SPEAKING OUT ON FOOD SAFETY

Whose responsibility is it to ensure the safety of perishables sold in supermarkets? Vendors? The government? Or maybe retailers themselves?Well, if you were among the hundreds who saw the Speaks presentation at the Arie Crown Theater during last week's Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago, you'll have no doubt where Daniel R. Wegman stands on the issue: He sees that there's a train of responsibility

Whose responsibility is it to ensure the safety of perishables sold in supermarkets? Vendors? The government? Or maybe retailers themselves?

Well, if you were among the hundreds who saw the Speaks presentation at the Arie Crown Theater during last week's Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago, you'll have no doubt where Daniel R. Wegman stands on the issue: He sees that there's a train of responsibility among all these entities that ends at store level -- the place where the chief responsibility for food safety should be discharged. And he is right, since in the end it's retailers who are best able to ensure safety, and who will suffer the biggest downside if food safety is compromised.

Danny Wegman's comments about the ultra-important issue of food safety -- the issue that more than any is making consumers wary of supermarkets and other food outlets -- came during the convention's annual State of the Food Marketing Industry presentation, called Speaks. Some of his comments were made in person from the stage, some by way of a video recording. News articles about that presentation, and many other convention workshop events, are in this issue. But, as for food safety, Danny, who's president of Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., told the convention audience that it's time for retailers to quit "sidestepping" the issue and own up to a leadership role.

"For years, we have sidestepped [the food-safety] obligation, saying it is the job of government and suppliers to protect the food supply," he said. "Today it is time for retailers to step up and assume leadership in this area. As the last link in the supply chain, we can provide the final safety checks before food products reach consumers' hands."

Retailer Wegmans is moving in that direction in the most basic way: by improving its employee-training procedures by means of a four-hour course dealing with the basics of microbiology, personal hygiene, product temperatures and proper storage. The formalized procedure started last summer.

And, in a video presentation at the same session, Danny talked about the special complexity of ensuring the safety of food prepared in-store, even questioning whether safety and profitability can be achieved simultaneously.

"We've produced a lot of food in stores, however, we find that some of the measures necessary to ensure that the food is safe are very difficult to maintain across every item that you might produce," he said in the video. "So we're really questioning, from a food-safety standpoint, whether we can do the job that is required profitably. Because even if we put all the measures in place, it might exceed what it's worth. And it's worth a lot."

As a result, Wegmans is now sourcing more prepared and packaged perishable products through outside suppliers.

"As we look at the supply chain, we've recognized that we need to do business differently than we've done in the past," said Bill Pool, Wegmans' manager of food safety and regulation, who also spoke on video.

"We need to find ways to prevent problems in the first place, instead of inspecting for them after the fact. We're really looking for suppliers that have that same kind of attitude."

It seems to me that if a cutting-edge company such as Wegmans is worried enough about food safety to face changing procedures and product-sourcing strategies to the extent suggested here, the rest of the industry should take a look, and consider doing much the same.

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