concoction that was being added to America's hamburgers was okay. So, that's who consumers want to trust the safety of their supermarket purchases to?
It seems that one of the implicit agreements that food retailers have with their customers is to deliver food products that are safe for human consumption. Whether they consciously think about it or not, consumers shop at grocery store chains with an inherent level of trust that what they're purchasing is not going cause them illness, injury or death. It's jarring to realize that some food retailers don't have the values and standards that will help them live up to that trust.
Walmart is a great example of this. What does Walmart have to do with the UK horse meat scandal? The ASDA hypermarket chain is one of the food retailers that has been selling horseburgers, possibly for at least a year, and Walmart is the owner of ASDA.
Making that connection isn't meant to imply that Walmart knew about the horse meat. But as the world's largest retailer, shouldn't it have known? Doesn't the largest chain in the world owe it to their customers to be accountable for what they're distributing around the world?
Presumably the answer from Walmart leaders is "no." Accountability does not seem to be a Walmart value and the current Walmart leadership team doesn't seem to even bother to try and pretend that it is. Perhaps they are too busy bribing foreign governments and fighting lawsuits filed by their employees to tend to the highest standards of food safety accountability.
Walmart's mission statement is all about money. And when money is the primary (or only) value, then it doesn't matter what's in the meat as long as it's delivered on time and for the contractual price.
Curiously, if you look at the mission statement of the largest supermarkets and hypermarket chains there is very little mention in any of them about food safety. Somebody might need to remind America's food retailers that it's really difficult to build customer loyalty if your inattentiveness to the products you're selling causes your customers mortal harm.
Someone that I am working with from Sweden just happened to be walking past and when she saw Lidl on the list of grocery store chains that had been selling the horseburgers she said, "I'm not surprised. When I asked Emma why she wasn't surprised she said "Lidl is dirty and gross and all of their food is shitty."
I didn't say it. I'm just reporting it. And the reason why I'm reporting it is because you can do all the PR and advertising in the world to create an image for your retail brand, but when you don't deliver on the promises of the image you've fabricated for yourself, your customers aren't fooled.
Lidl can say in its Company Statement "In all we do, customer satisfaction is our goal." And it can say in its Customer Philosophy that "We alway provide our customers with quality at the best price - strictly quality assured." But apparently it is not doing either of those things well enough because it's quality assured beef has horse meat in it and at least one customer is unsatisfied with its "dirty, gross" stores and "shitty" food.
Make no mistake about it. The world is in for a lot more shitty food if the retailers who distribute it are not held accountable for their part in the food supply chain. So maybe if food retailers can't take responsibility for the suppliers of 38,000 products, then they shouldn't sell 38,000 products. Is it more important to have a dozen choices of everything we could possibly put in our mouth, or is it more important to have at least one safe choice that we know for certain won't kill us?
If the answer is the safe choice, then consumers are going to have to make that known to food retailers using the communication channel that best catches the attention of U.S. retailers - shopping dollars.
When consumers give their money to any retail chain they are condoning its business practices. When consumers withdraw their money and go spend it with a competitor (or not spend it at all), they send a loud and clear message that they're not happy. Only when money talks will shitty food supply chain practices walk.