A couple weeks ago, in this editorial space, I offered the opinion that the sale of food product manufactured with non-authorized genetically modified ingredients "simply cannot be repeated."
That opinion was in the spirit that if the recall of corn-based products containing non-authorized ingredients was adroitly accomplished, it might soon pass from consumers' orbit of concern and little harm would come to vendors, retailers or the entire scientific process in back of genetically modified ingredients.
So has that happened? To the optimists among us, there's good news. No non-authorized ingredients in addition to those identified early this month have surfaced. To the pessimists among us, the situation hasn't gone away. Indeed, in a very real way, the situation has gone from bad to worse and is coming closer and closer to eroding the value of retailer brands. Actually, it's not necessary to be a pessimist to arrive at such a conclusion. It's reality.
Let's look: In the past few days, the situation concerning taco shells has mushroomed. At first, the situation surrounded taco shells under the Taco Bell name manufactured by Mission Foods from corn processed at Azteca Milling, a venture of Gruma and Archer Daniels Midland Co. The ingredient at issue contained StarLink corn, a modified type that's unapproved for human consumption. The variety, the use of which is to be discontinued, was intended for industrial and animal-feed applications.
Several days later, Mission Foods, the largest maker of taco shells in the nation, withdrew from the market shells sold under its own name. Kraft Foods, licensee of the Taco Bell name, had done the same earlier. Then, the fact that Mission is a private-label packer to supermarket retailers came to light as Safeway withdrew its store-brand shells from its stores. That action came after a consumer group claimed the shells contained StarLink. Now, as you'll see on Page 1, it develops that Mission packs shells under 35 private labels. Mission has declined to identify the chains for which it packs private labels. But here's the crux of it: Have 35 chains arisen to this challenge and instituted formal recall procedures? They have not. As of late last week, Food Lion, Kash N'Karry (both owned by Delhaize America) and Shaw's have done so.
Others, including retailing giants Kroger and Albertson's, have been identified in news accounts as possibly selling the taco shells in question, but neither has issued a formal recall. Albertson's has said it withdrew its store brands, but hasn't identified them. Apparently, Kroger is depending on in-store signs to inform shoppers, as is the case at several other chains. Again, all this has been mentioned in many news accounts. Everyone knows.
This is a mistake. All chains that sell or might sell the taco shells in question should go out of the way to make sure shoppers are informed about the exact stockkeeping units involved and publicly state that they are gone. (Observe that Food Lion, a chain with some experience with what unfavorable publicity can do, has taken the right steps; luckily, Safeway was obliged to act.)
No doubt, this whole situation is being dismissed as a tempest in a teapot, and one that will never do harm to anyone. That's true, but it's also one that could seriously erode the value of store banners and brands. That's an unacceptable risk.