PRODUCE-ING INFORMATION

CHICAGO (FNS) -- Over the past few months a host of new federal and state regulations have been proposed and enacted that have a profound effect on the produce department.Federal and state agencies are proposing and putting into effect regulations covering the labeling for fresh juice, organics, food safety and country-of-origin. And still others are on the horizon.Responding to these laws and proposals,

CHICAGO (FNS) -- Over the past few months a host of new federal and state regulations have been proposed and enacted that have a profound effect on the produce department.

Federal and state agencies are proposing and putting into effect regulations covering the labeling for fresh juice, organics, food safety and country-of-origin. And still others are on the horizon.

Responding to these laws and proposals, supermarket operators are finding they are playing more and more the role of teacher, by disseminating consumer information. It's a role retailers may not be equipped for.

"There are different kinds of information that retailers are asked to deal with," said Karen Brown, senior vice president at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "There is basic product type information; nutrition, diet and health information; and consumer advisories. Many times, regulators find the best place to disseminate information is in the supermarket. This is very frustrating for retailers."

One format for information that operators find most difficult to deal with is the specific prescriptive variety. These directives are related to a host of mandates on how retailers communicate with consumers. Industry observers note that, many times, these mandates hinder, rather than help, getting the message out.

"Usually, the materials developed by the agencies contain good information, but it is difficult to read or some links of information may be missing," said Brown.

A good example of the industry's ability to surpass the government's mandates on its own lies in nutritional information. This voluntary program has been in place for several years. It includes information on a variety of products in the meat and seafood departments, in addition to produce.

"Many consumers have come to appreciate the reproducible information the industry came up with," said Brown.

Indeed, produce departments SN has visited across the country in recent months have nutritional information available to consumers. The approaches range in variety as much as the operators.

The West Seattle Thriftway group has this information printed on the rolled produce bags so consumers will have an easy reference for the serving size, calories, and amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron for various popular fruits and vegetables.

"We want our customers to have all the nutritional information they need," said Terry Halversen, owner of the Seattle-based group. "We really want people to think about food. It is part of the atmosphere of our stores."

Chicago-area Dominick's Finer Foods positions a loose-leaf notebook in the department that contains nutritional information and a host of other facts about each item.

Natural-food niche operators, perhaps because of their customer base, take the nutritional information a step further. Operators such as Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets take care to describe the variety of growing methods.

Organic, pesticide-free, conventional and locally grown items are clearly marked on the racks with logos representing each growing method. These logos are more completely described mid-department with signage and in brochures. This move was made in response to consumer inquiries, in keeping with Wild Oats' ongoing educational initiatives, said Jim Lee, president.

"Consumers want information about food and food products. They want to take control of their own well being and the retail availability of these products is expanding," said Dale Kamibayashi, director of grocery purchasing at Wild Oats at last spring's Food Marketing Institute Convention.

Retailers suggest that it is through trade associations, grower groups and state trade associations that they obtain the information and materials necessary to be in compliance with regulations like those proposed for organics.

"Trade associations are a key partner in getting these directives out," said Brown. "Through associations, the largest possible number of people who need the information can receive it in a consistent and timely way. Our members count on us to get the information when they hear about a regulation or proposal."

Associations such as the FMI, Washington; the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.; and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., routinely introduce formal comments to legislators and agencies in conjunction with recommendations made by the groups' retail member committees.

One example of this system in action is the Food and Drug Administration's fresh-juice labeling regulations, which took effect in time for this year's apple-cider season. The regulation requires that unpasteurized juices be labeled, with a warning statement advising consumers of the potential risks of juice that has not been processed to eliminate dangerous bacteria.

This requirement applies to all who package untreated juice for consumption off-site, including retail-level processors such as supermarkets, that squeeze and package juice for home use, as well as retailers who centrally or in-unit squeeze, extract and press juice from fruits and vegetables. Retail sellers of juice for consumption on-site -- such as restaurants and juice bars -- are exempt from this labeling requirement.

As a result of this new rule, consumers will see the following label on juice products that have not undergone pasteurization or a comparable treatment: "WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and, therefore, may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems."

The regulation has come down from the FDA in the form of a consumer advisory, though it still mandates a level of compliance with the use of specific language.

"In this instance, retailers have relied on FMI to provide consistent, accurate and timely information so retail companies would have the time to get ready for compliance," said Brown.