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TODAY contributor
updated 12/13/2007 8:19:10 AM ET 2007-12-13T13:19:10

“Tell me the future of food!”

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If I could, I would. The reality today is that the ways in which a shopper is gathering knowledge, buying products and preparing foods is evolving so rapidly that being able to predict those meaningful, future long-term trends is getting more difficult with each new day. However, it is getting easier to understand the role of technologies that have equipped shoppers with real-time tools that are leading them to their purchase decisions.

The truth is that the shopper is now fully enabled and empowered to create, to make change and to be in control. The free, easy-to-use and intuitive technology tools on YouTube, FaceBook, MySpace and Second Life have allowed shoppers to voice their opinions about products and companies and to create new environments and products; while quickly achieving notoriety and celebrity as an expert. They create social communities, (nee: followings) which can make or break your store or brand’s success — without you ever being part of the process.

A Bazaarvoice survey in December of 2007 reported that only 51 percent of consumers who posted product or service reviews were positive. Consumer-generated media is clearly the 21st century equivalent of word-of-mouth and collaborative recommendations. The cost is zero and the value of a good review is extraordinary, and the impact of a bad review could be your demise. Our dependence on the traditional paid media outlets is over; the costs of mass media advertising are too inefficient to have a future and the truth is that all too often the ad messages are not believable.

For the food universe to succeed in 2008 they must understand, join and empower relevant communities in order to manage and mobilize the food experiences. Social networks are blurring the lines between who is actually in control of the image of a retailer or brand.

As we enter into the New Year, food retailers and brands are faced with a myriad of new challenges: sustainability, transparency, undeniable price increases and the continued search for the Holy Grail that will lead us to health and wellness.

It’s all about the garbage!
It is not about local versus organic, although that seems to be where most of the debate still rests. Retailers and brands need to look at the larger picture and develop a more long term plan, which includes considering the planet. But whether it's about being green, figuring out how to measure the global footprint for products and production facilities or just trying to reduce waste, 2008 will clearly be driven by the headlines that measure garbage. With cities and states working on legislation to tax or prohibit certain kinds of food and beverage packaging, retailers have the opportunity to take a lead position and build relationships with the shoppers around sustainability initiatives.

Retailers can't lose by taking a strong and vocal position to help clean up their cities. Perhaps it's time to put in place universal guidelines for all products that are sold from our stores that include packaging quantity and materials as well as highlighting those companies that have favorable sustainable and footprint stories.

Where did this product come from?
On the heels of a scathing report that not only questioned the systems and ability of the Food and Drug Administration on food safety, but also reinforced the fragility of the consumers image of our food supply, this year must be the year that confidence in our food supply is restored.

Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores will no doubt force the industry to install similar systems, which will enable the retailer in seconds to track an individual product’s path from farm to table with all the details necessary to determine a product’s safety. Consumers are no longer accepting of the current way the food world and government are doing business: Delays of weeks before we hear about millions of pounds of ground beef contaminated with e Coli, more than half a year to track a cow with Mad Cow Disease, and still waiting a year later for the final report on how bagged spinach with e Coli made it to our stores’ shelves.

Imported foods, whether they are from China or elsewhere, will have to not only meet the U.S. standards, but be delivered with guaranteed inspections to have our shoppers confidence.

The Farm Bill is still being argued in the halls of our Nation’s capital as this column is being written, and I can only hope that by the time you read this a few wise people in Washington DC have woken up and made Country of Origin Labeling a reality, finally.

It’s how much?
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the average American spends just 10 percent of our household budget on food. When we look in context and analyze other developed nations we clearly see that we do have the cheapest food prices. And, yes I will be roundly criticized; perhaps that’s a bad thing.

France, known for its food indulgences and passion, spends almost double — 18 percent, and the UK shopper spends even more, 22 percent. Japan, which is known for its stringent food safety and beef testing has its citizens spending 26 percent of their hard-earned money on their foods and the country that many look to as one of this century’s developing business and technology leaders, India, finds its residents spending just over half of their income to eat.

I am not suggesting that we run out and increase our prices. What I am suggesting is that the driver to have the “cheapest food supply on Earth” is old school and needs to be forgotten.

We need to first shift our resources, and produce foods and ingredients where we can insure the proper nutrients and safety procedures are in place — hopefully that occurs on American soil.

Second, we need to stop putting pressure on brands for a lower price. Having grown up selling commodity products (cheeses, canned meats and meats) as well as branded packaged foods to supermarkets buyers and purveyors in the Brooklyn, Bronx and Newark Terminal markets, I can tell you first hand that pushing on price doesn’t allow for production or product innovation. When retailers demand stripping out “waste” in a producers system, that doesn’t mean lowering profits — it typically results in short budgeting on good manufacturing practices, which can lead to pushing production volumes and sanitation practices to its outer limits, which could lead to disaster.

The Aging of America…AGAIN!
It’s an old story that is worth repeating, as this year could be the “tipping point”. The 76 million Baby Boomers start turning 65 years old in 2010, and while the impact of this generation turning 50 drew lots of attention but little impact, this time it will be different.

As the generation born (and loving) the spotlight has entered into their sixth decade of life, we are observing their incidence of major health ailments including diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure actually double. We are seeing television ads that spend more of its time on the health warning disclaimers than on actually talking about the benefits of the medications. To paraphrase one of the early VH-1 ads… “the generation that dropped acid together is now the generation that drops antacid.” I would suggest that the antacids and script’s that deal with heartburn are about to be replaced, with whole grains and probiotics, leading many shoppers to understand that good foods with good science behind them, may in fact be the best cure-all.

And the one trend that continues year after year… It’s all about relationships: Relationships with our farmers, our supermarkets and most importantly… the relationships with each other.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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