The deaths and illnesses linked to the presence of Listeria mono - cytogenes bacteria in Jalisco and Cacique brand cheeses have created a serious credibility problem for a wide range of Mexican-style food products, according to grocers who serve Los Angeles-area Latino communities.
Particularly hard hit are sales of cheese regardless of style, variety or manufacturer. A dramatic drop in cheese purchases in the weeks following the June 13 recall of Jalisco products is continuing and most likely has been fueled by the more recent government actions regarding Cacique brands.
"Normally, I make two buys of cheese a week. Well, I haven't made a purchase in two weeks," said Steve Soto, who operates Save-More Grocery in Pico-Rivera. "All cheese sales are down . . . way down. There has been a credibility loss regarding cheese (safety)."
The problem is such that Kraft Food Inc., recently met with the Mexican-American Grocers Assn., a food retailer group based in Los Angeles, to discuss solutions to the fallout from the Jalisco incident. The company, the nation's leading manufacturer of cheese, was not connected to the Jalisco contamination incident.
"Kraft did meet with us recently and they were concerned because their cheese products are not moving," said Joe C. Hernandez Jr., executive director of the grocers association. "The Kraft representatives wanted to know what to do to handle the sales loss (in the Latino communities)."
Hernandez said that the impact of the listeria contamination epidemic has not been limited just to cheese.
"There is a widespread impact on Hispanic-style (food) products (as a result of the Jalisco episode). I was recently in Arizona and there was some confusion about whether Jalisco is a company based in Mexico. So, they feel that (the bacteria problem) is coming from Mexico. Consequently, those (imported) products have also been affected (by declining sales)," he said. "There's no question (that all Mexican-style products have been affected)."
Joe Sanchez, who owns three supermarkets serving the Mexican-American community, said the contamination incident has hurt both sales and image.
"This incident makes it seem like Hispanic food products are made by shoddy firms whose practices are not up to accepted standards. . . . It gives a negative impression to Hispanic businessmen in general . . . even though the company involved was not owned by Hispanics," he said.
Sanchez also stated that buyers for some local supermarket chains have said that there is a growing reluctance to carry Mexican-style products because of the contamination incident. Some of the products he feels have been damaged include Mexican-style cookies, ice cream and soups.
Bilingual Spices--Despite the lingering concerns about food safety in some Mexican-style products, there is an increasing corporate awareness of the spending power of Latino communities in the United States.
The most recent attempt to appeal to this population segment has been launched by Lawry's Foods Inc. The Los Angeles-based company unveiled last week a line of 10 spices and seasonings aimed at attracting the attention of Latino consumers.
"We identified the key spices used in the preparation of Mexican foods and paid attention to the proper grind and blend in an attempt to deliver the results expected in traditional (Mexican) dishes," said Micheal Schall, new products director for Lawry's. "We're taking a step into the Hispanic community."
The spices offered include: cumin, cinnamon, oregano, paprika, red pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, chili powder, minced onion and a blend of salt, chili and lemon.
Lawry's designed the line's bold and colorful label with the spice's name in both Spanish and English with the Spanish spelling prominently on top.
Company representatives claim that an extensive amount of research went into developing the spices in order to lend authenticity to the firm's new products.
"We're not just putting Spanish words on our seasoned salt," said David De Vincenzi, a Lawry's product manager.
Understanding Ethnicity--Educating food corporations on the best means of reaching the various segments of the Latino community is the impetus behind the International Food and Merchandise Expo planned for Friday and Saturday at the Pasadena Convention Center. Much attention has been directed toward this particular ethnic group because it commands $50 billion in buying power, according to the event's promoters.
The unique aspect of the convention occurs on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m., when the public is invited to visit more than 100 exhibits featuring various consumer products. The event has been heavily promoted in the Spanish-language media in hopes of drawing heavily from the Mexican-American community.
A primarily Latino audience at the exhibit hall will ensure representatives from firms such as Haagen-Dazs, Foster Farms and Colgate Palmolive that they will be able to showcase and explain their mainstream products to Spanish-speaking shoppers. This interchange is thought to be important because foreign-born Latinos are sometimes isolated as a result of advertisements and promotions for products conducted only in English.