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Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative
Maturing In More Ways Than One

The role that buyers can play in the industry efforts to enhance food safety is still unclear. The roster of signatories to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative is as follows:

Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
Gary Bergstrom, Publix
Craig Carlson, Pathmark Stores
Jim Corby, Food Lion
Greg Corrigan, Raley’s
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Brian Gannon, Big Y Supermarkets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Don Harris, Wild Oats Markets
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Mark Hilton, Harris-Teeter
Craig Ignatz, Giant Eagle
Jim Lemke, C.H. Robinson Worldwide
Mike O’Brien, Schnuck Markets
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Roger Schroeder, Stater Bros.
James Spilka, Meijer, Inc.
Mark Vanderlinden, Price Chopper
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

The list of participants is almost three times as many signatories as the eight brave souls who were signed on at the start.

The initiative grew out of conversations between Tim York of Markon and Dave Corsi at Wegman’s and has been championed by Tim York. The initial effort of the initiative was a letter sent to the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Western Grocers Association

Though the Pundit always praised Tim and associates for trying to do the right thing, we had some scepticism regarding the tone the project took in its initial letter.

The deadline for action set in that initial letter was December 15, 2006:

Due to the urgency of this matter — its current and potential impact on public health — we expect that the major components of this process can and will be accomplished by December 15, 2006. If this is not the case, our options include fast-tracking our own working group to establish a meaningful certification program with objective criteria.

And just prior to that deadline, the expanded buyer’s group sent a new letter to the associations:

We applaud the food safety focus that has been evident at the associations and throughout the industry during the last 45 days. There has been demonstration of some collaboration between the associations, and Western Growers Association’s call for a marketing order is a valuable step toward our common end goal: a stringent common denominator of food safety practices for lettuce and leafy greens.

We congratulate the industry on the progress made to date on the development of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) guidelines for lettuce and leafy greens. The guidelines meet the criteria outlined in our October 26 letter: they are specific, measurable, and verifiable. We understand that a second draft document will be released in the coming days, and we look forward to the opportunity to provide input on the new draft.

We anticipate that draft guidelines for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and HACCP will also be forthcoming.

We reiterate our call for a certification or verification process that enables buyers to determine readily whether suppliers have met foundational food safety requirements. Failure to implement such a certification/verification process will likely encourage a duplication of efforts, resulting in a proliferation of standards and additional expenses incurred by grower/suppliers.

We further call for the formation of a third-party organization modeled on the Center for Produce Quality (and, where appropriate, Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO)). The BIFSCO model is compelling because it addresses the entire food supply pipeline, from farm to table, and thus involves growers, processors, shippers, distributors, foodservice operators, and retailers. We acknowledge that food safety is a shared responsibility, both operationally and financially.

To that end, the above-named companies represent $300 billion in retail and foodservice sales; we intend to support suppliers throughout our supply chain, that meet the industry accepted foundational food safety requirements.

The associations should continue their efforts to reach out to other associations, including NRA and FMI, to preclude the development of multiple food safety standards.

We reiterate our call for initiating comparable food safety guidelines for tomatoes, green onions, and melons no later than February 15, 2007.

As long as the associations continue to collaborate toward meeting the goals outlined, it is our intention to continue to work with and through the associations to drive the changes necessary for our industry to address the food safety challenges we all face. Please inform us of further actions you intend to take.

Although not precisely humble, the new letter is significantly more restrained in tone than the first, demanding missive. The letter speaks for itself but contains three revelations not included in the initial letter:

First, there is an acknowledgement that food safety is not something that growers and processors provide retailers but, instead, a total supply chain responsibility:

We acknowledge that food safety is a shared responsibility, both operationally and financially.

Second, there is an expression of intent to use their buying power to support growers and processors that follow the new rules:

To that end, the above-named companies represent $300 billion in retail and foodservice sales; we intend to support suppliers throughout our supply chain, that meet the industry accepted foundational food safety requirements.

Third there is a call for the formation of a new industry organization, modeled after the Beef Industry Food Safety Council. Tim York, in an interview with the Pundit, described it this way:

There is an ideal model we could be following as an industry. Instigated by the Beef Industry Food Safety Council [read more about it here], it brings together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to attack foodborne pathogens through common solutions. The beef industry set aside differences for the common good. This is a recent foundational work being done over and above government regulations. It’s beautiful and spot on. We could take this document and swap the word beef for produce and it’s exactly the mission in front of us.

One can still see many things problematic about the initiative:

We don’t have the science to quantify the reduction in mortality to be expected from the adoption of a revised GAP on spinach and leafy greens — no matter how specific, measurable and verifiable they may be.

The whole GAP and GMP process is going painfully slow. That we don’t have one in place for green onions is simply unacceptable.

The buyers’ call for a certification or verification process would ring truer if the buyers would accept these audits. Almost certainly, though, each will add its own idiosyncratic requirements to the “foundational” ones — so growers and shippers will wind up with multiple audits no matter what.

A generalized expression of “intent” to support producers who follow the rules probably isn’t quite strong enough to motivate the investments required. Some kind of binding agreement to not buy on the cheap if it sacrifices food safety standards is probably going to be required.

It is unclear that PMA, United and WGA will be able to stop independent food safety initiatives from organizations such as NRA, which has formed a produce Safety Working Group.

Yet, despite these caveats, the buyer-led effort is showing a kind of maturity as it grows in size and as time goes on.

The new letter seems to be a quantum leap forward in finding a constructive place for the buying community in building a safer fresh produce supply. Kudos to all involved.

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