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Would British Retail Consortium Standards Have Prevented The Spinach Crisis?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, Arpil 13, 2007

“I believe that if all companies had adopted BRC standards, the spinach E. coli outbreak very well could have been avoided.”

— Jo McDonald
Technical Services Manager
British Retail Consortium

This is the haunting conclusion of a standards administrator from across the Atlantic. Is it true? And what are we going to do about it?

The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative certainly has had influence on the industry reaction to the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 crisis of 2006, but the buyers have not driven food safety initiatives the way they have in the U.K. The British Retail Consortium, a rough equivalent to the Food Marketing Institute in the U.S., has a well known post-harvest food safety protocol that has been adopted by all major British retailers and by many retailers around the world.

How did this come about? Why have retailers been so aggressive in the United Kingdom and so hesitant to act in the United States? Most were not even willing to restrict their supply chains to signatories of the California Marketing Agreement. To find out more we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with Jo McDonald at the British Retail Consortium.

Jo McDonald
Technical Services Manager
British Retail Consortium, London

Q: BRC standards have a reputation for being far advanced over what we do in the States. Could you provide insight about how the BRC came to be and information that could help Americans better understand what is involved?

A: I’m really stunned that consumers aren’t more concerned about the food they buy. I always say, forewarned forearmed. When I hear all the food safety problems in the U.S., I find it amazing that it is Americans who gave birth to HACCP. Pillsbury actually started it off. It was all done at NASA, because they didn’t want astronauts getting sick with excrement in space suits.

The whole concept of standards like BRC product certification goes back to the early 1990s and even before the UK Food Safety Act of 1990. Everyone had their own codes of food safety. Marks & Spencer would send out inspectors to test and insure procedures were being followed.

Q: What instigated the push for standards?

A: We had food scares that killed a few people in the U.K. Until then brand manufactures only had to produce a warrantee, saying, ‘our food is safe.’ A new law came in with a general food safety directive. It basically said you couldn’t just produce a warrantee anymore. What you have to do is demonstrate due diligence. In the event of prosecution, you would have to insure all possible precautions were taken to prevent a food safety incident. Suppose there was glass in a product. You would need to inspect premises to make sure of no foreign objects, register glass breakage, document how you cleaned the machine and cleared up the problem.

What happened was there was a huge employment of technology by retailers to inspect their suppliers. Really it only focused on retail private label products. Retailers wanted to insure their brand name was being protected. What ultimately happened was that select products needed to pass technical audits. When I worked in retail, I’d go down to do a technical once-over on safety practices. The retailer would only accept product on the condition the company passed an audit. Bigger companies were being visited by so many auditors it started to become a real burden.

Q: What UK retailer were you working for at that time?

A: I was technical manager at Safeway Stores in the U.K. from 1990 to 2002. My primary responsibility was the quality and safety of Safeway label food and beverage products. This included auditing of suppliers and hygiene. Monitoring of quality of delivered product. Working with suppliers to improve their processes to give Safeway the desired quality. The generation of specifications. The implementation of HACCP for all suppliers. Managing of due diligence auditing program, and I also co-authored Safeway’s technical code of practice.

Q: Were BRC standards coming to fruition at that time?

A: From 1990 to 1995 or 96 is the time span of where the concept of BRC standards really started. There would be a document that would come together from big retailers delineating technical codes of practices. In 1998, the first official BRC standard was put forth. It was seen as a neutral umbrella, a consolidation of varying retail standards.

The retail BRC standard is directly related to brand protection. If there was issue with something that had your name on it, and you went to court, penalties were quite draconian. You could go to jail and be out of business, and suppliers would go down with you.

Q: Has that ever happened? Have there been any significant cases where a retailer was prosecuted and put to the test?

A: No retailer with its own label products in the UK has ever been prosecuted in a major way. In the UK, we had malicious contamination, a couple of acts of food extortion in the 1990’s, some idiots putting glass in baby food. That’s where the food safety act came in with draconian penalties. It made a lot of retailers on edge. Even before the food safety act, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Safeway, Tesco, all the key retailers, had food safety standards. They just increased due diligence and inspection of manufacturer premises. They had increased responsibility on the legal side. There is a greater emphasis on protecting product when your name is on it.

