Eggs and Ethics: On grocery shopping and identity

162164732-1 [dropcap]E[/dropcap]arlier this month, YouTube taught me how to poach eggs. I’ve now mastered the procedure — the white vinegar ratio, the water swirl intensity, the perfect cooking time. Figuring it was time to road-test my new skill, I invited a friend over for brunch, a guy — the crunchy, Colorado mountain-man type, who is working on an Environmental Science degree. Let’s call him “Sam.”

Sam watched me work — then leaned in with a troubled look on his face: “King Sooper’s eggs?” he asked. I flushed with embarrassment: It was true, I was cooking with eggs from the giant, commercial supermarket up the block and not the farm-raised, college-educated eggs that Sam had expected — the kind you get at Whole Foods, Mountain Mama’s Health Food Store, or Trader Joe’s.

OK, so crucify me. I’d bought the cheap generic eggs at a cheap generic American supermarket. I had even selected them over many “organic” eggs fetchingly offered in brown boxes made of recycled paper. The price was a lot lower and, truth is, I’ve never been able to taste the difference.

But Sam’s tone amounted to an accusation that I’d struck a Faustian bargain: I traded moral purity for nefariously engineered eggs. I couldn’t let it go. I internalized a version of buyer’s remorse prompted by memories of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and tortured chickens I had seen in slick documentaries like Food, Inc. and Super Size Me.

“Vote with your dollar” is the mantra of the critically aware supermarket-goer. Yes, but, what is  the difference between the food that makes us feel good politically and the rest?

Trader Joe’s seemed like the right place to seek an answer. The nation-wide chain offering organic, pro-biotic, allegedly ethically conceived eats opened an outlet in Colorado Springs this September.

The space feels like a warehouse, organized by shelves with goods stacked high. Blackboard signs “teach” you about featured products and special prices. Wooden planks lean against un-utilized walls.

Products are packaged with tasteful etchings and cleverly phrased product information. Are there potato chips? Well, yes, sort of. There is Potato Trio, “A Distinctive Blend of Unsalted Thick Cut Red Bliss, Blue and Yukon Gold Potato Chips.”

100_4553 Everything bears a Trader Joe’s stamp, or an ethnic version of a Trader Joe’s stamp. Mexican food is Trader Jose’s. Wine is brought to you by Joseph Händler. Baked goods are handled by Trader Josef. And lip balm is provided by Trader Johann. (I don’t totally get that one.) It all would seem ethnically insensitive and non-PC if the gimmicks weren’t so enticing.

It’s also something of a scene. The space buzzes with youth energy. TJ’s is the kind of place college kids weave into everyday small talk, the way they would reference to a new club or used bookstore. “My roommates and I are going to Trader’s directly after class today.” “I can’t stop eating the Trader Joe’s cookie butter.”

Shoppers and Trader Joe’s “crew members” affect a similar outdoorsy vibe. The most obvious differentiator are the workers’ Hawaiian button-downs, the company’s signature uniform.

As New York Magazine put it in 2007,  “[Trader Joe’s] uses cute, clean-looking, multiethnic twenty-somethings in the same way as other hip retailers…” The writer, who applied for a job at the trending company as part of her investigation, also shared an excerpt from an employee handout: “Our customers read The New Yorker, not People magazine… So does the floor staff.”

I grabbed the eggs and a few other items and headed for the door.  A “crew member,” a thin young woman with a blonde braid, rang up my items. I was pleasantly surprised by the total, which was comparable if not less then what I’d pay at King Sooper’s. As I bagged my items, I was reminded of the company’s golden rule: “If you’re unhappy with your purchase, bring it back for a full refund!”
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OK, I admit it: I liked the place. The friendly workers in Hawaiian shirts, the Trader Joe’s label, the warehouse layout, the bag-it-yourself ethos, and, yes, the astoundingly low prices. But what about the food?  Was it really that different?

According to an exposé in Fortune magazine and the Trader Joe’s website, most Trader Joe’s-labeled products come from outside companies. So, although packaging insinuates that TJ’s is a giant “Ma and Pa shop” that magically churns out hundreds of unique goods, most come from large mainstream corporations, the same ones who supply regular supermarkets throughout the country.

