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Pundit’s Mailbag — Dave Diver: Quality Assurance At Every Level

Our article entitled Insightful PMA Food Safety Sessions Reveals Buyer Hesitancy focused on the idea that we need to separate the buying function from the food safety assurance function through the use of Quality Assurance (QA) departments. The piece brought this comment from a veteran retailer:

Your thoughts about retail Quality Assurance takes me back over 20 years when a Quality Control department was set up at Hannaford. The inspectors formerly reporting to their respective departments were transferred to QC, where QC had the final word and responsibility for product acceptance.

Decisions were made based on fulfilling the corporate Mission Statement and everyone understood what we as members of the company stood for in relation to customers, associates and shareholders.

Nothing is perfectly implemented, but every level of the distribution system needs standards, and those levels above and below can create risk when not meeting Acceptable Practices. Someone will always be trying to beat the system because of greed. Hopefully there is sufficient fear to minimize those operators. Tides have a way of raising and lowering all boats.

— David Diver
Formerly Vice President of Produce
Hannaford Brothers

There are a lot of things that buyers can’t really be expected to negotiate. The fact that retailers and foodservice operators recognize this is at the root of vendor complaints that buyers won’t pay more for quality. This is not really true however.

What really happens is that the quality is determined by the buyer specification. So one chain decides it will only sell a Washington Extra Fancy apple, another sets its spec at U.S. Extra Fancy and still another says U.S. Fancy is acceptable.

Once that spec is set, the buyer takes it from there. No amount of selling will persuade a buyer, charged with buying Fancy grade apples to pay extra for Extra Fancy — the decision was made when the spec was set.

It is unrealistic to expect buyers to listen to random food safety standards and decide to pay a quarter more because one product is “safer” than another. So the food safety requirements have to be set up in the specs.

So retail executives could decide that they simply will not purchase from a fresh-cut processor who has not been audited to meet the standards of the British Retail Consortium.

Now that choice is out of the buyer’s hands. He simply can’t buy product that doesn’t meet that specification.

The problem in food safety is that the produce department has conflicting interests. Of course the produce executives want safe food but our knowledge here is imperfect so it is very easy to persuade oneself that a particular standard is unnecessary if it is going to cost money.

Especially if the chain is actually evaluating the produce executives based on sales and profits — not food safety.

And this is almost always the case.

So the logical thing to do is set up a separate department that is not invested in increasing sales or profits, except in the long term sense that safe food preserves and enhances a retailer’s reputation.

Now when confronted with an issue such as the California Marketing Agreement, there won’t be the same concern with how constricting a supply chain by limiting who one can buy from will increase cost of goods. Instead the focus will be, where we want it, on enhancing food safety.

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