Local Food Safety Risk Not To Be Ignored

Retailers and the retail supply chain experienced a break on food safety lately with the highest profile case being Chipotle, and thus the foodservice sector. Yet the prospect of food safety outbreaks is never far away.

We are a decade out from the Great Spinach Outbreak that disrupted the entire industry, and it is easy to see ways in which the production side of the industry has responded, most notably the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Board, which represents a transformational commitment by the industry to raise and make ubiquitous food safety standards.

The industry at large has also made substantial commitments to advance the science behind food safety efforts, notably with the development of The Center for Produce Safety.

Indeed, the Government dramatically changed the laws surrounding food safety and adopted much more aggressive policies.

In this issue, the article “Price Chopper’s Local Hub Model Sets Stage for Sourcing Safer Produce,” starting on page 56, points to the innovative efforts of one retailer, Price Chopper/Market 32, to develop and utilize a hub system to make locally grown produce both more efficient to handle and, also, to enable the better imposition of consistent food safety standards.

The hub system is still evolving, with Price Chopper’s Rick Reed, vice president of produce and floral merchandising, heading up a program to have all local growers supplying the retailer with Good Agricultural Standards (GAP) and passing their products through a series of hubs that will be subjected to Safe Quality Food (SQF) audits, thus complying with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards. It is obviously a better-controlled system than those that allow local farmers to deliver directly to each store or distribution center.

It is an innovative system quite likely to be duplicated by other retailers, though we would expect some pushback from local advocacy groups. For every action, there is a reaction, and many who are passionate about local specifically want to avoid food miles entirely. So, to them, trucking fresh produce to a hub, then to a distribution center, then on to the stores, defeats the purpose. They want a farm that is 3 miles from a store to deliver directly.

Still, the effort to deal with the shortcomings of traditional local procurement is a serious one, and the Price Chopper team deserves kudos for trying to work its way through these issues.

Having known people in the produce industry my entire life, there is simply no question that the issues around food safety are taken more seriously than ever before on the production side. Yet on the buy side (e.g. supermarkets and restaurants), it is fair to say that the commitment to food safety has not evolved as rapidly — post-Spinach Crisis — as it has on the production side.

To a not insignificant extent, the Chipotle story was about a chain’s desire to do things at the restaurant, where food safety standards are difficult to enforce, rather than in more easily controlled central processing facilities. Yet retailers all over the country make the same decision when they decide to process produce at an in-store operation. Both Chipotle and these retailers have their reasons: freshness, taste, shrink reduction, theater, consumer value perception, etc. Yet, in the end, these executives are making the conscious decision to put consumers at greater risk.

Despite the incessant demands by buyers on the production sector for audits and transparency, few retailers, if any, have been willing to step up and publish audit results on things like cold case temperatures.

Store-level and restaurant-level employee training on food safety remains sparse. Even with Chipotle, the world waited in vain for an announcement that all Chipotle employees would be required to have ServSafe certification. Many retailers speak with pride of moving salad bars from produce to deli because the “women” in the delis are thought to be better at this type of work, rather than the “men” in produce. But nobody wants to constrain their employee supply by requiring ServSafe certification before an employee can handle ready-to-eat food.

Local and organic have been all the rage, but to secure local supplies, many buyers have been willing to accept lower standards. They will demand GFSI and other certifications from some vendors and only GAP audits or even minimum assurances from others. Some buyers who demand the most rigorous food safety programs will buy produce blindly at a local Amish auction or buy from farmers who pull up at the door with a truck.

All these decisions have pros and cons, and all are done for a reason. The key obstacle that has not been resolved is to incentivize individual buyers to bias their procurement practices toward food safety and to incentivize other executives to design systems that bias toward food safety.

Few, if any, key performance indicators on the buy-side have been altered to reflect top management’s claims that food safety is a top priority. That means the systemic bias is toward what will produce higher sales and profits — even if it increases food safety risk. Ten years post-Spinach Crisis, this is the fact that most startles.