There were always food safety requirements. The BRC’s primary job is as a lobby organization to represent member views to UK parliament on a wide host of issues including the environment, trading standards, selling, etc. It doesn’t only represent food retailers. It ranges from little hardware stores, to multiple retail models like Tesco.

Q: Did competitive issues or challenges surface in getting retailers to unite on standardized codes?

A: BRC food safety standards came together because everyone realized it was a sensitive issue. Retailers formed a technical group, which ultimately produced the standards.

They looked upon food safety as a non-competitive issue. Everyone was required to produce safe and legal food. It seemed to make sense from the retail perspective. Retailers could focus on technical skills, on new product development, and in the production department, rather than examining flaws in the toilets.

Q: Are the standards a minimum starting point or positioned as the highest threshold? Do retailers add their own customized requirements to accommodate their specific food programs?

A: The theory is that BRC standards are the requirements that everyone uses and no one adds to them. It is a collective effort with a large stakeholder group. The way the BRC is structured, a membership group continues upgrading the standards. Industry representatives through the trade organization use and implement the standards. Then certification bodies audit against those standards. Now, BRC invites overseas bodies into the process.

Q: How widely recognized and accepted is the BRC standard on a global scale?

A: One of the biggest problems we encounter is that people see BRC as British, and therefore limited in its application. The reality is quite the contrary. We have between 6,500 to 7,000 companies in 71 countries that operate under BRC standards. It is truly a global standard.

One could argue that because sourcing of product is global, integration of BRC standards around the world becomes critically important. In Scandinavia, for example, all food retailers use it. BRC is a global standard commonly recognized. It isn’t only UK retailers that benefit from it. There are organizations like the National Health Service in the UK, and many manufacturers use BRC standards including Pepsico, McDonald’s and Burger King. In many cases, companies will incorporate BRC standards into their company food safety programs. McDonald’s certainly has its own code of practice as well.

Q: For companies that want to become BRC certified, how complicated is the procedure?

A: If you go to BRC global standards on our website, there are step by step instructions on how to get BRC certification. We make it as straight forward as possible.

Q: If BRC standards had been in place in the U.S., would it really have made a difference in the outcome of the spinach E. coli outbreak?

A: I believe that if all companies had adopted BRC standards, the spinach E. coli outbreak very well could have been avoided. There is an element of good practice and operator training as well. If people are not trained properly they won’t be doing what they should be doing, have the mind set to do things correctly and produce safe produce.

The leafy greens crisis is quite interesting. The BRC standard is a post farm standard, and therefore would only come into play once product was harvested and in the pack house, at the time when it was being processed and packed for market. But companies are still interested in what goes on at the farm level in that context. The post farm gate standard was set up going back to retail brand protection and concern with the manufacture of the product.

Q: UK buyers seem to take a more aggressive role in controlling and limiting product purchases based on supplier food safety practices compared to the U.S. Why do you think that is?

A: In the UK with due diligence, retailers are responsible to make sure companies that produce product are competent to do so. With the BRC standard comes a requirement for supplier control. It impacts how retailers select product. They may say in order to take your produce, we need to see your grower records, to know your product was not irrigated with sewage, let’s have a look at the spray diary to know the level of pesticide use is at the legal level, and how you enforce practices, how you train your agriculture staff, etc. If you are a produce processor, what kind of rapport do you have with growers, what documentation and training records?

In Europe, we have regulations that actually stipulate levels of different pesticides and other properties allowed in foods. If handling product, there is micro testing. One requirement of a supplier bringing in lettuce or leafy greens is testing batches of product through the season and they need to produce test results.

In the UK, there is due diligence requirements with the retail brand. There are requirements for retailers to test product as well. The retailer would have specific obligations to demonstrate due diligence and to make sure the supplier is competent.

I believe in the U.S. the legal system is different and ultimately a lot of the responsibility does fall on the supplier.

If you are a prosecutor, the first form of contact is to the retailer selling product that is unsafe, and how can that retailer demonstrate it is safe.

Q: Do UK retailers have a greater legal responsibility than those in the U.S. to monitor food safety on the supply side?

