SALISBURY, N.C. -- The Consumers United with Employees organization has issued a report charging Food Lion here with selling outdated grocery items.
The report, issued late last month, is the sixth such report from CUE during the last 17 months. According to CUE -- which bills itself as a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy coalition -- more than 4,500 outdated grocery items were purchased in 115 Food Lion stores in the 14 states in which the chain operates.
As in its previous reports, CUE concentrated only on Food Lion, prompting the chain to question the validity of the study.
In a statement issued immediately after the coalition's allegations, Food Lion said, "Cue refused to prove its claims by providing Food Lion with store receipts or returning to the stores for refunds on products the group says it purchased after their expiration date."
The statement went on to say: "CUE is a union-front organization of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The repeated news conferences attacking Food Lion are not an effort to protect consumers, nor are they an attempt to organize Food Lion employees. It is the UFCW's intent to destroy the business of Food Lion and prevent the company's expansion into union-dominated markets."
Food Lion did not deny it may have had outdated products on its shelves. "Like all supermarket chains, we're continuously looking for new ways and better ways to keep outdated products off our shelves and to make sure we're offering the freshest product to our
customers," said Chris Ahearn, the chain's corporate communications manager. "We are continuing to work on the possibility of including dates in universal product codes," she added.
When asked if CUE's campaign against Food Lion has hurt the retailer, Ahearn said, "It's hard to say. But if it were a legitimate problem and we got this [kind of] press coverage, we would have complaints from consumers, but we do not.
"We check consistently with our customers through our own research and through our customer hot line, and we really don't receive customer complaints on this issue at all. So that just reinforces that it's not a customer concern; it's a union concern."
Ahearn also said CUE's efforts have not curtailed the chain's growth potential. "It hasn't impacted our expansion plans at all. We are continuing to expand northward. we're continuing to open stores near the Washington, D.C. area, and we have several more planned for this year. So their efforts to hold us back are not succeeding as far as future growth."
Gary Vineberg, an analyst with Merrill Lynch, agreed that CUE's continued pressure on Food Lion isn't likely to slow the chain's growth plans.
Vineberg said CUE's campaign may have hurt the retailer in the beginning, but now its effect is "less and less, because this organization only attacks Food Lion. They don't attack anyone else in the business. They pick on one company. And when you do that, you obviously become a questionable organization."