August, 2008

Fruits of Thought

Food Safety Policies For Buyers

The recent Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak has led to much criticism of CDC and FDA — most with good cause — and we can hope that the attention brought to the matter leads to useful reform.

Of course, with reform or without, the produce industry would benefit by not having as many foodborne illness outbreaks. Five simple policies would advance the trade's food-safety effort substantially:

1. No exceptions to food-safety policies.

Most major retail and foodservice buyers now have a substantial list of food-safety policies detailing frequent-testing rules and requiring third-party audits. Yet, it is common for those same buyers to waive those requirements to meet the needs of another program, such as a locally grown or import program.

Food safety must come before these other issues. The key is for buyers to add a "no exception" covenant to these food-safety policies.

2. No non-certified supply sources.

Another bizarre feature of our buyer-driven food-safety systems is that buyers will go to elaborate lengths to check out suppliers before giving vendor numbers and then make no effort to ascertain that supplies actually come from facilities that had been so carefully vetted.

Basically, in produce, one can certify a company as to its insurance policy and up-to-date indemnifications, but only specific farms, packing sheds and processing facilities can actually be certified for food-safety purposes.

All too often, certified vendors buy product from uncertified sources — and that has to stop.

It is not that complicated — it means buyers have to set up specifications, such as GlobalGAP certification, and then tell all vendors they cannot procure product for that chain if it does not come from a GlobalGAP-certified farm.

As it is now, reputable producers have contracts to supply buyers, and if a weather problem causes a crop failure in their regular source of supply, they run to buy product from growers they may not know to cover their customers' needs or contractual obligations.

3. The quality assurance department must approve each supply source.

The produce department is held responsible for meeting sales, gross profit and contribution to overhead budgets at retail stores. This creates incentives other than food safety and, in fact, we often find that buyers subvert their company's food-safety systems. For example when companies without vendor numbers present attractive deals, many buyers will call established vendors and ask them to buy the product and resell it in exchange for a small brokerage.

The solution is to have a separate quality assurance department that must approve not only each vendor, but also each farm or facility. Larger buyers may elect to do their own inspections, others will use third-party audits, but the key is that no buyer should be authorized to buy — and no vendor should be paid for — product unless it comes from a facility and company that QA has signed off on.

4. Extra credit for extra food safety effort has to become commonplace.

Whatever a buying organization's food-safety requirements might be, the requirements function on the specification level. There is little possibility — and even less incentive — in most organizations for the transactional buyer to prefer a vendor that is more expensive but has exceeded those minimum requirements.

We have to break this culture by offering bonuses and awards to buyers who identify vendors with food-safety efforts that exceed corporate requirements and who give them business.

5. We have to bring wholesalers into the loop.

It is all fine and dandy for top retailers and foodservice operators to have high food-safety standards. It also is fantastic for the big service wholesalers and foodservice distributors to have similar standards. We cannot, as an industry, allow a kind of "secondary" trade to operate through smaller local wholesalers, distributors and purveyors that operate without these rigorous standards.

Just as a retailer or foodservice operator can set a standard and require all vendors to be certified by some third-party auditor according to some specified standard, so can wholesalers.

In the old days, wholesalers functioned as a kind of marketing agent for producers. As such, they were obligated to take whatever they were given and try to sell it.

For the most part that day has passed. Wholesalers today buy product they expect will meet the needs of their customers.

They cannot continue to buy without a system for vetting suppliers. The obvious answer is third-party certification. So just as a retailer or foodservice operator will require that all the produce it buys be third-party audited to a set standard, wholesalers need to do the same.

So buyers who work with those wholesalers will have faith in the food-safety attributes of product they purchase.

There is no magic answer. Our science isn't perfect. FDA sometimes causes more harm than good, and growing produce outdoors poses inherent risk.

These five policies would go a long way, though, toward safeguarding consumers and protecting the industry by reducing the incidence of outbreaks. pb