INDUSTRY BRACES FOR REACTION TO LABELS

CHICAGO -- Nutritional labels are here. And in some categories, such as dairy and some processed meats, seeing the breakdown of a product's nutrients in black and white could be startling to consumers.In an informal survey of attendees at the Food Marketing Institute convention here last week, both retailers and manufacturers told SN there's no doubt that U.S. shoppers are going to be looking for

CHICAGO -- Nutritional labels are here. And in some categories, such as dairy and some processed meats, seeing the breakdown of a product's nutrients in black and white could be startling to consumers.

In an informal survey of attendees at the Food Marketing Institute convention here last week, both retailers and manufacturers told SN there's no doubt that U.S. shoppers are going to be looking for and reading the new federally mandated labels. And, they said, the labels could scare some customers away from foods they've been eating for years.

Take your traditional hotdog. The new nutritional label on the package of one leading manufacturer's product revealed the hotdog has 160 calories, of which 130 are from fat.

What about that cream cheese for your morning bagel? How do 100 calories for a one-ounce serving sound, with 90 calories coming from fat?

Or that slice of yellow American cheese at 60 calories, with 40 coming from fat; or morning bacon at 70 calories a strip with 50 calories from fat; or a slice of bologna at 90 calories with 70 coming from fat. And a slice of turkey bacon, while lower in calories at 30, is still two-thirds fat.

With those kinds of numbers staring out at shoppers, both manufacturers and retailers here said they expect one impact to be increased consumption of lower-fat and fat-free foods.

"I think they'll read the labels and I think they are really aware and concerned and watching," said John Wassenaar, executive vice president of Fareway Stores, Boone, Iowa.

"I think a lot of people will be surprised with the fat content on the labels."

Joe Keenan, the chief financial officer for Flanagan's Supermarkets, Boston, said he recently enrolled himself in a dietary program run under the guidance of a nutritionist, and said some 50% of the one-hour sessions are spent discussing product labels.

"I think people are extremely aware of fat content and calories from fat. And if manufacturers in the future don't change the products, the categories will be gone because I know everyone reads them [labels] and won't buy them anymore."

A salesman representing a line of dairy products noted that in addition to his company's traditional items, it has begun to offer a lower-fat item and also a fat-free item. And he expects to see more of that in the future."That's what the focus is now."

Morrie Notrica, owner of Notrica's Market, Los Angeles, thinks the new labels, combined with the nation's overall trend in healthy eating, could trigger more sales in fresh foods.

The watchwords for the future, he said, could be "eat fresh, stay healthy."

But everyone wasn't so sure Americans would give up all the things they love so readily.

"I think people will read the labels because there has been so much media about it. But if people were so concerned about what they eat, why would potato chips sell so much?" said John McAleer, president of Mineer Foods, Swanton, Vt., which markets pork ribs.

He added that he would be more concerned about the fat content of a Big Mac rather than of a product purchased in a supermarket to be prepared at home.