Vinegar wars spark high-octane Heinz ads

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The image disturbs. On the one side, stand black towers of an oil facility, and on the other, green stalks of corn plants are seen against a blue sky.

"Which field does your vinegar come from?" asks the ad that Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Co. is running in various magazines to draw attention to federal regulations that allow certain vinegar-making processes to include petroleum.

Whether the use of petroleum in making vinegar is much of an issue in the United States may not be the real point of the ads. Rather, the food company is trying to set its vinegar apart from other vinegars, especially the private label lines that dominate the market.

It's one of a number of brand-name manufacturers fighting back against recessionary pressures that have consumers thinking twice before paying a little extra for name-brand products.

Lately, budget-crunched shoppers have been reaching for private label products of all sorts. Market research firm NPD Group recently found 24 percent of all food and beverages served in American homes were store brands, up from 18 percent in 1999.

Kraft launched a campaign to promote that usually low-key, refrigerator staple -- Miracle Whip salad dressing. And one of the biggest brands in coffee, Starbucks, has been running a series of ads warning consumers that cheaper coffee might not meet their standards in areas such as quality and in fairly paying coffee growers.

Similarly, Heinz wants to give consumers a reason to choose its white and cider vinegars over private label brands.

"It's become this commoditized product," said Heinz spokeswoman Tracey Parsons, who noted that as versatile and ubiquitous as vinegar can be, it's also one of those back-of-the-cupboard items that doesn't get a lot of attention.

Vinegar has long been a staple in the Heinz product line. The company made 10 million gallons of vinegar at its Holland, Mich., plant in the last fiscal year. The company uses vinegar in making pickles, ketchup, chili sauce and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce.

But private label controls the largest market share in the category and seems to be gaining ground, according to Information Resources Inc., which collects data from supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets excluding Wal-Mart.

Last year, the category was worth $247 million, with private labels collecting more than $106 million and Heinz in second place with $30 million in sales. Pompeian vinegar was in third place with almost $9.5 million.

Based on unit sales, Heinz dropped more than 10 percent last year while private labels grew 1.5 percent, according to Information Resources.

In the first 31/2 months of this year, Heinz unit sales dropped more than 7 percent, while private labels gained more than 6 percent.

Ms. Parsons said the new ads were about raising awareness.

"On the vinegar front, the campaign is intended to reinforce Heinz's commitment to always use only corn and apples to make its Distilled White and Apple Cider Vinegar, as we have for more than 100 years," she said. "We know that current FDA regulations allow vinegar to be made from petroleum and don't require manufacturers to disclose this on the label."

The subject of vinegar and petroleum has been discussed on some consumer blogs in recent years, where readers are often appalled that there could be any connection.

It's hard to determine how many vinegars out there actually use petroleum, but several industry sources didn't think it was a big issue in the food aisles. "This is just a case of an overactive marketing department," speculated Lawrence Diggs, a vinegar consultant, in response to an e-mail query.

Information on the Food and Drug Administration Web site appears to show the agency is willing to accept certain uses of petroleum in some cases. Petroleum, as well as many fruits and vegetables, can be used to make ethyl alcohol which, in turn, is used to make vinegar.

"Making vinegar from petroleum may not be a common practice right now based on petroleum prices, but it is a practice that has been used in the past and could be used again based on the current regulations," said Ms. Parsons, in an e-mail.


Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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