Ask a Trader Joe's employee about the meat in your shopping basket, and you may or may not get an answer based on, well, facts.
Since we launched our Meat Without Drugs campaign last year asking Trader Joe's to stop selling meat raised with antibiotics, it's been radio silence from Dan Bane, the company CEO.
We've visited stores from coast to coast with our mascot, Joe the Pig, and stood before Trader Joe's asking for drug-free meat, gathered over a half million signatures to the company and sent tens of thousands of emails and postcards to their headquarters.
Since we began, we've received reports from over a 100 people who talked to Trader Joe's managers, employees, and customer service reps across the county with the request that the company stop selling meat raised on antibiotics. Recently, however, we've determined that in dozens of those conversations employees apparently made misleading claims.
From California to Oregon to New York to Maryland, people told us that staff members -- including a customer service rep at company headquarters -- said that Trader Joe's already does not sell meat raised on antibiotics. Since Consumers Union says otherwise, we began receiving concerned e-mails asking, in stark terms: "So who's lying"?
To get to the bottom of this, we called Trader Joe's headquarters in Southern California and spoke to VP of Marketing Matt Sloan. He confirmed that the responses from the staffers were indeed wrong, and "unfortunate and unintended." He reported that Trader Joe's headquarters had already sent information to the stores to help educate employees and customers about the different meat they sell, but that clearly "we have work to do."
Previous Consumers Union communications with Trader Joe's, along with surveys of their store shelves, show that the company offers three kinds of Trader Joe's-branded meat and poultry: Organic (and therefore inherently raised without antibiotics); their "Natural" line (which the company says is raised without antibiotics); and conventional (in which the animals are often administered antibiotics).
In most Trader Joe's stores, a shopper will typically find some options of beef and chicken that are Organic or Natural, but the rest of the meat -- including just about all pork products -- are conventional.
This raises concerns because some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in this country are given not to sick people, but to healthy animals to promote growth and prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
Antibiotics overuse is rapidly making antibiotics ineffective. Consumers Union is therefore urging Trader Joe's to lead the way to ending antibiotic overuse in livestock by ending the sale of meat raised with these drugs in its stores.
Some Trader Joe's employees clearly would like to believe their employer is already in the vanguard, and were quite creative in their explanations. A customer from Ventura, California was told specifically that only two percent of the meat sold at Trader Joe's was raised on antibiotics. A Portland, Maine store employee promised a customer that all of the meat sold at Trader Joe's was in fact organic (and had been for years), but the labels didn't indicate that in case they needed to switch suppliers quickly.
In another conversation in Reno, Nevada, the staff member reported that the government had recently passed a law that no grocery store in this country could sell poultry that had been given antibiotics. When the dubious customer pushed back, the employee swore it was true. (We wish it were!)
With thousands of employees across the country, we know it's probably difficult to make sure every staffer is up to speed on the attributes of their different meat lines -- although about 10 of the reported conversations were with store managers who really should be reliable sources of information on the company's product.
Ensuring customers accurate and honest information is the most basic responsibility of any business. But that's not enough. People assume that Trader Joe's is already doing the right thing on antibiotics because the company has built an image of affordable quality with high standards and a sense of responsibility to its customers. Selling meat raised on antibiotics goes directly against that reputation and thus confuses its customers and even its staff.
It's time for the company to live up to its customers' -- and its own employees -- expectations, and stop selling meat on drugs.