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Hello from the other side: Retailers as a force in food safety

Opinion

Adele is a singer from my homeland who made history by having the quickest selling record of all time. The signature tune “Hello” was an emotional rendition of lost love. When I first heard it I was reminded of the role of retailers in food safety — they’re involved in setting the agenda, but they step back when things go wrong.

Such a line of thought could indicate I need to get a social life. Beyond that we need to consider what role retailers’ have in food safety and whether they should be the leaders

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If we look back in history we often forget that the main purpose of introducing food regulations was the habit of retailers to adulterate products. It was common to find flour mixed with plaster of Paris, chicory used to extend coffee or milk diluted with water.

The first supermarkets arose in the 1960s and went through exponential growth to become the national and international conglomerates we see today. The key to the success of the retail chains was excellent management, marketing, cost cutting and highly efficient distribution chains. Importantly, they didn’t come through by competing with each other, but to take the space from the small independents.

The relationship between food processors and retailers has undergone a significant transformation over the years. In the 1950s, the era of mass food production grew rapidly with greater centralization. At that time it was the processor who set the prices and retailers had to accept them.

Industry also set the food safety agenda and was the driving force for the introduction of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) in the 1990s. With industries being the leaders in food safety it may have been expected that foodborne illness outbreaks would have dropped like a stone.

In the white paper published under the Clinton administration that essentially gave the food safety keys to industry, it was predicted that Salmonella would be a thing of the past by the year 2000. Obviously that did not happen. Outbreaks such as the one in 2002 that killed eight and was linked to Pilgrim’s Pride deli meats contaminated with Listeria made some commentators think the keys to the chicken house had been given to the fox.

During the 1990s there was a rapid shift of power away from processors to the now powerful retailers. Indeed, the retailers had the power to dictate to the processors on both price and quality. The shift in power was primarily due to the major retail chains cooperating, sometimes to the detriment, but also to the benefit of the consumers.

With industry seemingly struggling to control foodborne illness outbreaks, it was the retailers who stepped up and developed the concept of Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarking.

The primary goal of GFSI is to bring equivalency and consistency of food safety management systems across the globe. For the retailers this provided assurance that regardless where products were sourced from they could, in theory at least, be of an equivalent standard of those produced domestically.

Another benefit of GFSI was that rather than retailers each having to send auditors to inspect processors, they could all use the same one — a third-party auditor — thereby increasing efficiency.

The power of retailers enabled them to push the GFSI agenda and essentially dictate to processors that if they didn’t implement a GFSI recognized scheme they would go elsewhere. Anyone who has been through SQF, BRC and FSSC2000 will appreciate the cost and effort involved to implement and maintain certification. Nevertheless, if processors wish to supply the big retailers, it is a hoop that needs to be jumped through.

By 2010 it was clear that retailers were the ones pushing the food safety agenda and imposing requirements on processors that went beyond government regulations. At the same time they pushed processors to provide products at lower costs, just-in-time delivery and with increased efficiency.

As in life, with leadership comes responsibility. This is where retailers tend to take a backward step. The first cracks started to appear with the advent of the third-party auditor reports where soon after receiving a glowing audit there was a multi-state foodborne illness outbreak. The most notable case was with the listeriosis outbreak linked to cantaloupes produced by the Jensen brothers in Colorado.

The outbreak resulted in 147 confirmed cases and 33 deaths.

The outbreak was noteworthy on many counts with one being that the retailer, amongst others, was named in subsequent litigation. Walmart settled out of court but a precedent had been set.

If we move forward to a more recent outbreak involving E. coli O157:H7 tainted celery and/or onions the retailer, Costco in this case, was quick to point the finger at their suppliers as the root cause of contamination. Clearly, in this case Costco officials were attempting to distant themselves from responsibility.

This was not the only example, in 2011 most of the 17 cases of E. coli O157:H7 resulting from the XL Foods incident were traced to tenderized steaks sold at Costco. At no point in the outbreak investigation was Costco held accountable with all the blame being diverted to XL Foods that had a short history thereafter.

There is an argument that retailers should not be engulfed in the litigation fly trap. After all, they are simply the middleman between processor and customer. Moreover, any failure to identified food safety issues should be placed on the third-party auditor who is commissioned to ensure the processor is maintaining standards. To many these seemed valid arguments and for a long time I shared the same view.

However, when we look a little closer one would question the commitment of retailers to food safety. For example, is it a coincidence that the risk of Listeria at retail deli counters was found so high that guidance documents had to be published to improve sanitary standards.

In another example, the doctoring of “Best Before” dates has been highlighted. Some may suggest the “Best Before” dates are not a safety issue, this could be true, but it is certainly a food safety culture issue.

There are other examples, of temperature abuse and cross-contamination that could also be highlighted. In short it does appear that retailers more frequently are in a position of “Do as I say but not what I do.”

There is little doubt that GFSI has brought major benefits to the standard of food safety, if not only to increase the focus of processors to do the right thing. Factors such as third-party auditing need to be improved, along with practices at retail. More importantly, retailers have to note they are part of the food safety system as opposed to above all responsibility on the other side.

 

 

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