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Latest food technology promises ease, speed, cleanliness and a bit of theater

CHICAGO (AP) – Standing in a long line at the grocer soon might get you through the checkout faster.

That’s because a British company has designed a system to track and predict the movements of supermarket shoppers using thermal imaging. A computer analyzes data from infrared cameras, then advises when and where additional cashiers are needed.

”The idea is that the more pleasant the checkout experience, the more you will buy,” said Nick Stogdale, senior sales manager for InfraRed Integrated Systems’ SMARTLANE product. The system is being tested by two U.S. chains.

The SMARTLANE was one of many new food-related technologies on display at the recent Food Marketing Institute show, where speed, ease, sanitation and a touch of theater ruled.

Take the case of rotisserie chicken, one of the most popular items in the fast-growing prepared foods category: The latest crop of chicken roasters – those ubiquitous ovens that endlessly twirl crisp, golden chickens at grocers across the nation – are designed not just to cook, but also to capture your attention with good looks and funky design.

Hence, the Multisserie, an upright, clear cylindrical oven by Netherlands-based Fri-Jado that spins the chickens on end, like a giant top. ”We try to bring a very high show element to it,” said marketing director Ernst Goettsch.

The same thinking also influenced the design of Montreal-based Hardt’s Inferno Rotisserie, which offers a crowd-pleasing self-cleaning function that looks like a sprinkler gone wild.

”The more a supermarket can do to create a show or to create a restaurant-style experience, the more sales they make,” said Michael Griffin, a vice president of sales for Hardt.

For those who prefer their food slightly pixelated, food industry analyst Phil Lempert has teamed with Kraft Foods and the National Grocers Association to launch a virtual supermarket in the online fantasy world known as Second Life.

Though visitors to Phil’s Supermarket can’t actually buy groceries, they can guide their avatars (online parlance for a user’s digital personification) through the store to explore products, watch cooking demos and see the latest food and health news.

The idea is to help people navigate the real world of food by letting them ”pre-shop,” accessing nutritional data and other information on various products, previewing a showcase of just-launched items or scoring coupons.

”The average consumer only spends 22 minutes food shopping,” said Lempert, who launched the site at the show. ”That’s not a whole lot of time to see new products. But what I hear from consumers is that they want to hear about what’s new and exciting.”

Lempert expects to have 100,000 products on the site by the end of summer. Visitors can ”taste” many of the products, then offer reviews. How meaningful those reviews are, of course, depend on whether users have tried the product in the analog world.

Beyond wanting to know more about their food, consumers also want to know more about its safety.

On display were products such as G & K Services’ line of ProSura clothing. Intended for food service workers such as meat cutters and chefs, these clothes are like hand sanitizer you can wear.

Though the clothing resembles the white cotton garments common to butcher shops and professional kitchens, ProSura products have chlorine chemically bonded to the fibers, which they company says kills microbes that touch them.

G & K marketing manager Christine Fischer says that for many companies this level of sanitation probably isn’t necessary, but they see it as a way of demonstrating to customers that they are willing to spend extra to ensure the safety of their food.

And spending on sanitation might be smart money. According to a recent Harris Poll Online released by FMI, just 66 percent of consumers feel at least somewhat confident in the safety of supermarket food, down from 82 percent in 2006.

The food industry has been hit by a number of recent food safety problems, including E. coli in spinach and melamine contamination of pet food and animal feed, and FMI spokesman Bill Greer says the study reflects that.

Which means business could boom for companies such as PureCart, which makes a sort of disinfecting car wash for shopping carts. But despite consumer concerns, PureCart president Jim Kratowicz says products such as his still have a tough sell.

That’s because even though consumers want clean carts, companies worry about sending the wrong message.

Consumers might wonder, ”What are grocers telling me? They’re telling me they have dirty carts,” he said.

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