(Sept. 3) Cracking the consumer demand code is a perplexing puzzle. Retailers and marketers are constantly trying to find the key — the next big thing that will catch on.

Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. is betting it’s ready-to-eat produce. The items are sanitized and packaged by Suntex Group Ltd., Houston, and are being stocked in 125 Houston-area stores. The Defense Commissary Agency also is offering the products in San Antonio.

The Suntex Safety Wash System removes chemical residues and pathogens without changing the nutritional value of the product. The line includes six small-quantity packs of produce so far, with retail prices about 20% higher than their conventional counterparts.

Some worry about the possibility of a shadow being cast on the safety of conventional items, expressing concern that consumers will lose trust in the rest of the department. But Blake La Grange, Suntex founder, doubts that will be a significant factor. Consumers aren’t scared that easily, he says.

Ask Procter & Gamble, marketers of Fit Produce Rinse. P&G was heavily criticized in marketing the product. Critics said it undermined consumer confidence in the fresh produce supply. But fresh produce is still around; sales of Fit were halted a year ago.

The question remains: Is there a market for sanitized produce? Since Sept. 11, there may be a bigger one than before. There will be those who take comfort in the “sanitized” label. And undoubtedly there will be those time-pressed or noncooking consumers who will spend the money for the time savings or the lack of mess. Travelers could be a target, as well. Perhaps convenience stores could capitalize on such a product and find a solid footing for produce.

Time will tell whether the idea has staying power.