A clear view of food safety

As transparency becomes the norm in food safety, manufacturers and retailers are making adjustments to provide a farm-to-fork view of the food supply.

USDA officials are preaching about eating more fruits and vegetables. Health experts are criticizing artificial ingredients. Manufacturers are promoting “Made in the USA.” The media is exposing alleged animal abuse. The government is tweeting about food recalls.

Phew.

It is no wonder people are becoming increasingly concerned about what hits their plates. With an abundance of information at their fingertips, shoppers are more frequently asking, “Where is my food coming from and is it safe?”

“The food industry has offered transparency for long time,” says Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), based in Arlington, Va. “What is surprising is how strongly the consumers are now demanding it compared to the retailers. Shoppers’ interest in the food supply popped up fairly quickly from my perspective, but I believe it’s a good thing.”

As the industry invites the public to learn more about the origin of the foods on their plates, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is rallying growers, producers, suppliers, retailers and consumers to take a stronger stand on food safety concerns. The key word is prevention.

Preventive measures are the forefront of the latest version of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), but retailers have long reached beyond legislative requirements, demanding their suppliers install traceability programs that satisfy Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) testing and documentation standards, say industry observers.

“Collaboration among retailers, manufacturers, regulators and consumers is essential as each contributes to the safety of food when it is under their care,” says Robert Prevendar, international director of supply chain food safety for NSF International, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Many of the world’s largest food companies, retailers and manufacturers have set higher food safety standards, choosing to mandate supplier compliance with one of the GFSI standards. Retailers, and grocery stores in particular, led the way for the GFSI.”

The Safe Quality Foods (SQF) Institute’s food safety management program, administered by FMI, is a common system used by suppliers in the U.S. SQF-certification verifies that a supplier’s food safety and quality management system are in place and it satisfies GFSI standards. SQF-certification is preferable because not only is it benchmarked against the GFSI, it also sets a robust standard, audit requirements and a focus on quality as well as food safety, says Heather Garlich, FMI’s director of media and public relations.

Interacting with consumers on a regular basis puts retailers in a critical position on the frontline of food safety, say observers. Studies show that consumers feel comfortable in their local grocery store and they trust their grocer to provide a fulfilling shopping experience. That experience includes education and tips on safe food handling procedures such as proper storage and cooking techniques.

Educating retailers about safe practices is one of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA)’s most important roles, say association officials. In the beef category it is a constantly evolving task as research continues to discover new bacterial threats and innovative techniques are introduced for prevention. U.S. Safety Inspectors recently began testing for six additional strains of E. coli (“Big Six”) that have been classified as adulterants alongside E. coli 0157:H7.

Bacteria’s evolutionary ability to adapt to its environment makes it a constant challenge, says Mandy Carr Johnson, Ph.D., executive director of beef safety research for the NCBA. “E. coli decreased significantly in the ten years leading up to the CDC’s 2010 goals. The industry is dedicated to lowering those illness rates as we look toward the 2020 goal.”

Courtesy of the Beef Checkoff

The meat of the matter

These threats and more make the meat case one of the most dangerous areas in the supermarket. The mishandling of a safe product in-store can create an unsafe eating experience. Yet, the challenge comes at the peak of a crisis and retailers are faced with a product recall.

Tracking primals from the processor to the end product in the meat case is no easy task, say observers. A lack of detailed documentation often forces retailers into the unfortunate position of pulling everything off the shelf in response to a recall.

According to FDA legislation under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, producers and retailers must be able to trace FDA regulated products back one level back and one forward. Full supply chain traceability has not yet become law but observers predict its only a matter of time until it is written into the FSMA—especially for the fresh categories, where most growers and producers have already enacted a system voluntarily.

Applied Data Corp. (ADC) is often approached about a “grind management solution” for the meat department, say officials for the Tampa, Fla.-based firm. The company’s system can capture information about the vendor and production facility and then continues to track it through the in-store production process down to the shelf. If there is ever a safety concern, the retailer can then quickly narrow it down in their database.

“Retailers want to be able to hold their suppliers accountable should there be any type of recall,” says Robert Appell, ADC’s chief operating officer. “They want to be able to show that they have complied and can track contaminants coming into the store back to their point of origin. We are filling a gap. There has never been this level of precision before.”

Not all threats can be traced back to the processor, however. The meat and deli departments are breeding grounds for bacteria. “Foodborne illness evolves like anything else in nature, usually caused by a change either in the product or process,” says Gerry Broski, senior marketing director, food safety for Neogen Corp., based in Lansing Mich. “Anytime anything is changed in food production, such as an ingredient supplier or a sanitation process, the impact should be fully assessed and any risk should be addressed.”

FDA regulations, as per the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, outline proper procedures for food handling and sanitization of implements and utensils that come into contact with food. With high turnover at retail, proper Employee training and compliance are two major challenges in this area of safety, say observers.

