As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with

Mark Jarvis, CEO of Steritech Group, on managing complex supply chains and food safety for small producers

Mark Jarvis knows food safety from the bottom of the supply chain

to the top. As CEO of Steritech Group, a leader in food safety and

quality assurance consulting and auditing, Jarvis oversees around

100,000 food

safety inspections annually for many of the leading supermarkets,

restaurants, hotels,

contract caterers, and food manufacturers. Food Safety News recently sat down with Jarvis to discuss the realities of the food safety system.

Part II

Q: When you take on a new food client, are you ever just blown away by the conditions? Does it make it hard to shop at the grocery store?

A: One of the big dilemmas we face as consumers–and I look at this as an executive in the industry and also as a consumer with little kids–is that we just don’t know.

When you see these big companies having major issues … and using the PCA outbreak as an example, all of the giants, companies that I always looked up to and respected–like Nestle and Kellogg’s–you’d think these guys must surely have their act together, but they didn’t. I think it really exposed vulnerabilities that exist throughout the supply chain.

There’s a movement towards small and locally grown, and I’m very much in favor of that whole concept, we work with a lot of companies who are moving in this direction. The whole idea of locally grown, organic, artisanal products, with more creativity in food production, the link between the consumer and the producer, regional food systems–all of that is great. 

We’ve done a lot of work developing on farm food safety programs, sustainability standards, and that type of thing; however, the problem is a lot of these little suppliers have absolutely no programs in place whatsoever.  They don’t begin to understand what food safety is, they have very poor management systems. The thing that’s frustrating is that I don’t think it’s that much of a leap for them to get where they need to be.

People talk about HACCP as if it’s Sarbanes-Oxley. It isn’t. HACCP is actually a very simple commitment from providers to look for areas in their production process that could be hazardous and put some controls in place.

There are many, many train smash stories out there. We’ve showed up to small producers and gone ‘there is nothing to inspect, you have no food safety program’.

Q: Do you think smaller producers pose most of the problems?

A: Look, we have about 240,000 firms.  There are probably 400,000 manufacturing sites around the world registered with the FDA. That domain is huge and there are major gaps.  Again, I’ll use PCA as an example.  That was a manufacturer of five percent of all peanut paste in North America.  Five percent.  There are manufacturers way smaller than they are flying under the radar.

If you use them as a benchmark, I’m guessing they are in the top 10-15 percent of manufacturing facilities in terms of size and scale. There are thousands and thousands of smaller facilities even less capable of producing safe food with even less rigorous programs in place.

Q: It’s kind of daunting…

A: It’s absolutely daunting. We’re shifting our focus towards being able to help these little suppliers comply with HACCP for very little. What will happen if the food safety bill is signed into law, is that all of those 400,000 manufacturers will be scrambling to get the necessary programs in place.  We’re working on web-based solutions, amongst other things, that these smaller manufacturers can use.

They would find very quickly that it is neither as difficult nor as expensive as so many of the opponents of the bill are saying it will be. 

Q: I want to talk with you about ingredients. How can companies ensure they aren’t putting Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter or hydrolyzed vegetable protein into their products?  Do they need to apply more pressure to their suppliers? Where’s the incentive to look all the way up the supply chain?

A: It’s a recurring theme–incentives. I think that’s an interesting issue. Little manufacturers who don’t have big brands and who actually have limited assets and limited insurance coverage, they don’t really stand to lose that much if they cause a huge outbreak.  You have to rely on them to do the right thing.

However, as we have learned, you can’t rely on people to always do the right thing.  For those little guys I think the incentive will be driven by the regulations, they’ll be petrified that they’ll lose their license or permit and that they’ll be shut down by the agency.  It might bring the floor up.

I think for the biggest brands, their incentive is to make sure they stop damaging their brands, and spending the hundreds of millions of dollars that they do when things go wrong. In the case of ingredients, there hasn’t really been a viable solution up until now. That’s another area we’re investing heavily in–developing technological solutions.

(Jarvis explains that Steritech has a software platform which gives companies more visibility over their supply chain, so if you make an energy bar with 20 different ingredients you can have detailed, organized, searchable information about each one of them in one place.)

If you don’t have visibility over your supply chain, and you don’t have control over what’s going on.

Part I of our discussion with Jarvis is here, on auditing challenges, food safety incentives, and best practices. See Food Safety News tomorrow for Part III.