WASHINGTON -- Though the debate over the sale of genetically modified foods in European supermarkets is all but concluded, American retailers say they're not rushing to ban such items, as their colleagues across the Atlantic did, in the face of shrill public protest.
The current "wait-and-see" attitude not only reflects a lower level of interest in the topic among the majority of the American public, it also indicates the traditional reluctance of large retailers to take a stance that might alienate consumers. A panel of supermarket executives expressed mixed views on the issue to growers and shippers here at the annual United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association public policy conference.
The panel was comprised of Peter Rojek, vice president of environmental health and food safety at A&P, Montvale, N.J.; Gale Prince, a representative from Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Dave Wiemer, corporate director for quality assurance at Supervalu, Minneapolis; and Bob Stumpo, director of purchasing for Wendy's Inc., Dublin, Ohio.
"We don't have enough information to make our decision on this," Rojek said of genetically modified foods, nicknamed "Frankenstein foods" in Great Britain. "We will make decisions on sound science as more information becomes available."
Prince said it is Kroger's belief that there is no reason to be concerned about the safety of genetically altered foods.
"One of the things we pride ourselves on is offering our customers a choice," Wiemer said of Supervalu's stance. "Great advances and great strides have been made through biotechnology. Maybe it's time to translate that message to consumers."
Stumpo said biotechnology is "very attractive" to Wendy's, but that the chain's vulnerability to public opinion hampers its use. "This is an emotional issue, and we'll have to see where the media takes us."
Throughout Europe, food products containing genetically modified ingredients like corn and soybeans have been pulled from the shelf, after public protest demanded their removal. In Great Britain, the government even went so far as to mandate strict labeling requirements for any product containing altered ingredients. Violators face severe financial penalties, not to mention the adverse publicity that would follow.
On another front, however, members of the retailer panel are unequivocally united. They all said that food safety -- which is a hot issue with American shoppers right now -- must include a strong relationship with suppliers, although their nature may vary in scope from retailer to retailer.
"We're moving forward," Rojek said of A&P's food-safety initiatives. "We have not taken some of the aggressive steps that our competitors have taken, but we're right behind them. Internally we're mobilizing."
As for A&P's internal food-safety program, Rojek said: "We're very sensitive to what our supplier partners are going through."
Kroger's Prince said having safe food is the key to the success of the company, and is based on the relationship between the chain and grower/shippers. "It's a partnership between our suppliers," he said. "The quality of produce can vary, but food safety cannot."
Kroger requires suppliers to file reports that indicate the integrity of the fruits and vegetables prior to harvest. Suppliers also must follow certain "good agricultural practices related to growing and harvesting." At Kroger's distribution centers, quality-control specialists inspect each load, Prince said.
"We are not embarrassed to reject a load when they come into our dock," he said.
At the retail level, Kroger emphasizes food-safety education. Over the past year, Prince said, Kroger has re-educated more than 50,000 employees in food-safety techniques.
Supervalu "only buys from reputable sources" and relies on the "gatekeeper approach" at its warehouses.
"The consumers view us as a pipeline," Wiemer said. "It's very important down the supply chain that everyone takes the proper responsibilities."
Supervalu also requires temperature gauges on all inbound produce loads, and employs quality-control inspectors at each warehouse.
Wendy's Stumpo said the chain requires soil and water testing from its suppliers, as well as pre-harvest sampling for E. coli contamination.
"At first it was laborious, but as grower involvement continued they began to embrace it," Stumpo said. "We feel we've established a good program."
Wendy's also trains store personnel on proper personal hygiene and ways to avoid cross contamination of foods.
All companies were amenable to the growing use of third-party verification and the standardization of audit procedures. The panel said that these two practices are helping to define the supplier-retailer relationship, since the ultimate goal -- safe produce -- is shared by both sides.
"We need to have a minimum level of assurance that things are happening safely," said Rojek. "We need some level of standardization."
Prince said Kroger believes third-party verification procedures can help supermarkets improve operations. Meanwhile, Supervalu doesn't use third-party verifiers for produce, but instead relies on strong partnerships with producers.
"Our focus is assuming through our partnership that you know what you are doing and that you know best practices," Wiemer said.
The relationships have already been tested, when the Food and Drug Administration issued a nationwide advisory regarding the safety of sprouts. Supermarkets took varying degrees of action at store level, but all involved worked with their grower/shipper sources.
For example, A&P removed sprouts from its salad bars and contacted suppliers to check that sprout safety programs were in place. Prince said Kroger is monitoring the situation closely and is considering using third-party verifiers to monitor their sprout suppliers. Supervalu agreed that sprouts might "be a candidate for third party."
However, with all the progress that retailers and their suppliers have made in implementing quality-control and food-safety programs, the panel said that both must not only work with one another, they must also work together to educate end users. Cross contamination at the checkout is seen as the "last frontier" by operators.
"All of the work we do up until that point can be lost," Supervalu's Wiemer said. "All of the expense and diligence can be lost when a package of meat drips on the broccoli."