LONDON -- The global food industry is beginning to embrace food-safety standards, but retailers are realizing that standards alone won't make consumers feel completely secure about their food.
The standards have come in the form of the "Global Food Safety Initiative," a program of identifying key global safety standards and auditing suppliers for compliance. That program is in its third year and is gaining momentum. A detailed update on the initiative appears in a story on Page 24.
However, supermarkets are finding that consumers want more. Over the past year, chains including Marks & Spencer, Superquinn, Somerfield and Sainsbury's have been highlighting safety steps by showing the origin and content of the products on their shelves.
For instance, Sainsbury's said it responded to customer concern about food safety by providing raw poultry and raw food labels with food-safety tips on cooking and cross contamination. In addition, it provides advice to pregnant women about the soft, ripened cheese it sells. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to the disease Toxoplasmosis, which can be picked up from a variety of sources that include raw goat's milk.
Late last year, Somerfield, the supermarket chain with 600 stores across the United Kingdom, launched its "Local Life" policy that plugs local and regional foods and produce. The program has a twin purpose: to support local farmers -- many of whom were hit by foot-and-mouth disease -- and to inspire trust among consumers.
"We want to give our customers the choice to buy local food and to link through us to their neighborhood," said Pete Williams, a Somerfield spokesman. "We also believe that it is the right way for a supermarket to respond to the legitimate concerns of environmentalists and animal-welfare groups, and to move toward a more sustainable food economy." The "Local Life" label is also aimed at promoting the quality and traceability of products.
Somerfield currently sells more than 2,000 local lines nationwide and a various ranges of regional produce, including Cotswold Quality Lamb, West Country Fish, Celtic Pride Lamb in Wales, and West Country Beef in the South West. Last October, farmers in the South West of England signed a $13 million deal to sell their beef to 130 Somerfield stores in the region.
Over the past year, Marks & Spencer has also increased its efforts to make its food safer -- and its sources as clear as possible. The store can now trace every pint of its non-GM milk right back to the group of farms from which it originated. The store can trace the time from which the milk was taken from the cow to the point it is packed in cartons. Codes are printed on each pack of milk, detailing the dairy from which the milk originated, the tank it was transported in, and the day it was packed.
The store has also switched over to an all-free-range egg policy. By September 2002, the company had shifted 450,000 battery-caged hens to free-range systems and saw about 1,000 products -- including quiches, ice cream and the glaze on bakery products -- use free-range eggs.
"Our free-range position has been driven by our customers, who tell us they are increasingly interested in how food is produced and the welfare of our animals," said Justin King, business unit director, food, Marks & Spencer. "Our customers can be reassured that the eggs we use in our products are not from battery hens."
Eamonn Quinn, deputy chairman of the family-owned Irish retailer Superquinn, said the store is making every effort to ensure the ingredients in its foods are as clear as possible to consumers.
"We are increasingly taking our suppliers on board, and holding them to the same standards that our consumers are holding us to. We want full traceability for all of our fresh groceries," he told SN in an interview. Quinn said his goal is to have more detailed labels on products so as to avoid any confusion for customers with specific allergies or intolerances.
The store is also out to give consumers of gluten-free products a break by implementing a loyalty card scheme whereby they can register their purchases with the store and then obtain a tax write-off, for medical expenses, at the end of the year.