FOOD FIGHTS

The list of challenges faced by the fresh-foods categories in 2003 was enough to put any retailer on the defensive: country-of-origin labeling, methylmercury in fish, low-carb demand, and the ever-present alternate concept trying to steal away consumers were just a few of the headaches.Yet, supermarkets exercised a remarkable ability to react quickly and take the offensive this year. At last count,

The list of challenges faced by the fresh-foods categories in 2003 was enough to put any retailer on the defensive: country-of-origin labeling, methylmercury in fish, low-carb demand, and the ever-present alternate concept trying to steal away consumers were just a few of the headaches.

Yet, supermarkets exercised a remarkable ability to react quickly and take the offensive this year. At last count, there was a delay in COOL, signs in the seafood department, and plenty of value-added, convenience-minded food items ready for the taking in their stores.

Some issues were outside of retailers' control. When mad cow disease in Canada cut imports, buyers found other sources, or began promoting other proteins as an option. The demand for beef as part of the high-protein/low-carb diet craze compounded the immediacy of the situation. Too, while prices increased and some consumers grumbled, there was still adequate supplies of beef, pork and poultry in the case.

The seafood category was another area that enjoyed a higher profile this past year. As more studies show the benefits of seafood consumption, retailers increased their investment in effective merchandising and customer education. However, with publicity came scrutiny. New campaigns against farmed salmon, and methylmercury in some species like tuna and swordfish prompted retailers to review their current programs and, in some cases, implement comprehensive changes to the way they source, transport and merchandise the category.

Dairy enjoyed new energy behind a multi-product industry campaign called 3-A-Day that encouraged consumers to eat three servings of low-fat dairy a day as part of a regular diet. For those on low-carb regimens, the idea was an afterthought. Sales of eggs are up in part due to their high-protein content.

Proactive attitudes will likely prevail in the new year, as operators face the possibility that their commodity board allies will no longer run retail promotions. Several, including the highly respected Washington Apple Commission, folded this past year in the wake of an adverse court ruling, and 2004 holds the promise that similar challenges could finally reach the U.S. Supreme Court.