PARIS -- The global food industry is moving ahead on a program to boost food safety and build consumer confidence in the food supply, according to Richard Fedigan, chief executive officer of CIES-the Food Business Forum, a global organization of food retailers and suppliers based here.
The program's goal is to have suppliers conform to accepted international food-safety standards against which they will be audited. Already a task force has identified four such standards.
In an interview conducted recently in advance of CIES' World Food Business Summit in Barcelona, Spain (June 18 to 20), Fedigan said the food-safety program's focus is on suppliers of fresh produce and private-label products.
"Let's say you are a fresh produce producer," Fedigan explained. "You would be using one of these standards if you want a retailer that sources globally to take you seriously. But every retailer now sources globally, so this impacts suppliers to all retailers, not just international ones."
This program, called the Global Food Safety Initiative, was launched in 2000, and leaders are now at a critical stage in its evolution. Recently, GFSI began the process of identifying the food-safety standards that will be used to assess suppliers. So far, four standards have been chosen: the British Retail Consortium Global Food Standard (BRC); the Dutch HAACP Code; EFSIS, a proprietary standard; and the International Food Standard, a German standard that has French support. A fifth standard called SQF 2000 is also being considered.
The adoption of these standards and auditing of suppliers will mean that individual retailers will no longer have to conduct exhaustive research into the safety practices of each of their suppliers. This process comes against the backdrop of a number of international food-safety scares in recent years.
Participation of suppliers will be guaranteed because GFSI's task force includes a large number of retailers from around the world. Those from the United States include Wal-Mart, Food Lion, Hannaford Bros., Price Chopper, Kroger Co. and Wegmans Food Markets. The Food Marketing Institute, Washington, is also part of the task force.
While GFSI's focus is on preventing and addressing food-safety crises, it will not tackle some other safety issues considered less clear-cut. "It won't include emotional issues now being debated, such as GMOs or how processors feed animals," Fedigan said.
Among the next steps for GFSI are the following:
Determining how to deal with outbreaks, crises and recalls, including the perfection of an online database that will support the exchange of information in a crisis.
Considering whether to introduce into Europe the "Fight Bac!" campaign, which has been successful in the United States. This campaign teaches consumers about proper food-handling practices.
Improving the food industry's ability to attract and retain excellent employees, particularly on the retail side.
"Retail is still a business in which you can go from bagger to CEO," Fedigan said. "We will work with the universities and other organizations to improve our processes."
CIES will hold its third International Food Safety Conference Jan. 29 and 30 in Barcelona. Fedigan said food safety is only one of the areas of progress for the food industry. He cited gains on many fronts and pointed to the important role of Pierre-Olivier Beckers, the current CIES chairman who is president and CEO of Delhaize Group, Brussels, Belgium. "We are moving toward a new era of global cooperation on many issues," Fedigan said. "Pierre-Olivier has played a big part in that. The challenges are the same all over the world: crisis in consumer confidence, saturated markets, slowdown in the economy, safety, pressure on retailer and supplier brands, nutrition and obesity. Pierre-Olivier has been able to bring about global cooperation among retailers, suppliers and associations."
The theme of this year's CIES' World Food Business Summit is "Success in an Age of Skepticism," referring to how societies are dealing with transformations in governments, economies and businesses. "We almost called it 'Success in an Age of Cynicism,"' Fedigan said. "But skepticism is healthier and doesn't imply mistrust."
Food industry executives scheduled to speak at the summit include Delhaize's Beckers; Daniel Bernard, chairman and CEO of Carrefour Group; Cesareo Fernandez, chairman of Wal-Mart Mexico; Howard Schultz, chairman and chief strategist of Starbucks Coffee Co.; Angel Losada, executive president of Grupo Gigante, Mexico; and Sean Summers, CEO of Pick 'n Pay Retailers.
Fedigan said registration for the summit was proceeding solidly despite a global falloff in travel.
"SARS has presented a big challenge for the global industry," Fedigan said. "That, plus the recently concluded Iraq war, haven't helped confidence. They've added to an atmosphere of risk in light of the downward pressure on growth in saturated markets."
Despite those realities, at the time of the interview CIES was already expecting about 750 business attendees, not including spouses, which Fedigan called a strong registration figure.
He also pointed to steady progress with international technology standards, an important area of focus for CIES. The new cooperation between the Uniform Code Council (UCC) and EAN International will help spur advances, Fedigan said.
"The problem with EAN has been lack of central organization, limited power and limited resources," Fedigan said. "Now the commitment to joint governance between UCC and EAN, including the formation of a board with one CEO, is a major development."
CIES is promoting technology initiatives including the electronic product code and radio frequency identification technology, Fedigan said.
"These technologies are right on top of us," he said. "The problem is the lack of standards. There are no global standards for RFID. The goal is to enable the industry to speak the same language on a global basis." CIES continues to build its activities around a slate of annual events that are issues-focused, Fedigan said. This October CIES' annual CEO Forum in Paris will focus on operational and strategic issues, including global standards and corporate social responsibility, such as food safety, image and nutrition, Fedigan said.
Also this October CIES' annual Management Development Conference will be held in New York around the theme of recruiting good employees. "We want to focus on turning employees into leaders," Fedigan said. "This is an area in which we can learn from our suppliers."