LAS VEGAS — Food safety is one of the biggest issues on the minds of industry executives, reflecting a high priority for consumers as well, according to an industry panel at the National Grocers Association's annual convention here.
Other issues the panel discussed included private label and sustainability.
Asked what issue keeps them up at night, all four panelists cited the possible threat to the nation's food safety.
“We owe it to each other within the industry to do all we can [to ensure food safety],” Joe Sheridan, executive vice president for Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., said. “We have a responsibility as citizens to do the right thing.”
Wakefern had 220 recalls last year, including 13 high-priority “Class 1” recalls, Sheridan said. When a Class 1 recall occurs, Wakefern determines which retail customers bought the product, “and then we call everyone, up to three times if necessary,” he said.
The food safety system still breaks down, Robert Harmon, vice president of the customer for Harmon City, Salt Lake City, pointed out. “Food can go through all kinds of checkpoints and infrastructures to ensure it's safe, and then one person can fail to wash his hands and problems result. So we must be on guard and proactive at all times.
“Manufacturers and the government are doing the best they can, but it's our responsibility to search out whatever information we need.”
When his company took a proactive role by putting out a press release during a meat recall, “we got a 10% increase in meat sales,” Harmon noted.
But the 2006 problem with contaminated spinach “is still affecting sales,” Harmon said. “Consumers view all retailers as the end distributors, and we are the ones they rely on to deliver safe foods to their families.”
Ken Hubbard, president and chief executive officer of Western Supermarkets, Gardendale, Ala., said retailers must be vigilant. “We've got to be on our toes at all times, because it's difficult to imagine the consequences to a store if it had a serious food safety issue.”
Complicating matters, he said, is that “very often customers hear the news of a recall before the retailer does.”
Frank DiPasquale, senior vice president of NGA, said retailers will drive the agenda on food safety, pointing to the move by Wal-Mart to become part of a global food safety initiative that will require certification, auditing and monitoring of food supplies.
Consumers generally have confidence in domestic supplies, DiPasquale said, “but they're less confident about imports.”
Asked about industry responsibility in the area of sustainability, Sheridan said consumers like to be involved. “What we're finding is, if we send out a clear message to them and they can participate — in terms of using eco-friendly bags, for example — then consumers are willing to change,” he explained.
Harmon offered similar comments. “When you give consumers an outlet for their feelings, they jump on board — which is what occurred when we were able to sell 12,000 ‘green’ bags over a couple of weeks.”
“Some of the things manufacturers have done [in the area of sustainability] are staggering, and consumers have the same concerns, so the sustainability movement will gain momentum,” Hubbard said.
According to DiPasquale, “Retailers make an emotional connection with consumers, and they need information to communicate in order to keep that connection.
“So as an association, NGA must play a leadership role in putting trading partners together, because if those partners can agree this is a focal point for communications and information, we will all be better off.”
In an on-the-spot electronic survey of NGA members, 73% of participants said they don't believe there's been much collaboration between retailers and their trading partners.
In a session on sustainability, Stephen Yucknut, vice president of sustainability for Kraft Foods, said the opportunity exists “for retailers to work with industry to educate themselves and the public more effectively. But from talking with consumers, we find in-store opportunities are not being leveraged the way they could be for communication about sustainability.”
Robert D. Schasel, director of energy and utilities resource conservation for PepsiCo, also said he sees more opportunities for manufacturers and independent retailers to work together. “We've focused on upstream sources, but there needs to be more effort with downstream communications, and we hope to improve on that.
“The bottom line is, environmental issues are not about making small changes around the edges, but making big changes in how we all do business — and with more exchange of ideas, consumers would find their stores more exciting while making the world better.”