AT THE FOREFRONT

LONDON -- Lately, customers at Superquinn, the family-owned Irish retailer, have been getting a little history lesson along with their cut of beef.Superquinn is making an effort to exert greater control over the supply chain for its meat, poultry and fish products, and to supply its customers with as much background information as possible about the food they'll be eating.The name of the store's main

LONDON -- Lately, customers at Superquinn, the family-owned Irish retailer, have been getting a little history lesson along with their cut of beef.

Superquinn is making an effort to exert greater control over the supply chain for its meat, poultry and fish products, and to supply its customers with as much background information as possible about the food they'll be eating.

The name of the store's main beef supplier during any given week is printed on each Superquinn receipt. At the butcher counter of Superquinn's 20 stores, there's a picture of the butchery manager and the farmer that supplied the beef that's on sale.

"We're very focused on checking our sources," said Eamonn Quinn, the marketing director and deputy chairman of Superquinn, based in Dublin. He added the company invests about $13 million per year on food-safety measures. "Our beef sales actually increased during the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] outbreak in 1997 because our customers knew about the measures we had in place."

Superquinn isn't the only European supermarket group that's taking control of the supply chain in the name of food safety. Retailers around the world -- including Asda, Ahold, Sainsbury and Carrefour -- are all tightening controls to ensure that their food is as safe as possible.

What's at stake goes beyond the outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, and foot-and-mouth disease that have plagued various countries and wreaked fear in consumers. Protecting the food supply from a broad range of situations, which now includes bioterrorism, safe handling, sanitation and cooking, as well as genetically modified organisms and various contagious animal and foodborne diseases, has become a No. 1 priority for those involved in food distribution and for authorities who must instill trust and confidence in consumers.

The retailers' efforts coincide with the development of the Global Food Safety Initiative, founded in April 2000, and operating under the aegis of the Paris-based CIES, the Food Business Forum, a global organization of food retailers and suppliers. CIES will hold its World Food Business Summit this week in Atlanta (see story, Page 20). The initiative also is being backed by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.

The goal of the GFSI, which is overseen by a task force of about 44 international retailers, is to develop benchmarks and standards to ensure food safety and promote consumer awareness worldwide. GFSI works closely with governments in different countries to do so.

As of last month, Superquinn has been able to trace all of its beef back to the calf it came from by means of an ear-tagging system. "It means that even if the calf moved from one farm to another before the meat reached us, we would be able to trace it," added Quinn.

Wal-Mart-owned Asda here is another food retailer that's improving its tracking methods for beef. Each packet of beef in the store bears a seven-digit identification code that shows the date the cow was killed, the shift of the day when it was killed and the supplier code.

Asda is able to trace its meat to a group of farms rather than a single farm. A company spokeswoman said this enables the company to target a wider group of suppliers in case an emergency arises -- and to prevent further problems. She added that Asda has also begun to extend the code system to pork and lamb as well.

Asda and Superquinn are also expanding their campaigns to pork, poultry and fish. Asda has established chicken-stocking density minimums per square foot and has abolished stall-and-tether farming for pigs. "Basically, new suppliers get a file as thick as their arms that assures they abide by our guidelines," the spokeswoman said.

Superquinn puts the name of the farmer on its chicken packs and uses a tagging system at its salmon farms. "Often, there is concern about overstocking at certain farms, which is why we've put this system in place," said Quinn.

GMOs -- from animal feed to morning cereal -- are also rapidly going out of fashion with European food retailers. Superquinn and Asda have asked that all GMO foodstuffs be removed from animal feed and from all of their private-label products. "About 50% of our food sales come from private-label brands, and we realized our customers do not want GMO foods," said the Asda spokeswoman.

The Paris-based retailer Carrefour, which operates in 32 countries, is taking its food-safety measures back to the farms and seas.

In April 2001, the company began developing and importing GMO-free feed from Brazil. The feed is then delivered to the French farms that supply Carrefour with chicken, pork and beef. "During some of the first shipments, there were Greenpeace boats waiting to welcome our ships in the harbor. How's that for an endorsement?" said a spokesman. He added that over the past year, Carrefour has imported some 180,000 tons of animal feed from Brazil.

The company also employs divers on its tuna-fishing boats to make sure that no tuna under 7 kilograms (15 pounds) is caught in the nets and killed. "The law simply requires that no tuna under 3 kilos (6.6 pounds) be fished, but it's important to us and to the environment to raise the bar," he said.

For the GFSI members, taking control of the food supply chain also means improving communication among retailers in different countries.

One of the organization's latest developments has been an early-warning system that helps the industry exchange crisis-related information. According to Nick Gale, a spokesman for Ahold, the Netherlands, which is currently the head of the GFSI task force (members serve as heads on a rotating basis), the early-warning system was put to the test earlier this year after a brief -- and ultimately false -- food scare in Sweden.

According to Gale, when the Swedish Ministry of Health issued a precautionary measure regarding chickens, the news hit Ahold's computer screens within 10 minutes, and within an hour all GFSI members were e-mailed the warning. "It turned out to be a false alarm, but at least we knew the system worked," said Gale.

Gale added that another one of GFSI's goals is to reduce the number of food-safety standards worldwide from about 150 to fewer than 10.

Progress so far has been to identify the criteria used to judge existing food-safety standards, and ultimately determine which suppliers are manufacturing according to the approved standards. Suppliers who conform will be certified.

Ahold's Gale added that another project for GFSI will be a broad consumer education campaign. "We've discovered that 20% of American women under 25 have never, ever cooked a meal. That means a lot of young people don't know how to cook food -- or even how to heat it up in a microwave -- which is potentially dangerous. We need to make it clear to our consumers that they, too, are responsible for the making their food safe to eat."

As a blueprint for an education campaign, the GFSI can look to FMI's "Fight Bac!" campaign that combines various resources in a broad-based program of educating the public on how to reduce foodborne illness.