If you were looking for a case that spotlights major problems with our nation's food supply oversight system, it would be hard to produce a more dramatic example than this month's massive beef recall.
The chain of events was covered extensively in the U.S. media and is chronicled in an SN Page 1 news story this week. An animal rights group distributed an undercover video showing abusive treatment of sick or injured cows by a meat supplier, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif. The video, which drew wide viewership over the Internet, showed “downer” cattle being forced through the plant's holding and slaughter facilities using forklifts, cattle prods and other means. It raised concerns not just about animal welfare but also about food safety, because crippled cattle are barred from processing by the government as they may carry a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella and mad cow disease. The company issued the largest meat recall in U.S. history, 143 million pounds of beef products. Fortunately, no illnesses were linked to the recalled products.
These developments led to widespread criticism of U.S. food oversight — in this case focusing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Yet, it all had a familiar ring. Concern over food safety has been growing for the past few years among a consumer base that has traditionally trusted the food supply. It would be nice if there was a magic bullet solution, but there isn't one. In the wake of the latest recall, there were, inevitably, growing calls for overhauling the food inspection system. Among the proposals were strengthening food safety laws, providing more funding for federal inspectors and giving mandatory recall authority to the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration. These proposals aren't new, but they need to be considered in designing the ideal mix of solutions.
Still, retailers and suppliers can't wait for such national fixes. Their job is to provide communication to consumers as developments unfold. As our story points out, retailers such as Safeway, A&P, Whole Foods Market and King Kullen proactively alerted shoppers that their stores were not impacted by the beef recall.
Some retailers and suppliers are taking a new road to help ensure they retain consumer confidence. I discussed this topic last week with Bill Bishop, president of the Willard Bishop consultancy in Barrington, Ill., who pointed out that progressive, innovative retailers are looking to build “visibility back up the supply chain.” They are embracing attributes such as locally farmed, organic or kosher. They are broadcasting that their suppliers conform to rigid standards of safety and quality.
One model to watch, Bill noted, is the response of Toys “R” Us to the safety crisis over toy imports. That retailer just announced new guidelines for suppliers that include stepped-up testing and stricter standards for lead content that improve on federal requirements.
Toys “R” Us didn't wait for federal action or blame things on the government.
That is a powerful example for food retailers facing their own crisis of confidence. Which food retailers will bring the Toys “R” Us leadership stance to this industry? The answer will go a long way in determining which companies will enjoy lasting consumer loyalty.