Unwrapping the Secretive Label at Trader Joe's

For the eco-conscious shopper, a trip to the grocery store means more than just picking out something tasty for dinner. In her first commentary for The Allegheny Front, local writer Kayla Hunter discusses the woes of the modern market customer.

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OPEN: For the eco-conscious shopper, a trip to the grocery store means more than just picking out something tasty for dinner. In her first commentary for The Allegheny Front, local writer Kayla Hunter discusses the woes of the modern market customer.

HUNTER: The first time I went to Trader Joe's, I fell into grocery infatuation. It was as if someone had gathered up all the fancy items I pushed my cart past in Whole Foods, removed the brand label, then lowered the prices. Pure foodie heaven.

Once the honeymooner euphoria ebbed, I started wondering-- why were those organic avocados cheaper than their counterparts in Whole Foods?

Within the past couple years, dozens of publications and organizations have probed Trader Joe's business practices. In 2009, Greenpeace campaigned against Trader Joe's for selling endangered fish species, such as orange roughy. The protest prompted the company to phase out certain species of seafood by 2013.

More recently, a sustainable agriculture watchdog group called the Cornucopia Institute gave Trader Joe's private-label organic milk a rating of one out of five. The institute argued that the company's refusal to disclose its source could mean that the milk comes from factory farms.

Picketing and online shaming have not led Trader Joe's to open up about their business practices. Despite how helpful and exuberant the Hawaiian shirt-decked employees are, on the corporate level Trader Joe's is, well, pretty mute.

Fortune Magazine says that this is because Trader Joe's doesn't want its competitors to know where it gets the products for its private label.

Some of these products come from large brand names. The generic yogurt, for example, comes from Stonyfield Farm. And those pita chips? Pepsi. These brands are willing to sell their products to Trader Joe's at lower prices because they sell a lot of it.

Knowing that Stonyfield Farm is the source of the organic yogurt alleviated some of my worries, but the secrecy still made me wonder--how much is truly authentic?

This question tends to burrow its way into the mind of many conscious eaters today--not just with Trader Joe's, but with organic food in general. Once upon a time, this type of food only came from small farms run by some idealistic hippies. In 2009, organics comprised a $24.8 billion industry, according to the Organic Trade Association.

This expansion has made organics more available and affordable. But this is a let-down for those of us who valued the alternative food system for its small-scale relationship with the earth. Now weíre left with a proliferation of chemical-free industrial products.

In "The Omnivore's Dilemma," America's go-to locavore, Michael Pollan, says that the industrial organic foods we find in our grocery stores are contradictory. He admits that they are a more environmentally-friendly option, but perhaps not the ideal solution. A similar statement could be made about the stores that sell the food.

Trader Joe's should be congratulated for making wholesome eating more affordable by removing the brand labels. But their secrecy goes against the back-to-roots ethos of the organic movement. What we want is transparency--and not the kind that comes in cellophane wrapped around a bunch of broccoli.

OUTRO: Kayla Hunter is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and has written about the environment for campus publications. This is her first commentary for The Allegheny Front.