Here at the Pundit, we’ve been focused quite heavily on the role buyers can play in helping the industry produce safer produce. We initially reviewed the Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety here, here and here, which is signed on to by the following:
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Now FMI is stepping into the game, organizing a food safety conference on December 5, 2006. We sent Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more about it. She spoke with Lawrence C. Edwards, Director Food Safety Programs, and Bill Greer, Director of Communications, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C.:
Q: Why is FMI instigating this food safety conference on December 5?
A: Edwards: Stemming from the E. coli outbreak, there has been a flurry of food safety initiatives. With 21 outbreaks, FDA is requesting a better food safety action plan. Retailers are demanding more stringent food safety measures. A buyer-led initiative pushed by key retailers and foodservice operators was submitted to the produce trade associations. Separately, the National Restaurant Association just launched a food safety task force to formulate a tougher food safety plan for suppliers. The Western Growers Association brought to the table mandatory government regulations.
With these outbreaks, the industry trade associations started putting together an action plan. This meeting is intended to bring all the players together to share and examine the different recommendations and proposals and enhance them, so new action steps can be taken for a more unified plan moving forward.
A: Greer: We feel it is very important for key buyers and wholesalers to work closely in identifying the gaps in the food safety supply chain that led to the outbreaks, and upgrading best practices, particularly applied to spinach and other leafy greens. While regulations certainly make sense, right now buyers can put into place practices very quickly, working with suppliers to upgrade food safety a lot faster than a government agency, which could take months or years. We are looking to have improved practices in place for next year’s spring plantings, and that is the general industry consensus.
Q: Who will be attending?
A: Edwards: Key people from the government, retail, food service and the produce industry are invited. No media will be present. We set the meeting up in different parts. First, the FDA will address the outbreak investigation and current situation. Representatives will include Barbara Cassens, San Francisco District Director; Dr. Jeff Farrar, Chief Food and Drug Branch of the California Department of Health Services; and Faye Feldstein, FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Dr. Katherine Swanson, Vice President, Food Safety at Eco Lab, which does auditing analysis for growers, will be coming in to discuss micro-bacteria testing, water and soil issues, and methods for controlling concerns and hazards. Dr. Trevor Suslow of the department of plant sciences, at UC Davis will be sharing his expertise.
In addition, Western Growers Association will be presenting its marketing order and United will introduce its lettuce and leafy greens action plan. Consumer research will be brought forth by PMA about leafy greens and the state of consumer confidence.
Later in the day, Toni Hofer, Food Safety Manager at Raley’s, will talk about coming together to partner with suppliers. Then Paul Ryan, Executive Director of FMI’s Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute, will speak to the group, and then there will be an open discussion to brainstorm the best solutions.
Q: Does FMI envision a role in standardized food safety procedures and auditing requirements?
A: Greer: Yes, that would be our hope. We are looking for the SQF program, which we have developed a variant of for produce and leafy greens specifically, to provide strict standards across the industry. Through the general SQF program, we have issued over 5,000 certificates for food suppliers around the world. Certification is not just based on what the auditor sees on a particular day, but closely monitored for ongoing commitment and compliance. There is no question that in the wake of the spinach E. coli outbreak, the requirements will need to be tweaked, but the important point is that FMI has the infrastructure in place.
Q: Are there any other planned activities at the conference?
A: FMI has a food protection committee that will be meeting on December 6. It is made up of leading food scientists from all the major food companies. It is a very elite group of the foremost food safety experts in the retail industry.
Q: In the end, what do you hope this conference will accomplish?
A: Greer: This will be a forum to scrutinize the proposals, discuss how effective they are and how they can be adjusted or improved.
A: Edwards: The regulatory agencies’ involvement will be important. Many resources have been expended and drained with these outbreaks. It’s about time we dig into the problem as a unified force.
Obviously FMI wants to be involved and the conference which, they tell us, will have representatives from every major retailer, is important.
One super big mistake: Media have been banned from the conference. As readers of the Pundit know, we have our sources and will find out what we need to, but if the goal is to build public confidence in the process the industry is going through, you not only open it to media, you send a velvet invitation to the big consumer media groups.
It smells of smoke-filled rooms where deals will be cut in secret. If you let in some light and air, everyone will have more confidence in the final product.