Research shows food safety is a top concern for consumers. Is the industry doing enough?
Consumers ask themselves a lot of questions when considering a grocery store purchase: Is this worth the money? Does it taste good? Is there fat in it? What about the sodium content? Will my kids eat it?
The safety factor for the food in a consumer’s shopping cart may not be front of mind as they peruse supermarket aisles, but research conducted by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) shows that food safety is not just an important concern for consumers, but the number one concern, says Charlie Arnot, CEO for the Gladstone, Mo.-based CFI.
“The concern surrounding food safety is significantly higher than the level of concern for all other issues, such as nutrition or price. It has to be taken seriously because it is the one non-negotiable issue, as far as consumers are concerned,” he says.
All it takes is one peek inside a supermarket to know that is no easy task. The cleanliness of the products sitting on the shelves may start with the supplier and manufacturer but in the end, the responsibility often lies on the shoulders of the retailer. Consumers trust their retailer, say industry observers, and therefore it is up to the retailer to make sure they are supplying safe food—and to make sure it is removed from the shelves if proven otherwise.
To decipher the biggest food safety issues facing the industry, Grocery Headquarters questioned key experts to find out what the industry is up against and how it can persevere.
•Charlie Arnot, CEO for Center for Food Integrity (CFI), based in Gladstone, Mo.
•Hilary Thesmar Ph.D., RD, vice president of food safety programs for Food Marketing Institute (FMI), based in Arlington, Va.
•John Heller, senior territory manager of food service for Neogen Corp., based in Lansing, Mich.
•Gina Nicholson, RS, global client director of retail food services for NSF International, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
•Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations for North American Meat Association (NAMA), based in Oakland, Calif.
•Angela Fernandez, vice president of grocery retail and consumer packaged goods for GS1 US, based in Lawrenceville, N.J.
•Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer, for Produce Marketing Association (PMA), based in Newark, Del.
•Dr. Jim Gorny, vice president of science and technology for Produce Marketing Association.
Where we stand
Q: Industry observers have mixed opinions on the current level of consumer confidence. Many believe the spread of information regarding food safety concerns around the world has consumers on their toes, while others argue that the transparency that consumers demand reassures them of the safety level. Where does consumer confidence stand in your opinion?
Charlie Arnot, CFI: Over the past few years there has been an erosion of trust in the overall food system and a growing level of skepticism about food safety. Statistically, food today is significantly safer than it was a decade or a generation ago. However, because of the efficiency we achieved in distribution, and our ability to deliver products around the country overnight, what might have been a localized outbreak a decade ago can affect the food supply on a national level today. The result is a disconnect between what science tells us—that the food supply is, in fact, safer than it used to be—and the perception caused by the magnitude of an outbreak.
Hilary Thesmar, FMI: Consumer confidence is actually very high. Our 2011 trends report show that 88% of shoppers are somewhat or completely confident in the safety of food at the supermarket. A more recent report from FMI shows that supermarket sales are increasing. I think this validates that consumers are confident in the food supply from both a health and nutrition point of view and food safety.
John Heller, Neogen Corp.: There is a decline in consumer confidence that can be viewed as unfortunate collateral damage from the unprecedented number of global food safety-related incidents. We cannot expect consumers to not be adversely affected by the growing transparency of food safety recalls, especially in 2013’s social media-fueled global news age.
Looking at legislation
Q: The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 promised to overhaul the legislation guiding the food industry in the U.S. Recently, the act has been making headlines for lagging behind. What has the impact been on the industry so far?
Gina Nicholson, NSF International: The main obstacle has been the tidal wave of demand for accredited food safety auditors. Many retailers have stated that they will only buy from suppliers who can demonstrate compliance with FSMA’s requirements. As a result, NSF and other accredited food safety auditors have seen an increase in suppliers looking for consulting, training and the audits they need to earn a GFSI or other certification. We are busy working with all sectors of the food industry to evaluate their processes and procedures to make sure that they not only meet FSMA standards, but ultimately provide safer, higher quality food for their customers.
Heller: The biggest obstacle has been the delay in the implementation of FSMA rules and the questions over what the final rules may be. The grocery industry is looking to Neogen on what to expect, and in some cases, no one seems to know exactly what to expect. It is difficult to refine a food safety program to comply with new regulatory requirements when you are uncertain what those will be.
Q: Traceability programs have become the norm for many retailers and supply chains. Consumer demand for transparency in the supply chain and retailers’ need to react quickly to a product recall drove traceability programs to popularity before they ever made their debut in Congress. With legislative backing from the FSMA and other acts, traceability systems are expanding to a number of supply chains. How are they impacting the retail landscape?
Angela Fernandez, GS1 US: It started with produce. That industry did not wait until regulation was passed; they wanted to control their own destinies so they developed an initiative that identified product by brand. We have since seen many fresh food categories, such as seafood, meat, dairy, deli and bakery, where a lot of mislabeling happens, follow suit. A lot of our work over the last three years has been focused on how to apply our knowledge of identification and data sharing in the center store categories to the perimeter of the store. To do so, we have to move away from commodity identification, as is typically seen in produce, to brand identification.
The problem we are facing is creating enough visibility within the supply chain. We are trying to make sure that brand owners are identifying products in a way that their trading partners can understand.
Thesmar: There is a lot going on with traceability right now. FSMA rules regarding traceability have been through an open comment period recently, so we are working very closely with retail and supply chain partners on initiatives to be prepared for what comes down the line.
Q: What are the benefits of traceability programs outside of addressing a food recall?
