(Aug. 8) Fueled by food safety worries, private-label produce is attracting customers in Japan, according to a July 25 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Sales growth of private-label food in Japan has been about 20% to 30% annually for the past several years, the FAS report said.

Now, continuing concerns about food safety have prompted supermarkets to expand private-label choices to fresh produce.

“While the programs differ slightly between supermarkets, key components include farmer identification, and varying levels of process verification,” said Kenzo Ito, author of the report.

Most of the programs are based on guidelines from Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which Ito said makes foreign supplier participation difficult.

Ito said produce carrying a private label in Japanese supermarkets commands a price premium of between 20% and 30% over conventional branded produce.

The Ito Yokado chain has been marketing its private brand since May 2002. The brand translates to “Vegetables where we can see the farmer’s face.”

Ito said Ito Yokado standards were reviewed after publicity about pesticide residues on Chinese vegetables. Currently, the supermarket verifies field identification, fertilizer use, nutritional value, pesticide residues and record keeping, Ito said.

Aeon Corp. also has increased promotion of its private label, translated “Top Value — Green Eye” and promotes environmentally friendly production.

Seiyu launched its private brand, “Happiness in Foods” in April, and Tokyu Stores markets private-label produce as products produced under strict standards by contracted farmers.

Ito said some Japanese produce traders question whether production capacity of contracted Japanese farmers could support consumer demand for the private-label produce.