The Food Marketing Institute show at Mandalay Bay last week provided a peek into the future -- what we'll be eating, and how.
There was much evidence of the globalization of the American palate. The series of booths featuring products from Azerbaijan showcased juices and nuts. Diversity was much in evidence in the McCormick & Co. section, which displayed Creole/Cajun Zatarain products, the Thai Kitchen line and the northeastern regional American flavors of Old Bay.
Our increased interest in artisanal foods was evident in such mom-and-pop-sized booths as those by the Alvarado Street Bakery in Petaluma, Calif., and Andy's Mediterranean Grill, "awarded best of Cincinnati."
And of course the vast areas rented by Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch were especially popular, particularly after lunch.
But the overwhelming cast of the show was, as you might expect, heavily green.
A company called PakTech was advertising its packing system that enables products to be packed and stacked without boxes, therefore enabling businesses to "reduce corrugate waste."
Duraflame was touting the "cleaner, greener fire" from its fire logs and related products.
Contessa Premium Foods hawked a line "produced by an environmentally responsible food manufacturer."
There was energy-efficient lighting, energy-efficient food display cases and a company that claimed to specialize in "high-volume organic waste decomposition," its sales force dressed in lab coats.
And even shopping carts, it seems, are going green. Well, not the carts themselves, actually, but the process of getting your groceries and other associated products into the carts, out of them (and back in) at the checkout stand, and then getting them home.
One of the most striking examples was shown by Instore Products of Canada, whose Greenbox bins (and others like them) just could have a major impact on the whole shopping-bag thing. Dean Martin, the company's vice president of operations, said the company founder created the system 15 years ago. It works like this: A shopper is offered the chance to buy one or more bins -- priced at $3.99 to $4.99 -- that fit into the Instore shopping carts.
"You can put your produce in one, cleaning supplies in one, meat in one -- it's compartmentalized shopping," Martin said. When the shopper goes to the checkout stand, the checker can easily take things out of each bin and put them in again as they're rung up, thereby eliminating the need for bags.
The shopper loads the bins into his or her vehicle and everything stays contained -- no bags falling over -- on the way home. Once at home, the bins can be taken to the appropriate part of the house for unpacking, such as the utility room for the cleaning products, refrigerator for the meat, etc. The bins stack and can be kept in the vehicle until the next shopping trip.
Martin said the concept didn't exactly take off when it was introduced, although the company is clearly hoping that the current increased focus on green living will change that. So far, he said, one Canadian chain, Loblaw's, is using the carts in its 1,200 stores. In six of those stores, bags are not provided; the bin system is the only one used.
But Martin stressed that while plastic bags have been eliminated by at least one chain (Whole Foods Market) and others are encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to reduce waste, it's not Instore's intention to prompt the extinction of grocery bags.
"Retailers are starting to make that stand," he said. "We provide options and let consumers make their own decisions."
Those polite Canadians.
"We know in the schools that they're talking about green initiatives," he said. "Everybody's educating themselves."
Another bin system on display also had its roots outside the United States, this time Norway. Company vice president Peter Olausson said Trolleybasket USA made an entry into United States supermarkets in January in Killingworth, Conn., near New Haven. In this case, the bin -- actually more of a basket -- is the cart. It has four wheels and two handles, so it can either be pulled through the store or slung over an arm. It's basically meant to serve as a substitute for the plastic supermarket baskets, but with a capacity of 110 pounds, it could serve as a substitute cart for a lot of shoppers.
And then there are the basket carts of the Good L Corp. of Tennessee, which bridge the two concepts with small shopping carts that can each be fitted with two baskets. The size of the carts, said company president Phil Goodell, mean that small stores that never were able to provide carts can. The handles provide a leaning place for older people, but the carts are easier to maneuver than heavier conventional carts.
And because of their size, the carts and/or baskets can be placed throughout the store. This is useful from the customer's viewpoint -- ever dash in for "one thing" and find yourself at the rear of the store loaded down with finds, and no cart or basket in sight? -- but also from the merchant's. An overloaded customer, Goodell said, is "leaving things behind. One more item, statistically that's 9.1 percent more in sales."
And speaking of statistics: As long as we have those communal shopping carts, we're stuck with everything that comes with them, which is not limited to chipping paint and wobbly wheels but the very real presence of germs. Jim Kratowicz, president of PureCart Systems of Wisconsin, cited data from the University of Arizona revealing an average of 860,000 bacteria per 100 square centimeters on the handles, seats and basket areas of shopping carts -- as opposed to, oh, 1,180 for a toilet seat, or 510 for a toilet flush handle.
Most supermarkets offer free sanitizing wipes, but Kratowicz's product is sort of a carwash for carts. Every time a cart is brought back to the store, it passes through the PureCart system, where a fine mist kills 99 percent of the germs on the entire cart, he said. So far, the systems are being used mostly in Wisconsin and the eastern United States, although they've been in some stores of the Basha's regional chain in Arizona since August.
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or 702-383-0474.