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June 5, 2011

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Meat traced from farm to fridge

FIRST came organic, then free-range, then local. Now discerning diners with a penchant for spending a premium to know where food comes from are pushing DNA-traceable meat onto restaurant menus.

The technology which allows meat to be traced from the farm to the fridge - has been used in Europe and other countries for decades, but has been slow to catch on in America.

But industry experts say being able to follow filet mignon, rib eye and other cuts of beef back to the ranch can pay off in multiple ways, including boosting consumer confidence, upping the value of a dinner, and cutting the time needed to track recalled meats.

"People want to know where their food is coming from and this gives you a perfect avenue for you to find out," said Tracy Tonning, executive chef at Blackstone restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa. "You can trace it back to where it came from, where it was raised. It's a security factor for the guest, as well as the chef."

Tonning's restaurant is among more than 11,000 that Richmond-based food distributor Performance Food Group is supplying with DNA-traceable beef as an added value for customers of its premium Braveheart brand. The company, which has annual revenues of about US$11 billion, said it is among the first distributors to use the technology.

"People are spending less in restaurants than they used to, but they are willing to spend more when they do go out to get something really special," said George Holm, CEO of the company that supplies food and other products to more than 130,000 restaurants and institutions, including schools, hotels and health care facilities.

Tests the company did in some steakhouses it supplies, as well as surveys outside other restaurants, showed consumers were willing to pay US$2 or US$3 more for the same cut of meat if various "pleasers" were added - a higher quality of meat, traceability, as well as how the animals were treated and fed.

Of course, that value comes only if the customer knows about it. Which is why some restaurants are drawing diners' attention to the DNA-traceable meat through words and graphics on their menus, as well as having waiters educate customers at the table.

"Every restaurateur is going to want this," said Phil Lempert, a food marketing expert known as "The Supermarket Guru." Interest in local and organic food demonstrates that consumers in restaurants and grocery stores like products with a story, "as long as it's an authentic, true story," he said.

Products like DNA-traceable meat help the industry with safety concerns and is also "really good marketing."

The technology can determine not only where the meat came from, but also whether it's organic or Angus - or whatever the label says.

Workers take DNA samples at processing and other places along the supply chain. The samples are gathered to determine the specific animals each product came from. Information kept by farmers and others involved in the raising and processing of the animals can be added to give a more complete history.


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