“Get the facts!”

Whenever someone says, "Get the facts!," I read it as, "Please don’t look too closely at what we’re saying."

Today was the grand opening of a new Fresh and Easy store nearby. Fresh and Easy is UK supermarket giant Tesco‘s foray into the US, consisting of smaller grocery stores, generally stocked with pre-made foods and without things like a deli or butcher department. I drove by to check it out, partly due to the huge numbers of coupons we have gotten for the chain in the mail the last few days. When I arrived, I saw that there were probably about 25 protestors in front, with signs urging me to "Get the Facts."

I went and asked some of the protestors who were not marching in front of the store what this was all about. They gave me a flier urging me, "Don’t be fooled by Fresh & Easy," and proceeded to rattle off a litany of wide-ranging and somewhat incoherent complaints:

  • "Tesco is the Wal-Mart of the UK, and by supporting them, you’ll be taking money out of your community!" I don’t really get much mileage out of this complaint, as I feel that once you get beyond a 100-mile radius or so, you have effectively left your community behind anyway. Most U.S. grocery chains are not headquartered nearby, so I call this one a wash.
  • "Tesco is opening stores worldwide, and they’re going to treat their workers here like their workers in Thailand…like dirt! But, they treat their workers in the UK alright." This is so bizarre that it’s kind of hard to come up with a good response. After doing a bit of reading, I discovered that this was linked to union issues (discussed below).
  • "Their stores only use self-service check-out, which means that kids will easily be able to go in and buy alcohol illegally, which will lead to increased crime!" This is not a joke — this was spoken in sincerity. Apparently there has been a bill introduced in the California state assembly that would prohibit alcohol sales at stores with only self-service checkout, by requiring a full-service check stand for alcohol purchases. The link notes that Fresh and Easy would be the only retailer affected by the law. The bill does not address why this would reduce the occurrence of alcohol purchases by underage or intoxicated persons. The idea that self-service check-out is the road to teenage delinquency just strikes me as absurd, and the spectre of "increased theft" of alcohol seems bogus, since the opinion of the industry seems to be that self-service checkout results in the same or less theft.
  • "With their pre-packaged foods, they’re taking away the last line of defense between you and unsafe food!" Honestly, knowing what can go on in supermarket meat, fish, and deli departments, I’m almost more relieved than alarmed. At least with pre-packaged food there are fewer places to inspect… (Granted, our food inspection system seems to suck, too, but that’s a separate issue — the idea that grocery store employees are improving the food safety situation is pretty tenuous to me.)

    The pamphlet cites several instances of food safety violations — however, I don’t really see any skeletons that you wouldn’t find in a major American grocery retailers’ closet. So this is kind of a wash, too.

  • "Their record on environmental issues is terrible!" The website mentioned on their flyer links to a National Consumer Council report on "Green Grocers," which gives Tesco a grade of "C" for 2007. Sounds bad, right? Well, the highest grade given by the report was "B," and Tesco actually improved year-over-year from "D" to "C." A grade of "C," by the way, signifies "showing potential," while "B" is "good." The text of the report on Tesco is generally positive, with the only poor rating relating to their support of sustainable fishing.

    There’s also a link to an article claiming that Tesco drastically understates their carbon footprint. However, the complaint appears centered around two claims: 1) that their estimate does not include emissions caused by shoppers driving to and from their stores, and 2) that their estimate does not include emissions caused by their suppliers bringing goods to their stores. This is a pretty weak claim, in my opinion — if shoppers didn’t go to Tesco, they’d go somewhere else in their cars. Likewise, the goods on sale need to get to the stores somehow — otherwise, you wouldn’t have much of a store, would you?

    The people interviewed in that article also exhibit some of the same mixed-message antics as the protestors:

    Dr Sharon McClenaghan, Christian Aid’s senior policy officer, said: ‘Tesco has made some promises that it now needs to live up to. Currently, even the company’s own green auditors have said that there is still a long way to go. We are seeking assurances that the company will stick by its promises, but also ensure that it does not do so simply by axing overseas suppliers, where what’s needed is help and support from rich world companies to help them to go green too.’

    Ah yes, let’s throw in the topics of fair trade and developmental aid into what was an environmental conversation!

  • Their signs had Fresh and Easy logos in a "no smoking"-like symbol, as well as ones for Wal-Mart. I asked about this, and the one guy with whom I was speaking seemed a little embarrassed about it, and just mumbled something about "big corporations coming into neighborhoods and driving small businesses out and destroying communities." While I can understand the concern about Wal-Mart, lumping Fresh and Easy in the same boat is ridiculous in my opinion. The "neighborhood grocery" ship, in this country, sailed long before Fresh and Easy ever showed up. As a matter of fact, you could say that it was the U.S. grocery giants who killed neighborhood groceries.

    The other confusing part about this is that, as far as I can tell, Fresh and Easy’s business model isn’t based on having the lowest possible prices, like Wal-Mart’s is. It’s based around a larger number of smaller stores, in commuter-friendly locations, and about selling ready-to-eat or easy-to-prepare food at a markup. This is pretty much the complete opposite of Wal-Mart’s model, and would not be the same kind of threat to neighborhood grocers (if they existed) as Wal-Mart.

  • Something which was not said explicitly, but which I divined through a series of questions, is that their real concern is that the chain is non-union, and their fear is that if Tesco meets success in this endeavor, the industry will trend to smaller stores with fewer employees and overhead. All of the other concerns are just a smoke-screen for this.

    It seems that Tesco, despite its relationship with unions in the UK, is seeking to avoid unionization in the US. Even Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue, urging them to speak with union representatives. For their part, Fresh and Easy claim that their employees are free to organize.

The take-away from all of this? I generally hate being lied to, or mislead, no matter who is doing the talking. It pains me when things like this happen: positions that I generally agree with, used as a smoke-screen for more odious aims, and argued in a poor, scatter-shot manner. I just get enraged when I see things like food safety discussions taking wild detours into things like environmental issues, or, my favorite, politics. These pile-ons just distract from sober discussion on how to solve a problem, and just degenerate into vitriol. It’s just embarrassing.

Oh, and the store itself? Not bad — a few years ago I probably would have frequented it much more, but since Sandy likes to cook (and from scratch), this seems less likely to appeal to us now.

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  1. Food safety issues are, actually, connected w/politics. Marion Nestle, just to name one person, has written a whole tome about this.

  2. I meant cases where someone’s debating skills are limited to screaming “FASCIST!”.

    Well-researched, reasoned, and well-written thoughts are, as always, exempt from my bile.

  3. That wasn’t clear in what you said:
    “I just get enraged when I see things like food safety discussions taking wild detours into things like environmental issues, or, my favorite, politics.”

    Food safety is connected to environmental issues, too: why the tomato recall? Because of groundwater contamination from CAFOs (ie. animal shit from factory farms), etc. etc. ad nauseum.

    Hardly “wild detours.”

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