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Consumer Reports: Best and Worst Grocery Stores – and pink slime

One of the chores for most of us is grocery shopping. Everyone’s got to do it at some point, whether it’s a local place, a chain or a big box like Costco to grab the monster-sized supply of peanut butter or whatever. I’m always curious about which get the most props — and black eyes, since I’m not particularly loyal to any one store. I shop by category and price most of the time. Produce and meat at one store, dry goods at others, bulk stuff at Costco, etc.

Some of the stores rated in Consumer Reports I know, others are regional and not in our area. It rated 52 chains in service, courtesy of staff, checkout speed, quality of perishibles, price and cleanliness. (ABC):

Consumer Reports, in its May issue, says a third of its subscribers fired their supermarket in the past year. In an article titled “Best & Worst Supermarkets,” some 24,200 readers get a chance to vent about 42,700 shopping experiences. More than half say they have at least one complaint about their current store, and almost a third have two or more.

…No chains, finds the report, tried their customers’ patience more than Walmart Supercenter, Pathmark (Northeast) and Pick ‘n Save (Wisconsin). At all three, 75 percent of shoppers had one or more complaints. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, earned the next-to-worst overall rating (69), one notch above Pathmark. Customers gave Walmart lowest possible marks for its service, and next-lowest for its perishables.

The four best supermarkets (Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, Publix and Fareway Stores), all scored high in service and in cleanliness. Shoppers’ only quibble with Wegmans was price. Whole Foods and Jewel-Osco, however, got the worst price ratings of any markets in the survey.

I don’t have a Wegmans here in NC or a Pathmark, but I’ve shopped at the latter when I lived in NYC in the 80s and it sucked @ss back then. The stores I went in always seemed dirty, and the produce horrible. At least you could get fresh produce at the many street markets in the city. Wegmans sounds a lot like Harris-Teeter, a chain down here that has nice selection of products, quality meat and produce, but you pay out of the wazoo for that and the dry goods. Same with Whole Foods – love what it has to offer, but can’t afford to shop there all the time.

I’ve shopped at a couple of Publix while in Alabama, and I’d give it high marks all around – service (outrageously courteous staff), produce, bakery goods, meat. Prices were very good as well. It definitely tops any of the grocery stores in my area. We usually shop at Kroger, but individual stores are hit-or-miss in terms of quality, but suffices. One big benefit is at least 2 in our area have gas stations and you get a discount card that knocks off 3 cents a gallon. In terms of dry/canned goods, Kroger can be OK or outrageous in markup.

But we have the good fortune of having several stores nearby to choose from, so there’s competition: Target, Kroger, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Walmart, Whole Foods, Lowe’s Foods. And in some cases there are more than one of each of these within 10 minutes of one another. Not sure why Durham has so many of them – and of course you don’t see this level of selection in socioeconomically challenged parts of town.

Only complaint – no Piggly Wiggly anymore. The Southern chain, known as “The Pig” is nowhere to be found in metro areas around here. Not that they were the best, cleanest or had the most selection. It was just that damn cute logo.

An aside – about the unsurprising finish of the craptastic Walmart – we have a brand new one in southern Durham. I’ve never shopped there, but went in to see what was in there out of curiosity. A question — has the big box chain started scaling down its stores? The one that was built here is very petite and includes the notorious supermarket. The whole building is smaller than some grocery stores. The aisles were fairly narrow, and all of the non-supermarket sections of the store are extremely scaled down in terms of selection. There is an aging, smells-like-death traditional Wal-Mart several miles away as well as large Sam’s Club and Costco in the city, so it’s unclear what the point was of putting this Walmart-lite in right across the street from a full-service grocery, Kroger.

And how about this tasty headline:

Safeway, SUPERVALU and Food Lion to Stop Selling ‘Pink Slime’ Beef

Safeway, SUPERVALU and Food Lion announced today that they will no longer carry what the meat industry calls “lean finely textured beef,” something the public has come to know as “pink slime.” Walmart and Sam’s Club also announced they would start offering beef that does not contain lean finely textured beef.

“Recently some customers have expressed concerns with lean finely textured beef (LFTB) and, while the USDA and experts agree that it is safe and nutritious, Walmart and Sam’s Club will begin offering fresh ground beef that does not contain LFTB,” the company said.

Walmart and Sam’s Club were not alone in changing their practices. Kroger, the nation’s number one grocery store, which carries beef both with and without it, said it provided a list of which beef does not contain the product to its meat departments so they can answer any questions.

No one is saying that “pink slime” isn’t safe in terms of e. coli — but why should consumers unknowingly purchase a product made from the scraps off of the slaughterhouse floor that has been treated with ammonia — and think it’s simply ground beef? It’s about informed consumer choices, something that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad seems to have a problem with as he defends the pink slime industrial complex, saying it has been “slimed” by consumer advocacy groups.

“We have a smear campaign going on against a product that is healthy and safe,” Branstad said at his weekly news conference. “If they get by with this, what other food products are they going to attack next?”

The governor said he suggested an inquiry to U.S. Reps. Steve King and Leonard Boswell and raised the issue with Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. King and Boswell did not immediately return messages left Monday requesting comment.

Lean, finely textured beef is made by heating fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts to about 100 F and spinning it to remove most of the fat. The lean mix is then compressed into blocks for use in ground meat and treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

“It’s clear this is a safe product,” Branstad said. “It’s a lean product, it helps reduce obesity and there is a spurious attack being levied against it by some groups. You can suspect who they might be. They are people who do not like meat.”

Um, hell no, I like meat; the governor and the USDA need to understand that the public has no earthly idea what kind of processing is going on with this meat — from the industrial farms to the processing plants to the grocery store. The “pink slime” story is about what we don’t know — it nasty tip of the iceberg. People are consuming products that might as well be Soylent Green at this point – it’s certainly not your local butcher grinding real, fresh meat from a real side of beef that has no hormones or additives.


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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding