BALTIMORE -- Consumers expect safe food and retailers have a responsibility to provide it for them. But how do you control something that spends more time out of your store than in? Lecturers at the Food Marketing Institute's Food Safety Conference here said retailers can adopt a number of strategies that increases the safety margin for all parties -- customer, retailer and supplier.
"The most important thing that we can do is prepare and sell food that is safe to eat," said Peter Rojek, vice president of environmental health and food safety for A&P, Montvale, N.J. "That's a given. Customers rightfully expect safe food and rely on retailers to provide it."
While food retailers are not the only parties responsible for maintaining the integrity of food through the distribution channel, they are the first place consumers look in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness.
"The consumer is not going to ask 'Did you check with your supplier about the safety of this meat?"' said co-speaker Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety programs for Washington-based FMI. "They just assume that you have."
She reminded the audience that retailers can only maintain safety levels -- they cannot make products safer.
Hollingsworth used Kentucky Fried Chicken as a good example of how knowing your suppliers is pertinent in the case of an emergency. In August of this year, 30 cases of illness due to E. coli contamination were traced back to coleslaw at quick-service restaurants in the Cincinnati area. Many of the cases had similar characteristics and it was discovered that these people had eaten the coleslaw at several different KFC locations. Luckily, KFC's records pinpointed the origin of every ingredient, and investigators were able to trace the strain back to a farm where cows had gotten loose and trespassed into cabbage crops.
To ensure the safety of the products they are purchasing, many retailers are now requiring their suppliers to have specific food-safety systems in place as a condition of doing business with them. To assist retailers in this effort, FMI, through a joint partnership with Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., has developed a vendor-qualification program. It provides suggestions and guidelines for retailers who wish to thoroughly investigate their sources.
The program consists of five questionnaires covering general vendors, dairy and egg products, produce, meat and poultry, and seafood. Topics covered in each include internal controls, validation programs, third-party audits, transportation and recalls. Questions go into detail about specific points of operation, such as: Do you have any written specifications on incoming materials with regard to the following: Temperature? Grade? Prohibited ingredients? Microbial profile? Pesticide residues?
Hollingsworth said that while these tests may be thorough at present, the ever-changing threats to food safety, as well as retailers' ever-increasing product mix, will require these questions to be constantly updated.
"Just having a produce question may not be enough," she said. "You may need to have several different questions for several kinds of produce."
A & P is currently developing their own supplier-partnership plan which Rojek said is detailed.
"We're looking at risk analysis on every product, with a special focus on perishables," he said. "We're developing food-safety questionnaires and sending them to our suppliers, asking what makes them a safe source."
Rojek said A&P considers such queries vital, though finding the right language is critical, since the idea is to build a spirit of cooperation throughout the supply chain, and not to alienate suppliers.
"We don't want to isolate ourselves from the supplier community," he said. "Food safety should be non-negotiable and we want to work with them to ensure that."
He added they are also looking to develop a training program for their buyers to be sure they understand the "cheaper product is not always the better product."
"One question the suppliers repeatedly ask us is: 'Are you willing to pay extra for these products?"' said Rojek.
"They ask because they watch so many buyers go for the less-expensive product. But safety is worth paying for and we want our buyers to understand that," he said.