So, recently I was perusing the cured meat selection of a market with a very talented salumiere. We chatted about the merits of the products before us, and gossiped about the people who produced them, as you do. At one point, my buddy picks up a product, turns on his smartphone and types in the plant number on the USDA “bug”. The “bug” is the little circular stamp-like icon that indicates the FSIS approved USDA processing plant where that meat product was actually made. The results of this search reminded me that I really hate private labelling.
Now, private labelling is when a product line is given a brand by someone that is not the person who made it. Like a store brand. Hopefully, consumers underatand that A&P did not actually make “America’s Choice” products. Sure, they may have owned part, or eventually all of the business that crafted the given product. But it didn’t start out that way. A&P is a retailer. They are not starting up brick and mortar food production facilities. Maybe they invest in expansion, but the private label started off as its own business at a particular location.²
I like to know where my food comes from, and who made it. Private labelling is practiced with increasing frequency in the food business. It’s an audacious technique that pushes the trust relationship between a customer and a retailer to the shelves, asserting that you should trust them so much that there is no need to think about who made the product. We endorse it, so you should buy it. Private labelling justifies not thinking about the source of our food. Now, it encourages this kind of decision making by usually pricing these items lowest in the category. Is this the motivation? Probably not, but still that’s the result. Sure, the mechanism is that through these relationships between the retailer and the producer, there are commitments made that keep costs at rock bottom, and it is good that the retailer passes on the savings to the customer. However, it’s no accident that the private labelled line of products is marketed as the store brand. We all know the store brand is the least expensive, and it has always been obvious why. The trouble I see is two fold. First off, it breaks down the transparency in understanding the source of our food, and shifts the power of choice from the consumer to the retailer. But my complaints don’t end there.
As a buyer of artisanal products, I thought it was my duty to exalt the producer. Think about it. Setting up a lemonade stand is easy and cash flow turnaround is relatively quick. Growing a lemon is hard. To start with, the turnaround on your cash is the time it takes to grow a lemon tree and then becomes time it takes to produce a lemon each season. And if you have to set up the stand and grow the lemons, that’s really tough.¹ Many of these producers are either just getting started in business, or are carrying on a long standing family tradition. Some producers are creating artisan products to get out of the commodity food supply side of the business, so they can either aspire to higher principles, or more likely save their family farm. I like these people. They are reaching for the American dream, sometimes in a final attempt not to become pushed aside by our food supply industrial complex overlords. So, yes, I want to recognize them. They are on the front lines of the fight for increased production of wholesome and hand crafted food, over source obscured, pooled, commodity food production. So what happens when a “good” food retailer comes along and says, I will buy a quarter of your yearly production, if I can remove your name and put my company’s label on it instead? Well, many times that producer agrees. My argument is not with the producer. I don’t know their problems, or certainly why they think they need to make such a compromise. My issue is with the obscuring of the source. This private labelling business is stupid. Go ahead, still put your stamp of approval of the package. Make your store brand big and bold. But why obscure the source. On the surface, the retailer is taking credit for an artisan’s craft. Worse, this further disconnects the public from understanding the who, what, and where our food comes from. I feel like there is a lot more to talk about here. I know there are many more points to be made against private labelling, but let’s wrap this up, for now.
When Josh (my buddy’s name is Josh) entered the processing plant number on the bug into his nifty app, we discovered that the producer was not the same as on the package of bacon. In fact, it was the same producer as the bacon being sold right beside it in the same store! Josh did the same with another package of bacon, and it was the same as the only other bacon in the store. To be clear, it appeared as though there were four different producers, making four distinct products, but the store was only actually selling two different bacons! Now, this was not a store brand, but is an example of how private labelling obscures and misrepresents products and their sources. Also, this was happening on the wholesale level, and was passed down to the retail shelf. It makes me wonder how much more often private labelling is being employed than is apparent to the retail consumer. Boy, it seems even the lines of obscurity are becoming obscured! I am glad there is an app, made by our government no less, that helps to bring clarity to the source of our food, and move the power of choice back toward the hands of the consumer.
Here it is:
¹The “Local Honey” stand on the homepage was on the curbside of the house where the honey was produced, in my hometown on West End Ave, right in their own back yard. We are talking about the suburbs of NYC, in New Jersey. I loved that. West End Apiary. How cool!?
²A&P is now bankrupt, and last year Minneapolis based Supervalu acquired the “America’s Choice” brand, further obscuring the source of that given can of green green beans, or package of bacon. Also, the bacon discussed in the beginning was hand crafted, and that retailer was not selling “America’s Choice” products, to be clear.
Title Note: “A Game of Hide the Bacon” just didn’t have the catchy ring I wanted, but I am sure there are plenty of terrible examples of private labelled salami out there.