Dr. Jim Gorny, PMA: Traceability has tremendous capabilities throughout the supply chain; not only does it track where a product has been and where it is going, the program also deals with efficiencies, including perishability. It is no longer only for the worst-case scenario, but for tracking information, such as which supplier has the highest ring, which has the highest level of shrink or where is shrink concentrated.
Arnot: Traceability is terrific in terms of source identification, but I think the real benefits of these programs are that they raise awareness and increase focus. What you are really looking for is to create a culture that is focused on food safety.
Q: Produce may have initiated the traceability trend in the fresh food categories, but it is making its way around the perimeter of the store. What current issues are being addressed for fresh food products?
Jeremy Russell, NAMA: We continue to work with the USDA and other industry partners to improve the U.S. traceability system for meat, but the bigger challenges are on the live side. Ultimately, the success or failure of the livestock identification system will be determined by the USDA.
Thesmar: Consumers also want to know where their food came from. Many suppliers have gone as far as to make the whole supply chain visible to consumers. They attach a QR code that consumers can scan to see where their product came from.
The fight for fresh
Q: The fresh categories are always the most vulnerable to bacteria and other contaminants. Meat, specifically, has received its fair share of attention. What are the biggest health concerns for the meat categories?
Russell: Recently there has been quite a lot of focus on non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria. While E. coli O157:H7 has been an adulterant in non-intact product for many years, the rules were only recently expanded to include six other STECs that also pose a health risk. It is believed that the same controls that work against O157 should work against the others, and the industry has been mobilizing to assess the precise risk of these pathogens and discover novel ways to thwart them.
Additionally, NAMA has established a research foundation and will be focusing its research, to begin with, on salmonella. While the CDC FoodNet data shows Salmonella-related illnesses are in somewhat of a plateau, the challenge that we are trying to address is at the post-harvest sector, which has not been a research target for Salmonella reduction before—at least not to the extent that we feel is sufficient.
Q: What is the produce industry focused on?
Dr. Bob Whitaker, PMA: The number one thing we are looking at right now is the area of research and developing data for the industry’s use. One of the big issues we have today is using that data and understanding more about the pathogens and how they exist in the environment. Over the last five years the Center for Produce Safety has gathered some exciting data; we have been able to look at and understand the variables in contamination, the risk factors, different sources of contamination and the role of harvesting equipment. The real value to the industry is the body of knowledge that CPS is developing. Growers, shippers, packers and retailers can be better armed to deal and design their food safety programs.
What’s to come
Q: Building or maintaining consumer confidence is a continual process. What steps can the industry take to constantly reassure consumers?
Heller: In order to build consumer confidence, we must first understand the new normal in the food safety environment. Then it is just about doing what companies have always done—using every food safety and quality tool available to them to protect their brands.
Thesmar: We address food safety in three different ways. The first is to work with suppliers to source safe products; the second is to work closely with the supply chain, including retailers, to make sure they are purchasing safe products throughout the supply chain; and the last is working with our partner organizations, such as the Partnership for Food Safety Education, to educate consumers on reducing their danger at home through safe food handling and storage.
Nicholson: Studies have shown that 20% of food borne illness outbreaks result from food consumed in the home. Developing a strong food safety education program for consumers is a great way for grocers to improve the confidence of their consumer base. NSF microbiologists conducting the 2013 NSF International Germ Study analyzed 14 common kitchen items for the presence of four different types of microorganisms: E. coli, Salmonella, yeast and mold, and Listeria. The study found that many of these appliances and tools used to prepare food do harbor pathogens.
Under the microscope
Retail delicatessens can be a breeding ground for bacteria, specifically Listeria. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are about 1,600 cases of listeriosis in the U. S. annually. A recent study by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) and the FDA looked at the risks associated with the consumption of deli-prepared foods and came up with recommendations for retailers to improve the safety of their current practices.
The first of its kind, according to the FSIS, the research quantitatively links retail deli practices to predicted public health outcomes. The study reinforces the importance of the FDA’s Food Code recommendations. Other key findings include:
Maintaining proper storage temperature, as recommended by the FDA Food Code, can prevent 9 out of 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products;
Using growth inhibitors could prevent 96 out of 100 cases;
Limiting cross contamination by following proper cleaning methods has shown to make a difference;
Reducing contaminated incoming product by half could prevent 22 out of 100 cases.
“Essential information has been gained from these findings,” says Dr. Elisabeth Hagen,
USDA under secretary for Food Safety. “This assessment highlights the importance of our work to prevent Listeria from entering the retail environment in the first place, and provides a significant tool towards this effort to protect consumers and prevent food borne illness.”
GS1 US is helping fresh food industries get ready for the traceability requirements in the pipeline and meet consumers’ demands. Designed to teach subscribers how to establish and enhance an effective traceability program, the Seafood Traceability Readiness Program and the Dairy, Deli, Bakery Traceability Readiness Program can help companies identify, capture and share product data along the supply chain with GS1 Standards; improve business efficiencies; gain visibility into their supply chains; and help them stay in compliance with the traceability requirements of the Bioterrorism Act and the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“GS1 US took its implementation guides for the produce industry and modified them to suit these fresh categories,” says Angela Fernandez, vice president, grocery retail and consumer packaged goods at the Lawrenceville, N.J.-based organization. The programs provide manufacturers and suppliers with a step-by-step process on how to build their internal traceability system to be able to utilize our standards. We look at where companies should be capturing information, what information should be kept internal and what needs to be shared, in order to keep everyone on the same page.”
Subscribers in these self-paced, online programs will have access to educational webinars, interactive tools and resources and a community of industry peers and standards experts with whom they can share industry best practices and discuss implementation challenges.