It’s not just consumers who are left out in the dark about some vendors’ products. Buyers could use a bit more information, too!

There’s been a lot of talk about how manufacturers aren’t transparent when it comes to telling consumers what’s in their products. News about nasty ingredients hits the fan nearly every day, and shoppers have a right to be upset about it.

But this is a problem for headquarters buyers, too. You simply wouldn’t believe (well, maybe you would) how often manufacturers change formulations or cut corners without telling buyers.
The one I recall best from my career as a buyer was around 2002, when the FDA and Kraft had some unpleasantness over Velveeta being sold as a “pasteurized process cheese food.” It wasn’t long before the packaging called it “pasteurized process cheese product.”
dial-for-JohnnySomehow, the FDA apparently figured that Kraft’s rewording ended any confusion among shoppers. As for me, I’d bet my 401-K that the majority of shoppers don’t have any idea of the actual differences between American process cheese, process cheese food, process cheese spread, and process cheese product. It’s all got to do with moisture and fat content, and, by the obvious connection, money and the cost of ingredients.
Anyway, Kraft was among the first to make the product description change, and many others followed with all sorts of “cheese” products. Generally, I’d find out about this when I saw packaging with new descriptors on the shelf: “Wait a minute. Wasn’t that a cheese food just last week, and not a cheese product?”
So I made it my business to start telling my customers in the stores about the difference. That didn’t make me too popular in some circles, but I didn’t care. And, since the products got cheaper to make, do you think I got any price decreases from the vendors? Hell, no.
But when there was a “new and improved” version of anything coming out, the first notice I generally got from vendors was a higher invoice. Say what? You mean to tell me the product was no good to start with? And how come you’re raising the price for this, but not cutting it when you make the product cheaper? In some cases like this, manufacturers should be required to have new UPC codes after a major ingredient change.
Okay, so I know that vendors play charades so they don’t have to raise the price on anything. That’s why ice cream’s half gallons have practically morphed their way down to pints with packaging that looks about the same. Many shoppers can’t tell, especially when an ounce less translates into $10 million in savings for the vendor.
Reductions in package weights, now common as commas, require new UPC codes and shelf labels so we can show the consumer the updated price per ounce. And as a retailer, God forbid you don’t put up the new labels. At store level, some associates may just see that there was no price change, so why bother with putting up the label?
All you need then is to have the Weights and Measures folk pay a little surprise visit to your stores, and you are busted big-time. There will be fines, publicity and calls on the carpet. Not good at all, so be careful.

Finally, as I write this, the media is having a field day with the cellulose (wood filler) that is often in parmesan cheese to keep it from clumping. Up to 4% has been allowed for years, so long as you don’t call it 100% parmesan. One day when I was still at Harris Teeter, working with Mark Williams (now of Pioneer Sales), we ran a little test on some parmesan. You put some parmesan cheese in a coffee filter, and put it into a microwave and punch in a minute or two. If it burns, you haven’t got 100% parmesan. On the day of our test it smoked and then burned like hell. God, did it stink!

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