OF FAMED FELINES AND FOOTLOOSE FOES

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A reporters'-eye view of the Food Marketing Institute convention, held in Chicago last week:

The Food Marketing Institute show is famous for giving attendees a chance to schmooze with the very top executives of the gro-cery industry, but some of the most coveted figures on the floor this year were of a more beastly nature.

Heinz Pet Products' Morris the cat was a popular, if uninterested, photo op. Nestle USA's Friskies PetCare booth featured the Fancy Feast Cat, in purr-son, and Borden brought back the always-admired Elsie the Cow.

Checking the competition: Those who were on the lookout for a leading human executive in the crowd of 35,000 people were best advised to try his competitor's booth. Spotted on the FMI show floors: marketing and sales executives casually hanging around the displays of their key rivals-Kellogg USA representatives in the General Mills booth, Miller Brewing Co. staffers keenly examining the Anheuser-Busch displays and ConAgra Chairman-CEO Phil Fletcher allegedly spotted in enemy territory, scoping out Stouffer Foods Corp.'s offerings.

Transparent interest: This year's hottest new product sampling was clearly Coors Brewing Co.'s Zima ClearMalt. Though Coors offered last year's FMI attendees samples of its new cooler, many said they had just begun to see the TV and outdoor ads supporting the brand's rollout-and simply had to try Zima to see what it's like.

Playing around: Many exhibitors used games to lure attendees. Nabisco Foods Group created a sophisticated "Jeopardy!"-like game to draw attention. Ben & Jerry's Homemade developed a shuffleboard game using laminated tops of their new Smooth, No Chunks line as discs. And "cars" were a big theme, with a Marlboro video race car from Philip Morris Cos. and a Frito-Lay "Flintstones"-like sedan as big favorites.

Cover-up: Two actresses working their fourth FMI show, overheard in the ladies room, reflected a much-appreciated reduction in the convention's number of bikini-clad booth workers. The two chatted about their pleasure at finally getting to wear real clothes and an apron.

I'm with Mom: In what could possibly be an FMI first, a sales representative from PepsiCo's Taco Bell unit brought her month-old baby to the show, saying it was the only way mom could have come. The youngest FMI attendee seemed mostly bored with the proceedings. But how much can one see from a stroller?

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