Lately there’s been a rumor circulating about Trader Joe’s that I’d like to dispel: no, ConAgra has not bought Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s is still owned by Germany’s uber-private Albrecht family, ever since TJ’s founder Joe Coulumbe sold it to them back in 1979.
But ConAgra did buy Ralcorp, and Ralcorp is one of the primary manufacturers behind the majority of Trader Joe’s privately labeled, organic, and GMO-free products.
So what does ConAgra’s purchase of Ralcorp mean to the millions of loyal Trader Joe’s fans? Let’s connect the dots…
1) What does Trader Joe’s do best? Make organic produce and products available to the average consumer at affordable prices.
Strangely however, Trader Joe’s refuses to disclose the sources of these organics. Even their standard vendor agreement states (the) “Vendor shall not publicize its business relationship with TJ’s in any manner.”
In an age of food accountability—in which more and more consumers want to understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced—why is Trader Joe’s insisting on secrecy?
2) How are Trader Joe’s products made? Over 80% are manufactured under their own store label, which they tout as GMO-free.
But TJ’s doesn’t make these products. All of Trader Joe’s store labeled products are made by outside vendors—large corporations who are in business to make store-branded products for a wide variety of grocery and large retail chain stores.
Sometimes vendors will tweak the ingredients of a given product for each grocery store’s particular audience. Most of the time however, the food inside that store-labeled package is the same from store to store—with nothing more than a change in the price and the label; see a few examples here.
Since Trader Joe’s claims that all of the products under their store label are GMO-free, we’ve got to trust that the vendor they’re using is changing more than just the package label—especially since Trader Joe’s is unwilling to release their sources or disclose vendor relationships.
One of Ralcorp’s food processing facilities in New York, where layoffs occurred in January 2013
3) So who’s making Trader Joe’s store branded products? All signs point to Ralcorp.
Despite those “keep it secret” vendor agreements, basic financial information was publicly disclosed during ConAgra’s purchase of Ralcorp, including this important fact: two of Ralcorp’s key customers are Costco and Trader Joe’s.
4) What does ConAgra’s purchase of Ralcorp mean to us as consumers?
With a projected $18 billion in annual sales, the ConAgra/Ralcorp combination will create a “packaged food behemoth“—second only to Kraft Foods (who currently boasts $19 billion in annual sales).
That much dominance in food manufacturing wields significant market clout. Combine that with ConAgra’s stance on GMOs, and you’ve got…
5) What can corporations do with that much clout?
When a corporation doesn’t want to stop manufacturing food with genetically modified ingredients, doesn’t want to tell you that those ingredients are in your food, and has $18 billion in annual sales at their disposal, they can afford to wield some pretty powerful political influence.
Just a few months ago, Ralcorp’s new owner ConAgra donated $1,176,700 to fight California’s GMO labeling Proposition 37—right alongside the “Big Six” GMO crop producers and other major processed food corporations, as itemized in the above chart. (To see the complete list of corporations that donated to oppose GMO labeling, click here.)
To summarize the great Trader Joe’s debate:
Pro: affordable organics
Con: organic sources are not disclosed
Pro: private label products are GMO-free
Con: private label products are manufactured by Ralcorp, whose parent corporation ConAgra donated $1.17 million to oppose GMO labeling
It’s your turn to decide…
If Trader Joe’s is your best option for buying organic food on a limited food budget, I will never discourage that kind of logic. Your health (and the health of your family) is your #1 priority; choosing organics in whatever way is most affordable for you is the right thing to do.
But if you’re scratching your head about a company that lets a “behemoth” vendor make their GMO-free products under the ownership of a corporation that opposes GMO labeling, all while maintaining a strict policy of “don’t disclose,” then maybe it’s time to explore some alternatives, at least now and then.
Whether it’s a farmer’s market, aco-op like PCC Natural Market in Seattle, or an independent organic grocer that’s more transparent about disclosing sources—like The Big Carrot in Toronto, Ontario, Nature’s Food Patch in Clearwater, Florida, Good Earth Natural Foods in Utah and California, or Down to Earth Organic and Natural in Hawaii—at least you’ll know your hard-won consumer dollars aren’t “trickling upstream” to a corporation that wants to keep you in the dark about GMOs.
As No GMO Man said last month, “I believe ConAgra now controls what Dan Bane (Trader Joe’s CEO) will do. I would be singing a different tune if Mr. Bane went to the Non-GMO Project to get (his store-labeled products) verified.”
As of February 2014, a blog reader reported seeing more and more Trader Joe’s Organic branded products with a USDA Organic label on the packaging. Sure enough, we visited our local TJs today and noticed the same thing. This gives us hope that Trader Joes is at last getting third party certification for their organic brand, which is a positive step forward from their previous “don’t ask / don’t tell” approach.
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