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Do grocery stores want to own wellness, or don’t they?
That’s a question that’s crossed my mind lately, since the FDA revealed its final menu labeling regulations, which also pertain to supermarkets.
With the hiring of more retail dietitians and supermarkets' steady migration toward a “360-degree” approach that encompasses food, pharmacy and nutrition counseling, it seems clear that grocers are moving decidedly in the direction of owning wellness.
But with the “official” industry response to the FDA’s ruling decrying the new menu labeling rules that will now require grocery stores with more than 20 locations to display calorie counts for restaurant-style prepared foods, I’m not so sure.
As one who has long maintained that a government that governs least, governs best, I understand the industry trade groups’ opposition to what they – and presumably the majority of their members – see as costly and burdensome regulatory overreach.
“It’s clear that there’s some hesitancy among grocery retailers to get on board with the change,” Molly McBride, corporate dietitian for The Kroger Co., tells PG. “The grocery industry considers itself a separate category compared to restaurants and there’s no question that the change will require The Kroger Co. to make a considerable time and management investment.
“However,” McBride continues, “as a dietitian and member of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, I’m committed to transparency with our customers about food, so I support calories being clearly labeled, from a packaged good on the shelf to a product in our bakery/deli area.”
I would imagine a similar reaction would be embraced from other supermarket wellness leaders, such as Safeway, whose SVP of pharmacy and wellness, Darren Singer, advocates a whole-store approach, per comments he shared at last June's FMI Connect in Chicago, where he declared: “The opportunity for food and pharmacy is clear.”
I’d also expect a like response from Hy-Vee, the Iowa-based grocer deeply involved in its home state’s anti-obesity efforts, and with its own strategic initiatives of customer experience, health & wellness, and culinary experience, including the goal of having at least one dietitian at each of its stores. Ditto for PG’s Retailer of the Year, Ahold USA and its divisions, which are also embracing wellness and transparency as a key part of its pledge to foster better in-store experiences for its increasing base of health-seeking customers.
As I see it, if as a grocer, you’re going to proclaim your commitment to good nutrition and overall wellness, how can you not embrace the idea of transparency in the caloric content of your increasingly influential prepared foods?
“This mandate may help us increase engagement and conversation with our shoppers, as well as provide an easier shopping experience,” McBride says, “whether it’s adding up calories towards a personal goal, or selecting particular foods to piece together a great meal.”
And the ruling’s reach does not appear unreasonable for a retail channel that has been increasingly adopting restaurant-style practices in its foodservice operations. FDA notes that its intention was never to include all grocery items under the rule, but rather just those foods that mimic the restaurant experience – ready-to-eat meal solutions that are likely to be consumed immediately, like sandwiches, pizza, fried and rotisserie chicken, and other similar fare.
Exempt from the rule: fresh-cut vegetables; deli meats; bulk foods; temporary or seasonal items like daily specials; foods at a salad or hot bar, like potato salad and cole slaw; holiday offerings like Thanksgiving stuffing; and custom and made-to-order prepared foods.
Peter Larkin, president and CEO of NGA, noted that “the scope of the nutrition labeling provision as proposed by Congress was to provide a uniform standard for chain restaurant menu labeling, not grocery stores. Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law.”
FMI President/CEO Leslie Sarasin said grocers “should not be pulled into a menu labeling law and regulation designed for a different industry.”
And Nate Filler, president/CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, said the FDA rules “still fail to recognize how grocery stores are different than restaurants in delivering foodservice to today’s consumer.”
But visit places like the Standard Grill at Standard Market in suburban Chicago, Price Chopper’s Market Bistro in upstate New York, Wegmans’ Amore or Next Door, Hy-Vee Market Grille, or Lunds & Byerlys Kitchen, and supermarkets’ emulation of restaurants is quite obvious.
As such, I believe if you’re going to function like a restaurant, you should expect to be treated like one. And if you’re going to be a bastion of health and wellness, you should be ready to go all in on education and transparency.