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Consumer Concerns Prompt Action : Supermarket Trade Group Targets Food Safety as Its Top Industry Priority

May 12, 1988|By DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — The supermarket industry is focusing increased attention on food safety, prompted by more frequent episodes of contamination and public opinion polls indicating strong consumer concerns about the issue.

Problems of food-borne bacteria, pesticide residues and product tampering were addressed repeatedly here at the annual convention of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a grocers trade association.

In fact, the group, whose 1,500 members operate firms that generate $180 billion in sales, has made improved safety a "top priority" in the coming year, according to Tim Hammonds, senior vice president.

In addition to expanding public education programs, FMI has formed a task force, in conjunction with other food industry trade groups, in an effort to confront the problem.

"All of us need to work toward making the food supply safer without raising the fear that it is somehow unsafe," Hammonds said, in a presentation to the convention.

Public Is Concerned

A public opinion survey, commissioned by FMI, revealed the degree to which those questioned were troubled by food safety issues. The poll, conducted by Opinion Research Corp., was completed earlier this year by telephone interviews with 1,019 randomly selected households.

The finding most worrisome for grocers is that only 55% of those surveyed agreed that food sold in supermarkets was "wholesome and safe to eat." Another 38% said that they somewhat agreed that grocery store food was safe to consume, while 5% said that it was not safe at all.

Some of the poll's other highlights include:

--52% of those queried said that they avoid buying certain foods because of concerns for safety.

--75% of the sample responded that residues such as pesticides and herbicides are a serious hazard in foods. Another 20% responded that the chemicals were something of a hazard.

--61% of the survey said that antibiotics and hormones administered to poultry and livestock were a serious hazard. (According to recent medical research, the drugs, given to meat animals, as growth enhancers, have been linked to so-called, hard-to-kill bacterial outbreaks in humans. These illnesses do not respond to traditional antibiotic treatments.)

These types of responses, most of which have remained high during the last four years, pose a difficult problem for retailers. Often the grocer must directly face the public on the occasion of food contamination incidents, even though actual responsibility for the problem lies at the manufacturing or production end of the food cycle.

"Grocers are on the front lines when consumers question food," said Hammonds. "Any erosion in public confidence would be a disaster for all of us (in the food industry) from the retailer to the producer."

As such, FMI, as part of its intensified efforts, is urging food manufacturers to enhance safety practices.

"Our message (to manufacturers) is that we are not the traffic cops and they must comply with regulations or we won't sell their products," he said.

Hammonds cited a recent Environmental Protection Agency ruling requiring that table grapes, containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites, be labeled in order to alert shoppers to the preservatives present. Sulfites can cause adverse reaction, some serious, in sensitive individuals, particularly asthmatics.

"Some segments of agriculture would prefer to handle pesticide residues by the presence of stem tags. We prefer that they get the residue out of the food," he said.

Action Needed Now

The food industry needs to act now, Hammonds said, because there are likely to be continuing revelations about contamination and potentially harmful residues in foods as detection technologies improve.

This view was echoed by the FMI chairman, Allen I. Bildner, who is also a New Jersey supermarket executive.

"Technology has given us the ability to detect residues on a scale of parts per billion--revealing the presence of residues in foods once thought residue free," he said, adding that most of the cancer agents being discovered are naturally occurring and not man-made additives.

FMI's emphasis on safety is not misplaced, according to Sanford Miller, a former high-ranking federal official, who is now dean of the graduate school of biomedical sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. However, Miller said that too much attention is being placed on chemical residues, such as those from pesticides, in food.

"Microbiological constituents are the real risk. People are getting sick every day. Bacteria are no longer trivial little things," said Miller, former director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center For Food Safety and Nutrition.

"The risk from microbiological contamination is greater than chemical residues because we have sick people and we can measure the number of illnesses. Whereas chemical residues in food are a theoretical problem, a calculated future risk (the dangers of which may be long in coming)."

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