PHOENIX -- Branded items aside, produce is still very much a commodity product, a reality that makes food safety an even more important component of the food industry's relationship with customers, according to a panel of experts who spoke at United 2000, the annual convention of the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association."If there's a problem with lettuce, then [consumers]

PHOENIX -- Branded items aside, produce is still very much a commodity product, a reality that makes food safety an even more important component of the food industry's relationship with customers, according to a panel of experts who spoke at United 2000, the annual convention of the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

"If there's a problem with lettuce, then [consumers] just stop buying lettuce," said Steve Hilton, vice president of product quality and environmental affairs, Albertson's Inc., Boise, Idaho. "There's no way to determine the difference between the lettuce that caused the illness and the lettuce that's going to be safe."

During the session, moderated by Donna Garren, United's vice president of scientific and technical affairs, panelists stressed that the food industry's expectations from suppliers -- via third-party audits and other certification methods -- are a direct result of consumer demand, not theirs.

"Our customers expect from us quality products and, more importantly, safe products," said Rick Buttner, director of quality assurance, for Doctor's Associates, New York, operators of the more than 14,000 Subway quick-service sandwich restaurants around the world. "There's no room for error."

Robert Stovicek, president of PrimusLabs.com, a third-party audit firm based in Santa Maria, Calif., agreed, saying that the nature of fresh fruits and vegetables makes certification imperative in this food-safety-conscious age. "Produce represents some very unique challenges in contrast to other industries," he said. He acknowledged, however, that the industry is trying to maximize efficiencies to drive costs down.

"The problems are incredible. [The food industry] supplies 500 to 600 produce items a day, year-round, that require long-distance distribution," he said.

The solution that is evolving relies in part on independent verification like those conducted by PrimusLabs.com, and also on proactive practices undertaken by suppliers, using established government and industry standards, the panel said.

Albertson's is among the first supermarket operators requiring all grower/shippers to become certified by a chain-approved auditing firm. According to Hilton, the company's 13 buying offices are looking to source from grower/shippers who successfully complete four stages of the retailer's food-safety program: development of production manuals based on Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices; self-audits using safe production manuals that suppliers have produced; annual third-party audits to confirm goals; and the supplier's willingness to post those scores on a secure Web site designated by the retailer.

"Albertson's is not asking for third-party audits for our sake alone, but for the produce industry as well [because] if you're successful, we're successful," he said.

At Subway, Buttner said that the chain only uses four commodity items: tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, onions and green pepper. While supermarkets can offer consumers some variations on those items should a food-safety problem arise, Subway cannot make a sandwich without these very specific products.

"Our food-cost formulas and our whole product are based on including all of these commodities at the same time, all of the time," he said. "Considering that one death in a Subway store due to foodborne illness could absolutely destroy our brand, we have quite a large challenge."

Until recently, Subway restaurants were responsible for sourcing their own product. The chain began using a purchasing cooperative two years ago, a move that led them to seek more quality and consistency in product. Today, that has progressed further to include food-safety compliance checks by approved firms. But, officials felt the program could benefit from additional control points, Buttner said.

"Third-party auditing made us feel better, but we realized that a mistake by a grower could still put our brand at risk. So, we needed to come up with an effective, low-cost, defensible verification system that all of our suppliers could utilize," he said.

To that end, the company pushed document development in an October 1999 letter to suppliers.

"We think it is imperative from our point of view that they take part in this process of making sure that our food supply is safe," said Buttner.

Albertson's program is identical in many ways to Subway's. But, in regard to the Web posting of audit results, the retailer provides several options for grower/shippers. In one, a supplier with low or failing marks can request a pass/fail score be sent for posting on Albertson's designated Web site.

And, a supplier doesn't have to be posted at all, though that might hurt their chances of getting business from Albertson's.

"All that means is that your name won't be on our approved supplier list," said Hilton. "If you got a failed score or a failed report, we're not going to put you on any list to blackball you. All we're going to do is put the positive list together saying these people have met the requirements and are on the approved list."

All scores posted are protected, unless the grower/shipper specifically says they want them publicized, he added.

The retailer's requirements are the same for domestic and imported product, since the technological advances have erased communication barriers, regardless of distance. Some suppliers have expressed fears that all of these program components will crush them under a burden of cost, particularly if each of their trade customers sets different standards. Hilton said there might be different criteria for certain types of fruits and vegetables -- tree fruit vs. ground-contact product -- but he sees some common standards developing.

"Our problem [in the retail industry] is that we are prohibited from agreeing on any kind of vendor acceptability criteria by collusion laws," said Hilton.

"It's the cost of doing business. Of course, we understand that the cost of doing business is reflected in the cost of product," he added.

Albertson's, too, spends on food-safety programs for its huge staff of store associates. According to Hilton, there are currently 27,000 certified professional food managers and 90,000 certified food handlers; stores get quarterly food-safety training; and the retailer sponsors numerous food-safety education days for consumers, with local health department lectures, pamphlets, and programs developed by the food industry, like Fight BAC!

"If we don't give to them in internal, voluntarily generated programs, then we're going to get it from the regulatory agencies," Hilton said.

"Let's face it folks. Anxiety is a great way to get people to pay attention to an issue," said Stovicek. "Anxiety is a real powerful tool to get across concepts in terms of proper handling of materials that are potential sources of contamination."