PARIS -- CIES, The Food Business Forum, here will formally unveil later this month a food-safety initiative that will set voluntary standards for food products sourced by retailers around the world.
The effort, which includes the participation of a large number of global food retailers, will go further than ever before in unifying food-safety standards for the international sourcing of products, said Richard Fedigan, president and chief executive officer of the global organization of retailers and suppliers.
"This is an unprecedented effort," Fedigan said in an interview with SN. He noted the initiative will be formally introduced at the CIES Executive Congress in Dublin, Ireland, which will be held May 31 to June 2.
"With reports of crises from E. coli to dioxin, companies are very concerned about the food-safety issue. We need minimum levels of guidelines for products sourced around the world, and no one is working on that on an international basis."
The standards will be set by the newly created CIES Global Task Force on Food Safety, Quality and Security. That group -- which now includes food-safety directors from 13 global retailers and is expected to grow -- was formed at a meeting earlier this month in Brussels. The task force chose identification of standards as its first effort after reviewing the top food-safety needs of retailers.
Retailers participating in the task force include Ahold, Asda/Wal-Mart Europe, Carrefour, Delhaize Le Lion, ICA Sweden, Marks & Spencer, Metro, Migro, Opera, Safeway U.K., Sainsbury, SuperQuinn and Tesco. Fedigan noted a number of the participating retailers are parent companies to U.S. retailers, and the group plans to add retailers in the United States and other regions. Prime targets for North American participation are Kroger Co., Albertson's, Supervalu, Wegmans Food Markets and Loblaw Cos. CIES will also coordinate with other associations "that have something to bring to the program," Fedigan added.
The task force elected Alfons Schmid as chairman. He is vice president of public and environmental affairs for Ahold and chairman of the EuroCommerce Food Law Committee. Among the task force's areas of focus will be standards for cleaning of products, refrigeration, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point issues, and other factors dealing with maintaining the integrity of the supply chain, Fedigan said. Much of the effort is aimed at ensuring the safety of perishable products, but other food categories will be taken into account as well.
Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the task force will research the best standards and programs already in use in various parts of the world and incorporate those into its process. Fedigan pointed to strong efforts currently in place, including the Food Marketing Institute's vendor qualifications program, the British Retail Consortium's technical standard for companies supplying retailer-branded food products, and the Australians' SQF 2000 quality code for food-industry and company-branded products. "We want to take the best of what's out there and create a code of best practices," he said.
Stressing the need to move ahead quickly, Fedigan said, "The feeling is that a number of country initiatives are good enough to be extended internationally earlier rather than later. So we want to have a deliverable and implementable result."
Further explaining the need for these standards, Fedigan described the benefits to a global retailer such as Ahold.
"Ahold sells through different formats in many countries and sources in many countries," he said. "Any product the company sources is under the administration of a national agency for food standards, or Ahold sends its own inspectors to look at products. And Ahold has high standards. But Ahold, Carrefour and Wal-Mart all do their own inspections, so there's no harmonization of that. And the product standards are at different levels in the various countries these retailers use for sourcing. So you need a minimum level of guidelines to apply uniformly across the world."
Explaining the background of the task force, Fedigan said chief executive officers of a number of global retailers met in Cannes in April to initiate the effort after CIES' board elected to move forward on the food-safety issue. That meeting was organized in conjunction with the FMI and included Gary Michael, chairman and CEO of Albertson's; Danny Wegman, president of Wegmans Food Markets; and John Menzer, president and CEO of Wal-Mart International.
"We put this initiative before the CEOs, and they agreed it shouldn't be seen as a French or American or other country initiative, but rather as an international initiative," Fedigan said.
"The key was getting the buy-in for these initiatives from the CEOs," he said. "By bringing CEOs in at the start, the process moved along.
"The CEOs were in agreement that food safety is no longer a competitive issue. Companies may choose to compete on food quality or packaging, but not food safety."
The next step was to identify the top food-safety executives in companies that would be part of the task force. These executives, who comprised this month's Brussels meeting, are increasingly viewed as key players in company management teams, Fedigan said.
"The role of the top food-safety executives is more and more important," Fedigan stressed.
He noted that the food-safety debate is somewhat separate from the genetically modified foods issue that has become a flash point in Europe. "Most companies treat GMOs and food safety as separate issues," he said. "No one can prove anyone developed so much as a scalp itch from GM foods."
But consumer concerns about GM foods will continue to make the issue a major one for retailers, Fedigan said. "Some say it doesn't matter if scientific evidence doesn't back up the concerns. The very fact that the consumer perceives it as a concern makes it a food-safety issue, according to this view. That's what is driving European food retailers to eliminate genetically modified foods from their own brands."
Despite the voluntary nature of the standards under consideration, Fedigan said, the effort can gain a lot of clout. "If retailers are party to standards, the suppliers would have to conform to them," he said.