‘Sir, would you like your food poisoned or non-poisoned?’
Why is that cashier wearing gloves? That nice young fellow with the tattoo on his forearm and the earring; that smiling, “Hi how are you today, beautiful day out, I like your shirt” cashier—why is he wearing gloves as he handles my groceries? The others aren’t wearing gloves. I ask him why the gloves, suspecting I know and hoping I’m not embarrassing him over some phobia. He looks uncomfortable and I lower my voice and prompt, “Is it the receipt?” He looks furtively around to be sure management’s not listening, and then nods.
The Trader Joe’s cashier nods again and, not offering to put the receipt in my ungloved hand as they usually do, he tucks the glossy strip of paper into the bag, giving me a knowing look.
Last year, alarmed by the reports of the effects of the chemical BPA, I emailed Trader Joe’s, asking about its use in their products and receipts. BPA, you see, is Bisphenol-A, which puts people at risk for diabetes, cancer, and general endocrine disruption. This toxic material lines most canned goods and many bottles, is found in baby products, and you can certainly count on having some floating about in your body right now. The Environmental Working Group tells us the amount of BPA in receipts is vastly more than cans or bottles: “Retail workers carry an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than other adults”.
To my surprise, Trader Joe’s customer service responded to my email, saying that yes, BPA is in many of their canned goods (not quite all), and on their receipts, and they are “aware of the concern about it. Many researchers are feverishly looking for alternatives.” I wrote back and said that everyone already knows what alternatives there are; Eden Organics has a commonly used alternative costing only a couple cents more per can, and there are others, so why don’t you just switch to one of those? No response to that.
The truth of course is that it would cost them a lot of money to switch over. Oh once the switch is made, it won’t cost so much. But the process of switching, yes, that’s fairly costly, though not an amount that would significantly hurt their profitability. So they’re “feverishly” looking for an alternative that doesn’t cost them a penny to implement.
They’re a superficially chummy, scaled down chain store carrying bags of “organic popcorn with olive oil”, a thin selection of organic produce, various oddball food items that have novelty appeal, some reasonably palatable premade frozen California cuisine style dinners and hand-lettered signs—but while they’re friendly, they’re not actually your friend at Trader Joe’s. They have frozen fish sealed into enough plastic packaging for its own Pacific garbage vortex, and they dump sugar into juice, sauces, and frozen dinners that simply don’t need it; diabetes encouraging, calorie inflating sugar. If they were really interested in the welfare of customers they’d have gotten rid of all BPA by now.
False retail chumminess is an old friend we all grew up with it, but outfits like Trader Joe’s and the more upscale Whole Foods (which also makes excuses about BPA), have refined it into a kind of weary smile, a hipster wink, a rueful “we’re all part of the alternative in our own way” façade. They don’t allow unions but they’re more employee friendly than some franchises–they claim to offer better than union wages, at least to some employees, and they do offer some benefits. They’re straddling the worlds of “green” business, and corporate consciousness, getting bigger and bigger, and more corporate as time passes. Yes, I find them preferable to Safeway. I just think that having tissue boxes that offer words of comfort and chipper employees doesn’t make up for their toxic footprint.
Trader Joe’s does offer some organics, at slightly better prices than the egregiously overpriced Whole Foods, but the organics still cost more than “conventional” produce.
Of course, before the invention of pesticides, everything was organic. It is one of the piquant absurdities, one of the “soft cruelties” of modern life, that we have to pay extra to not have our food poisoned. We pay a surcharge for so-called organic food. You have to pay extra to have food that was never sprayed with nerve toxins, and for other kinds of healthier fare. Non-processed meat? That’ll be extra, please. If they were honest about organics, it would go like this:
“Sir–would you like that poisoned or not poisoned, on the produce?”
“That’ll cost 28% more…Now for your meat products, would you like tortured or non tortured?”
“Yes sir—tortured is the designation for animals raised in the standard agribusiness conditions, confined to tiny cages and so on, non-tortured is free range, grass fed, that kind of thing.”
“Uhh…Non tortured, please.”
“That will be an additional 32% on the price…”
I often wonder how Whole Foods and their ilk would react if threatened with a national law that required all produce to be organically raised. If it were possible for everyone to raise fruit and vegetables organically without high prices, to raise chickens and beef without cruelty, would Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s quietly lobby against the law requiring it? Quite possibly they would. They are more profitable when most produce is raised conventionally. So they’d want to keep soil-toxifying, pesticide-soaked, tortured produce around, somewhere, so they could still charge more for what was once the 19th-century norm.
That is—they like the fact that they are alternative. It’s their draw. They really wouldn’t like it if Safeway was a friendly organic store with novelty food and whimsically happy tissue boxes. Trader Joe’s would have to do something to set themselves apart—possibly they’d be forced to offer a free piercing with every hundred-dollar purchase, Ayurvedic foods, and on-the-spot high colonics…
[Young woman holding a grocery bag full of fresh and healthy food inside a supermarket via Shutterstock.com.]
John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include Everything is Broken, The A SONG CALLED YOUTH cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), Bleak History, Demons, City Come A-Walkin’ and The Other End. His short story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is at john-shirley.com