- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2007

Throw out that spinach. Chuck the peanut butter. And toss Fido’s food. One food recall after another has left consumers with a sour stomach.

Consumer confidence in food safety tumbled after several high-profile products were pulled from grocery store shelves over the past year. Now, the food industry is making an effort to regain some of that trust.

Only 66 percent of shoppers are confident that the food they buy at the grocery store is safe, according to a Food Marketing Institute (FMI) study completed in January, during a peanut butter recall, and another study repeated in May, with similar results. That’s a significant drop from the 82 percent who felt the same way a year before.

“You don’t see drops in confidence that large that quickly that often,” said Tim Hammonds, chief executive officer of FMI, an Arlington trade group. “It got our attention.”

Guy Blissett, a consumer products analyst with IBM, said the decrease in consumer confidence in food safety isn’t a result of the number of recalls, but instead the high-profile, long-lasting nature of the recalls, such as Peter Pan peanut butter, spinach, pet food and, recently, Colgate toothpaste.

“There’s a sort of cumulative effect here of ‘I’m not sure if I trust these guys as much as I used to,’ ” he said.

IBM’s survey found results similar to FMI‘s, including that 70 percent of consumers have low levels of trust in the claims that branded foods make about health, wellness or environmental impact.

The food industry has taken steps to quell safety concerns. The Food and Drug Administration, which with the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors food safety, is testing a program to include photos of the most dangerous recalled goods to clear up confusion about which products are affected. FMI is leading a push to improve the way producers communicate with grocery stores during a recall and expanding its safety certification program for international food suppliers who send products to the United States.

In addition, a number of private companies are releasing products designed to explain the path food takes from the farm to the grocery store, which they say will boost consumer confidence in its safety.

“You buy a container of strawberries at any retail store — there is no way to know when they were picked, where they were picked or if they’re the subject of any kind of recall,” said Elliott Grant, chief executive officer of Redwood City, Calif., technology company YottaMark Inc..

With a Dutch company, Corporate Express, YottaMark developed HarvestMark products, which include a code that growers place on a package of produce. Shoppers then enter the code at harvestmark.com and see where the produce was grown, when it was picked, who picked it and every place it went on the path to the grocery store.

HarvestMark was designed to be used in the event of a product recall, when shoppers could enter the code online to check whether that container has been recalled. But the company has found that consumers are more confident in the safety of their produce, year round, when they can see where it has been, Mr. Grant said.

The product, which was released to berry growers in February and released to other produce growers last month has fewer than 10 participating growers, but Mr. Grant says there are more than 100 interested.

HarvestMark products are only available in cities where participating growers send their goods. For now, it’s available in the Western United States.

Other tracking products include IBM’s “Veggie Vision,” a scanner that can locate where a product was grown, who picked it and on what date.

“The ability to track an individual [grocery] item, that is really rare and at the end of the day, the trust really goes up,” Mr. Blissett said.

The Veggie Vision technology requires product growers to provide tracking information. It’s becoming popular in Britain and Japan.

Some European grocers, such as French company Carrefour, label every produce item with a bar code that contains similar tracking information.

Dennis Francis, vice president of label development at Corporate Express, said he expects tracking information to one day be government-mandated.

He expects it to happen in a similar way to how nutritional labeling on foods began by producers but is now required by the government.

“We’re moving toward that right now,” he said. “This is in response to what the consumers really want and mandates are always behind consumer demand.”

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