I, too, have fallen under the “spell” of Trader Joe’s. Like Lauren, I feel that the food I buy there is healthier, cheaper, and better for the environment. But is it? I have heard vague whisperings about a lack of sustainability, or lies about product sources, but have done my best to ignore the rumors. Ignorance really has been bliss, but I wanted to find out more about the controversy.
Like Lauren I wanted to hear from Trader Joe’s first. A more current version of their mission statement, found directly on their store website rather than from a third-party source, focuses on “value”, rather than nutrition or what’s good for the environment. But how do they have such low prices? Trader Joe’s claims that the secret is to “buy direct from suppliers whenever possible”. But who exactly are these suppliers? Like Lauren noted, it’s not immediately clear.
Trader Joes cites its origins as starting in the 1950s as a “small chain of convenience stores”. The company website fails to mention, however, that since 1977, Trader Joe’s has been owned by Theo Albrecht, a billionaire who owns the Aldi supermarket chain that is prominent in Europe. Why is this not mentioned on their website? The lack of clear information about ownership, as well as the lack of clear information about product sources, are just two examples of their exceptionally secretive nature.
In my opinion, it all boils down to a conflict between image and reality. Trader Joe’s markets itself as a neighborhood grocer. Keeping product sources and ownership on the “down-low” allows them to do just that.
So who is their primary manufacturer? 80% of Trader Joe’s products are under their own private label, but they don’t make these products themselves. It is even thought that 20-25% of their products are imported from overseas. Their standard vendor agreement goes as far as to state “vendor shall not publicize its business relationship with TJ’s in any manner”. Despite the secrecy, it is known that Ralcorp is a primary producer. In a recent move that has possible implications for Trader Joe’s mission of “GMO-free products”, ConAgra foods bought Ralcorp. ConAgra is the very same company that recently spent $1.17 million dollars to oppose GMO labeling.
It must be noted that just because the company itself opposes GMO labeling doesn’t necessarily mean GMO’s will find their way to Trader Joe’s shelves, but that, combined with the secrecy about ownership and product sources in general, doesn’t paint a very good picture.
In conclusion, I believe it all connects back to image versus reality, and the impossibility of “having it all”. In a perfect world, our food would all be local, organic, inexpensive, and conveniently packaged and sold to us at friendly grocery stores. Trader Joe’s chose to focus on value, and consequently let the other areas fall through. Rather than admitting that, which would obviously hurt their image, they chose to hide behind a veil of secrecy, and hope that their reputation, along with die-hard fans, will carry them through. While their success is obvious, I think it’s important to be informed and to know where your food is coming from. The lack of clear information from the source, as evident by a lack of primary sources in both Lauren and my posts, is a red flag.