The pita chips they sell are likely made by Stacy’s, a division of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. Trader Joe’s yogurt is rumored to be from Stonyfield Inc., a dairy company that has been criticized for flaunting an “organic” label while running according to an industrial food processing plan. Much of this is speculation, however, because TJ’s is famously secretive about their suppliers. Still, the bottom line is uncontested: Everything is Trader Joe’s-curated, but most things are not Trader Joe’s-created.

Even so, there’s a lot to feel good about when you’re downing Trader Joe’s goods. The company is committed to decent wages, competitive healthcare offerings, and “cool shirts and name tags” for employees. They also claim that all products are free of artificial flavors or preservatives, synthetic colors, MSG or genetically modified ingredients. Although the company hasn’t promised the absence of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in its products, it says it’s headed in that direction.

Given our position on GMO ingredients in Trader Joe’s label products, and the work done in support of that position, it is our expectation that our products test as non-GMO.” I’ll give them points for honesty, sort of.

In this case, the use of the word “expectation” is unconvincing. It’s hard to have faith in their “expectation” when they won’t even reveal their sources.

The natural food movement, particularly the Slow Food movement, one of its most vibrant offshoots, demands corporations fully disclose their investors, working conditions, and food processing procedures. And yet ironically, Trader Joe’s won’t even reveal the names of its suppliers. I’m not the only person with skepticism about the hypocrisy in this opaque operation.

But Trader Joe’s has had insane success. The company, which has been owned since 1979 by Aldi, a German commercial retail tycoon, now has more than 400 stores and over $2 billion dollars in annual sales.

What it comes down to is that so-called ethical consumption sells. Despite their shadily hidden sources, Trader Joe’s lifeblood is the image that it’s nutritional, as well as ecologically, ethically and economically sound. Perhaps the Trader Joe’s model represents how shopping can become an exercise in mentality tapping. We want to feel that our buying habits are healthy and altruistic, especially if we don’t have to break the bank doing them.

So back to where we started: How about those TJ’s eggs that I scored — all ethically wrapped and cared for, possibly by cadres of care-taking farmers (some of whom were probably environmental science majors in college)? Well, they tasted about the same as King Sooper’s variety. I really can’t say whether, in the long run, I’m better off having eaten them or not. But what I do know is that, at least among a certain crowd, it’s safer to crack brown egg shells than white ones.

[Top photo by Janice Marie Foote at a Trader Joe’s in Davis, California.]

4 COMMENTS

  1. I’ll tell you why Trader Joe’s is secretive! It’s so manufacturers are protected when their similar product is out there in other retail shops at much higher prices. Suppliers are very willing to give them rock bottom prices when their private label products don’t compete directly with their own brands. And by doing private label, TJs doesn’t pay any marketing or promotional monies that would increase the cost. There’s no dishonesty here! Just doing a good job for the customers that shop in their stores. Go to Whole Foods and pay lots more if you want to avoid what you perceive as “arrogant dishonesty” or “hypocrisy”.

  2. Chris, When I was researching my book ‘Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s’ I learned that while it’s true that many TJ’s products are made by companies that market under their own brands (e.g. Stonyfield) the company’s preference is to find suppliers who’ll sell to them and only them. Even when they deal with companies that sell their own brands and supply other private labels, TJ’s tries to force them to supply a product that’s at least slightly different and technically ‘unique’ to TJ’s.
    Rebecca, TJ’s is disingenuous, at the very least, when it allows customers to conflate ideas of ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, ‘ethical’, and ‘sustainable’. It can safely say that almost everything it sells is ‘all natural’, because there’s almost no regulation or agreement on what that term means. As for organic, etc., it’s important to note that when it buys from outside suppliers—which is all the time—TJ’s merely passes on that supplier’s assurance that its products are organic (or whatever). TJ’s isn’t testing or policing those claims; its famously small head office staff could not possibly do so.

  3. fresh farm raised free range–not vegetarian–eggs look and taste different
    cannot get them in supermarket but need to get in touch with someone who raises chickens

  4. Mark, claims of being organic are in fact regulated. Either the USDA label or the Oregon Tithe standards are printed on the product packaging. All grocery stores are technically simply passing on what the manufacture “claims”.

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