SAFETY INSPECTIONS GROW WITH BRANDED PRODUCE

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There's little question that the branding of produce has helped revitalize the former commodity department by giving it a fresh identity. Today, retailers are cashing in on the increased value represented by national, local and store brands.But this progress comes with a price: As branding in produce gains momentum and market share, and supermarkets leverage brands' value to

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There's little question that the branding of produce has helped revitalize the former commodity department by giving it a fresh identity. Today, retailers are cashing in on the increased value represented by national, local and store brands.

But this progress comes with a price: As branding in produce gains momentum and market share, and supermarkets leverage brands' value to maximize profits, the stakes are also rapidly increasing. Retailers and grower-shippers are finding it necessary to take additional steps to protect both the physical product and the value of the label.

"The message we're getting from the buying community is that they're looking for assurances of safer foods, and we're just following through on what they're asking," said Richard Holmes, director of commodity management for C.H. Robinson Worldwide, based here.

The distributor joins a growing number of purveyors who are investing in additional safeguards designed to reassure the customer -- in this case, the retailer -- that the fruits and vegetables they are selling come from farms that adhere to accepted industry safety standards.

In this case, C.H. Robinson recently entered into a contract with Scientific Certification Systems, a third-party certifying agent based in Oakland, Calif., to assess the company's co-packers.

The distributor currently markets several high-profile name brands that could be severely damaged by any adverse publicity, including The Fresh 1, Mott's, Welch's and Eco Terra, to more than 50 retail chains around the country.

"We think that [the assessments] add more value," explained Holmes.

The assessment process is already in full gear. SCS has sent questionnaires to all of C.H. Robinson's co-packers, said Eric Engbeck, director of agricultural-certification programs for SCS. The questionnaires address every aspect of the growing and shipping procedure, in an effort to determine risk exposure.

He said the results of the study, supplemented by SCS's recommendations, will allow C.H. Robinson to determine whether on-site verification is necessary.

"They can target their efforts at those highest-risk areas," he said. "We're going to suggest on-site audits to make sure it really is as bad or as good as it appears on paper."

Through the on-site visits, C.H. Robinson can further evaluate each packer's facilities and handling practices. He said that SCS is one of three auditors performing similar examinations for Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., the first national retailer to require audits for produce suppliers [see Safeway Plan Pushes Safe-Produce Auditors, SN 4/12/99].

The other two firms working with Safeway are Primus Laboratories, Santa Maria, Calif., and the American Baking Institute, Manhattan, Kan.

Eventually, explained Engbeck, both Safeway and C.H. Robinson will look to adopt more comprehensive measures in the form of a certification program, for which each of their co-packers will have to qualify.

In order to become certified, a company must document all the key elements of its Food Safety Management Program, including the details of how they established the program, their sanitation operating procedures and the overall plan itself. The FSMP must detail how the company implements practices contained in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Plan.

While this process can provide a higher level of reassurance for the industry, Holmes cautioned that there is still no way to guarantee a product is 100% safe.

"I think [certified produce] implies the sense that it's safe in general," he said. "That isn't necessarily the case. You can't eliminate risk, you can only reduce it."