business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

When it comes to Britney Spears, I have a simple rule: any information is too much information. When it comes to Barbie, the opposite is true.

Okay, that’s actually a massive exaggeration. Actually, I don’t have a lot of personal interest in Barbie or Britney. But that’s changing. Barbie matters.

My children are both old enough to keep me and my wife out of the toy aisle, yet I can’t help but empathize with parents of young ones these days as they look over their kid’s mountain of playthings wondering what is safe. And suddenly “Made in China” seems like a warning, more than a description on many products.

For the food industry, watching the painfully complex process taking place between China, Mattel and US federal agencies may provoke two emotions. The first is schadenfreude (the wonderful German word describing the pleasure we get at the misfortune of others, for example: Britney Spears); the second is “there but for the grace of God goes I.” The second emotion deserves attention.

For the past 13 months straight, product safety has been in the news and many of the problems resided in the food industry. Spinach, lettuce, peanut butter…remember them? The focus wasn’t always China.

But whether it’s California or China, the issue is the same: how does the industry ensure that everything the shopper buys and eats is everything it should be.

This isn’t a simple issue with simple answers. Shoppers have gotten accustomed to having virtually all products available at all times of the year. Seasonality exists now only for Girl Scout Cookies. Everything else can be bought whenever. In addition, price pressure is as challenging as ever, pushing all industries to look for cheaper sources of supply.

Fixing this won’t be any easier than trying to describe the problem, but there are tools to start examining right now. There are partners who offer audits to look for problems out in the fields, no matter how distant those fields may be. There are audit tools to monitor the supply chain at all steps and programs to educate consumers on better food handling once they get home. It’s a lot of steps, but there is no choice whatsoever unless food industry officials want to replace their old friend Bob Eckert (once of Kraft, now with Mattel) in front of the news cameras and Senate committees.

Last winter, a different Kraft executive, new CEO Irene Rosenfeld, suggested that one day products could look like NASCAR racers. Instead of drivers wearing corporate logos, she predicted packages with endless markings about nutrition, health and other claims. Every day that prediction gets closer. Yesterday’s MNB reported on Wal-Mart’s request to suppliers for information on the energy consumed to produce specific products. Two weeks ago, we reported on the success of Hannaford Bros. Guiding Stars nutrition program.

How long before we have similar markings for environmental impact or food safety processes?

What’s next? Pretty much anything it seems. Start making changes now.

Knowing full well that Kevin will be raving soon about the season premiere of Heroes, allow me one very different viewing recommendation. Ken Burns’ new series The War on public broadcasting deserves one lengthy look. Burns’ series examines World War II in full light, giving us the enormity of suffering and pain endured by the soldiers and civilians worldwide. It tells a story that many of our parents - my father served in the Pacific fleet - never shared.

Heroes and heroes.
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