A: The main difference between the UK, Europe and the U.S. is the greater emphasis on self regulation. We are encouraged and the industry manages its own affairs. We don’t want the EU and the UK government telling us what to do. That’s not to say that the UK isn’t highly regulated. If you go to U.K. food law, you see recent hygiene regulations. Legal requirements for traceability and HACCP have always been a part of the system, but there wasn’t the legal requirement to actually document everything. In that respect it’s tight and in the UK it’s heavily enforced.

But in the UK the industry works closely with the government, certainly on the legislation side with the UK and EU government to make sure when the law gets the rubber stamp it makes sense from an industry standpoint. We do have a good relationship with the government. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to march to the beat of our own drum.

Q: Could you provide any examples where BRC influenced legal precedent?

A: BRC fought like hell to change the microbiological criteria law and negotiate provisions to have a law that could be practical and people could comply with it. There were illogical requirements in the bill such as mandating 0 level of salmonella in product, which is not only unnecessary but impossible to achieve. EU equivalents to BRC didn’t do much lobbying, ignoring it and basically hoping it would go away. The bill became enforceable in January of 2006 and now the law is creating logistic problems for many parts of Europe. Certain countries like Germany realize the law can’t be enforced. I was talking to one EU retailer that had to take all pork from Denmark off the shelves because there wasn’t one company that could comply with the law.

We know a lot of EU companies that do not enforce guidelines well. We have strict enforcement in the UK. That’s where BRC certification is quite useful. If you don’t think the law is being enforced properly, at least the criteria are the same in Greece as in the UK and it’s a level playing field.

Q: Has BRC considered extending its post-harvest standards to the field? Since the spinach crisis in the U.S., tremendous attention has been placed on grower-based food safety issues. In the same way that manufacturers were getting visits from multiple auditors with different sets of standards, growers in the U.S. say they are now facing this same phenomenon.

A: To answer your question on agricultural standards, the BRC does sit on the AFS (Assured Food Standards) board. This is a UK industry farm assurance scheme and covers both produce and animals. There are modules for produce, cattle for milk, cattle for meat, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc. The animal ones would also cover issues of welfare as well. We do like happy animals before they meet their maker, or in the production of eggs and milk. Virtually all farmers in the UK are implementing the scheme.

It would not be wise for the BRC to have a primary produce scheme as it would be in competition with the national AFS scheme. Globally as well it would be competition with Eurepgap, NZ gap, Chile gap, and SQF1000. We would of course develop one if our members wanted one, but we would prefer to have a point of difference and go into territory which is more uncharted such as packaging. We now have successful standards in consumer products and storage and distribution that can apply to other parts of the supply chain.

Many thanks to Jo McDonald and the British Retail Consortium for sharing such valuable information. You can learn more about Jo McDonald by reading a brief bio here or her Curriculum Vitae here.

The British Retail Consortium website can be found here. And the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency right here.

The standards are used around the world. You can find a pamphlet on how the BRC is working with Coles in Australia right here.

The BRC is about to launch a Chinese language version of the standards so that Chinese manufacturers can sell to major retailers around the world. Learn about the launch right here.

We really do owe a thanks to Jo McDonald because she lets Tim York, President of Markon Cooperative, Inc. and Dave Corsi of Wegmans off the hook for not getting U.S. retailers to behave as aggressively as the British. For that matter she explains why FMI, with its SQF standard, has never had the same impact as the British Retail Consortium. The reason? The law is different.

In the U.S. retailers generally are not held liable for selling adulterated products; it is the producer who carries the liability. In the U.K. there is a retail responsibility to exercise due diligence regarding one’s suppliers. The prevalence of private label product also creates an enormous reputational risk for British retailers.

The combination of different legal standards with a high private label component has led British retailers to take charge.

By doing it through a consortium, they also reduce the difficulties and expense incurred by suppliers. No matter how tough an audit to many U.S. suppliers it sounds like a dream come true: one audit.

Now that we have the California Marketing Agreement for lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens and many other field level initiatives to improve food safety on the grower level, we need to adopt rigorous standards for the processor level.

Tim York and Dave Corsi should not hang up their hats just yet — how about the buyers insisting that all fresh-cut facilities be audited to British Retail Consortium standards?

We will never know if Jo McDonald’s startling claim that following BRC standards would have prevented last year’s spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is correct. But we know the BRC standard is recognized worldwide as a tough one.

We could do a lot worse than to make it our standard as well.

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