Cleaning products, such as sanitizing wipes from the Sani Professional division of Nice-Pak/PDI, are making it easier for employees to adhere to these regulations. The Orangeburg, N.Y.-based company that introduced pre-moistened shopping cart sanitizing wipes to consumers recently launched a line of wipes in a soft format and dispensing tool for deli-counters and food preparation stations.

Part of the company’s new product implementation includes the development of online training tools and in-store “train the trainer” sessions that retailers can pass on to their employees. “The retailer’s responsibility begins the moment the consumer decides to visit their establishment. Particularly in a grocery store where shoppers have an expectation of comfort and safety,” says Matt Schiering, vice president, general manager.

From ground to grocery

The grocery store’s produce section projects an image of health. However, the good-for-you leafy greens and tree fruits can be prone to bacteria and disease if not handled properly.

To add to the concern, the current trend toward locally grown fruits and vegetables is generating a slew of challenges, say observers. Smaller growers do not always have the financial and logistical means to comply with the Produce Traceability Initiatives (PTI) that national or larger regional growers do and with PTI-compliance on the verge of becoming law, the industry agrees everyone should be held to the same standard.

“I think the biggest challenge the produce industry faces is ensuring all sizes of growers, shippers and packers are follow best practices and invest in the proper food safety systems and technology,” says Geoff Koontz, vice president of marketing for Malvern, Pa.-based Sterilox Fresh. “Typically the investment in such systems is not scalable to the size of the operation. At a certain size there is an inflection point where it becomes financially cumbersome to make the investment and still maintain a positive cash flow.

“On the flip side, the industry or category is all in it together. Even if a small manufacturer has an incident that results in a significant consequence, the entire category takes a hit.”
This was one of the factors that FSMA struggled with, adds Elliott Grant, founder and chief marketing officer of Redwood City, Calif.-based HarvestMark, how not to disenfranchise the small grower. “There was a tester amendment that held larger growers to a higher-standard than smaller ones and it made the produce industry unhappy,” he says. “Everyone struggles with justifying the investment in technology for something that is rare, like a recall.”

One accomplishment officials of are most proud of is the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of their PTI-compliant program, providing them the ability to work with mom-and-pop growers as well as larger firms.

The company’s services range from working one-on-one with smaller, regional supermarkets to bring their suppliers up to speed to co-branding products with larger retailers such as Kroger. “Pick up a Kroger salad and you will see the HarvestMark logo as part of the branding,” Grant says. “They incorporated us as a value proposition to their shoppers.” He says the long-standing relationship between HarvestMark and Kroger has inspired other retailers to inquire about the program.

Transparency is a key point of differentiation for private labels brands in the produce department. It builds loyalty and trust between the shopper and retailer. According to a study HarvestMark conducted, instituting a traceability program drives up store loyalty by around 10%, says Grant.

Still, as local farmers work to get on board, some retailers are taking matters into their own hands. There is always additional risk involved when stocking produce without a tracking system in place. Koontz suggests auditing local growers to ensure they are at least taking basic preventive steps, such as using an antimicrobial in the flume water and consistently monitoring levels for leafy greens. Some retailers, he adds, have installed Sterilox systems as part of a “belt and suspenders” approach to leafy greens food safety.

“The food industry is constantly looking for improvements in process control and innovative scientific advancements that push the standard,” Jeff Carpenter, vice president of sales and marketing for Food Safety Net Services, based in San Antonio, Texas. “One improvement is for the continued adherence to third party audits and evaluations which help products, processors and manufacturers to gain a better perspective of what is actually working and what is not. Follow that up with a robust testing protocol from environmental sampling to finished goods testing and the safety net to limit occurrences greatly improves.”

Building confidence

It does not take long for a foodborne illness outbreak to make headline news. Technology and social media has made it possible to spread the word at the click of a button. The plus side to this advancement is that it allows retailers to reach consumers just as quickly.

“I think technology will allow us to talk more specifically to the person being affected and will hopefully get us a better result,” says Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board, based in Des Moines, Iowa. “We can never communicate enough or fast enough. The days of just posting a recall notice on a piece of paper on top of the meat case are over. If retailers have a database of consumers that tracks their purchases, they can reach the affected shoppers specifically.”

FMI’s Thesmar says Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in getting news out there to consumers. “The USDA has Twitter feeds that they use to announce recalls and they also maintain the website recalls.gov. The government has been very progressive about notifying consumers about food safety issues and reaching out in some clever ways.”

This evolution of communication mimics what the industry has seen on the promotional side of business in an effort to reach younger generations. The beef industry’s market research team looks at the differences in demographic categories, such as baby boomers and Millennials and works toward providing them information in a format they are comfortable with.  

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