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Topco Index Changes the Rules

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, there was a lot of excited talk in the halls at Topco Associates, the Skokie, Ill.-based wholesale distributor. Strangers who were present would have overheard numerous references to a mysterious “On-key.” Unseen and unkown, it seemed that On-key’s arrival was imminent.

The mystery was solved on Nov. 28, when Topco officials unveiled the Overall Nutritional Quality Index. So, "ONQI" was not a person but a comprehensive system of evaluating food products based on nutrition content. This new scoring system had been under development for more than two years by independent researchers, before Topco officials heard about it and brought it in-house as a consumer resource.

“We didn’t have much to offer on the science side, but thought this was a much better mousetrap, and that we could be instrumental in making it happen and turning it into something real,” said Steve Lauer, Topco’s president and CEO.

The real news behind the announcement, and the one I think will be talked about for some time to come, is not what ONQI is, but what it represents: A shift among retailers to a truer, more authentic leadership role. I think this program — as well as Hannaford Bros.’ Guiding Stars program — marks a key turning point in this ongoing evolution of the retailer into a full-time customer advocate. No more walking the fine line between shopper needs and manufacturer requirements. Consumer-centric initiatives like Guiding Stars and ONQI have the potential to change the way food is sold.

Sound like a stretch? Not if you ask Jeff Posner, Topco’s executive vice president.

“The manufacturers endorse the science, they understand it and they also see the positive business implications that arise from doing the right thing in the health area,” he told us last week.

“ONQI will strongly encourage manufacturers to make more nutritious products,” is how Lauer put it, adding such programs have the power to control the tainted marketing claims made by some national manufacturers. “It will also take out some of the hype that’s all too often misleading.”

When’s the last time you heard senior supermarket executives talk like that?

The fact that Hannaford announced it would begin licensing its Guiding Stars program a day after the Topco announcement indicates there will be plenty of opportunities for supermarkets to use these turn-key systems in their own stores, and this is a good thing. As Lauer put it: “Hopefully, the sum total of all of these efforts will be improved health.”

We agree. Like food safety and charity, public health should not be a competitive element in any business. Every retailer should have the opportunity to offer their customers this type of service.