Question: Are you supporting a local dairy when you buy, say, goat's milk yogurt from South Burlington's new Trader Joe's? Answer: maybe, maybe not.
While much has been made about the potential impact of Trader Joe's on local businesses, it's more difficult to gauge the pain – or gain – that the store may bring for local growers and producers. That's because Trader Joe's, known for keeping mum about its business model, won't say which of its products it's buying from Vermont businesses.
The company, which contracts with growers and producers around the world, packages the majority of products that it sells under different variations of the Trader Joe's label (Trader Jose's for salsa, Trader Giotto's for tomato sauce, Trader Ming's for kung pao chicken).
"They seek out a manufacturer to pack a product on their behalf," says Laura Nunziata, a processing and field crop certification specialist with Vermont Organic Farmers, the certification agency of the Northeast Organic Farmer's Association of Vermont (NOFA). Nunziata works with Vermont processors and growers that sell organic products through a variety of private labels.
"It may be the same formulation, it may not be, it may be slightly different," Nunziata says. "But basically they're contracting the services of the manufacturer to pack a product on their behalf, labeled with their label."
Nunziata says there are Vermont producers selling through Trader Joe's – but she can't say which ones.
"I can't disclose that information because we have confidentiality agreements with our clients," says Nunziata. "Whether or not a company such as Trader Joe's would choose to disclose that information, I'm not sure why they would or wouldn't choose to disclose that information, to be honest."
So, would Trader Joe's like to disclose that information?
Evidently, they would not. A PR rep for the company denied multiple interview requests, and Shawn Minihane, manager of the South Burlington store, did not return a voicemail requesting comment.
But if you've shopped at Trader Joe's, in this state or elsewhere, you know that there is one aisle where you can find products sold under their original label: the beer aisle. In South Burlington, TJ's is selling Magic Hat, Otter Creek, Wolaver's and Long Trail, among other local and regional craft brews. (The prices were no lower or higher than usual.)
As for produce, there's at least one Vermont grower who sells to a broker that sells to Trader Joe's: Bill Suhr, the owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham.
"We send a unique bag to Trader Joe's called a quarter-pack bag," Suhr says. "They have a little 4-pound customized bag that says Trader Joe's on it. It's actually a plastic bag."Champlain Orchards sells through a company called Red Tomato, makers of the Eco-Apple bags found in many major grocery stores. The orchard has been supplying Trader Joe's around the region for four years.
The supply chain is more circuitous than just dropping the apples off at the stores, says Suhr:
"If you saw the fruit in the Burlington store it would have first been trucked down to Chelsea, Mass., and then brought back up." he says. "We would love, obviously, to be delivering right to Trader Joe's, but I don't think that's part of their business model."
Thanks to labeling standards for produce, you can tell which apples are Shoreham apples by looking at the fine print on the bags they're sold in. Not so with processed foods, says Laura Nunziata. She says that even among certifiers, there are private label contracts.
"The certification agency who's certifying the processing of that product may not be the certification agency which is listed on the label of the final finished product," Nunziata says. "It gets a little confusing."
Indeed. It's less confusing when you talk to other Burlington grocery stores, where there's an approximate, if not exact count, of how many local producers are on the shelves. City Market? 250. Hannaford's, at least 24; Healthy Living, more than 500. Right now, Trader Joe's is a big question mark.
But lots of stores sell food under private labels, and have labyrinthine networks of suppliers. So what's the big deal if Trader Joe's protects its trade secrets?
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer's Union, the advocacy and policy arm of Consumer Report's Magazine, says that consumers and advocates may hold Trader Joe's to a different standard because "they've tried to be a different kind of supermarket."
Consumer's Union has been lobbying Trader Joe's to stop selling meat raised with antibiotics. Days before the opening of the South Burlington location, Consumer's Union took out a full page ad in the Burlington Free Press that pictured a chicken saying, "My drug use is becoming a problem."
Halloran says Trader Joe's promotes a very conscientious, we-care-about-food image.
"They really have built their brand on the idea of providing something special," she says. "And for the most part they do that."
Trader Joe's has been a leader when it comes to genetically modified organisms or GMOs. The company claims that all of the products sold under the TJ's label are GMO-free. Halloran's pleased about this, but she says the company hasn't been receptive to her group's efforts on the antibiotics issue.
"This is surprising to us," says Halloran. "But it shows another side of Trader Joe's, I think, that behind all the cheery faces at the check out counter is a perhaps somewhat more cynical and uncommunicative management."
To get a sense of how another discount specialty food store sources its products, I went to Cheese Traders. No relation to Trader Joe's; it's locally owned.
Manager Brad Doucheff says the store stocks more than 50 Vermont producers.
"[We sell] locally made Vermont cheeses, as well as local Vermont products of all kinds that have small farm names on them. And I think that's really important to the Vermont community," Doucheff says.
When I first walked in, Doucheff was standing in front of a shelf of olive oil with one of his vendors, Vasilios Contis, a Jericho importer.
Doucheff invited Contis to sit in on our interview, and Contis laughed. "We can almost promote our products, right?" he said. "Here they are!"
"See? Close relations with the vendors," Doucheff said. "That's how we survive."
"That's how we survive," Contis repeated. "Hand in hand. One hand washes the other and both wash the face."
But whether there's such clean symbiosis between Trader Joe's and its Vermont vendors is, for now, a mystery.