AD QUESTIONS RETAILER'S LOCAL BUYING COMMITMENT

COACHELLA, Calif. -- A collection of grape farmers and state lawmakers used a full-page newspaper ad to challenge retailers to embrace local and regional produce growers.The Los Angeles Times letter was directed at Albertson's in particular, and its Best Neighbor Policy Initiative. Blaine Carian, vice president of Desert Fresh Inc., based here, wrote that "while your 'Best Neighbor Policy Initiative'

COACHELLA, Calif. -- A collection of grape farmers and state lawmakers used a full-page newspaper ad to challenge retailers to embrace local and regional produce growers.

The Los Angeles Times letter was directed at Albertson's in particular, and its Best Neighbor Policy Initiative. Blaine Carian, vice president of Desert Fresh Inc., based here, wrote that "while your 'Best Neighbor Policy Initiative' lends its support to the community by providing grant monies, I propose that Albertson's invest in our community by purchasing products grown locally."

The ad, co-signed by several California state government representatives, claims that the Boise, Idaho-based retailer buys most of its table grapes from Mexico to keep costs down, even though growing practices there are not closely monitored by the government and may be substandard. According to the ad, Mexican growers are able to compete with American grape farmers "because of governmental subsidies and minimal wages paid to workers."

"We're kind of surprised that this type of letter was written," said Mike Read, vice president of federal government and media relations for Albertson's. "We support local growers a great deal, and they're very supportive of us in return."

According to Read, Albertson's purchased 2 million cases and 15 semi-truck loads of produce from the Coachella Valley -- including 500,000 lugs of grapes -- during 1999. He added that, while local sourcing is always preferred, the retailer's primary responsibility is putting the best possible product on it shelves, regardless of origin.

"We are trying to satisfy a year-round demand for some items, and often those items aren't available at certain times of the year and in certain areas of the country," said Read. "We have to have what we need, when we need it."

Albertson's Best Neighbor Policy Initiative is based on the "standard of community involvement that remains at the core of our business philosophy," involving the distribution of grants to non-profit organizations throughout Albertson's service regions, according to text on the retailer's Web site.

Carian's ad emphasized that Coachella Valley residents spend grocery money in local Albertson's stores, and that such a supportive business relationship should be reciprocal. "As a California business, we pay local, state, and federal taxes (as do our employees and suppliers). We, employers and employees, buy groceries in your store," said Carian in the ad, with the last five words underlined for emphasis.

With 12 Albertson's stores in the surrounding community and 746 retail outlets in California, the ad questions why consumers are constantly mentioning the difficulties they encounter in trying to buy locally grown grapes when the Coachella Valley area produces approximately 10 million boxes of table grapes every year.

Addressed to Albertson's Gary Michael, chairman and chief executive officer, and Richard King, president (he has since left the company), the May 31 Los Angeles Times ad also listed the names and phone numbers of several other major California retailers whom Carian encouraged consumers to contact if they are not Albertson's customers, but still want to voice their desire for local produce.

Albertson's has teamed with the California Grocers Association, Sacramento, to draft a response to those who signed their names to the letter.