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Industry Can't Afford to Wait for Food Safety Law

Industry Can't Afford to Wait for Food Safety Law

In covering two conferences over the past few weeks that have dealt heavily with food safety, I have heard some encouraging reports about the industry's progress in this critical area. But that has been balanced with some fairly sobering reports as well — a reminder of the glaring need for new federal food safety regulations.

For example, in a session at the Supply Chain Conference, sponsored by the FMI-GMA Trading Partner Alliance, Robert Mooney, Meijer's group vice president, distribution and manufacturing, described his company's effort to gain food safety certification based on Safe Quality Food (SQF) standards for its manufacturing/warehousing facilities.

That was the encouraging part. Mooney also said this: “I have more recall traffic in my email in a week than I did in a year 10 years ago. Rarely a day goes by without a recall in my email.” So while Meijer is doing its part to make sure its manufacturing and wholesaling facilities follow strict food safety protocols, the food that it is receiving from its suppliers is subject to almost daily recalls.

Meanwhile, at the Global Food Safety Conference, held by the Consumer Goods Forum, John Kolenski, director of food safety and regulatory compliance for Kroger, talked about the impressive technology his company uses in the recall process, including an internal Web-based communications system and a system that contacts loyalty card shoppers about recalled products. Kroger is also leveraging the new Rapid Recall Exchange portal to receive electronic recall alerts from manufacturers.

But Kolenski and other speakers at both conferences pointed out pitfalls in the recall system (paid subscribers can read more about this here). For one thing, he said, Kroger is not receiving direct alerts from enough small and medium-sized manufacturers. For another, the retailer is not always being told which of its warehouses has received recalled product.

Manufacturers like Kellogg and Kraft are finding flaws as well, pointing out that distributors who receive their products aren't contacting second-tier retailers expeditiously in a recall, or don't keep records on where products are being delivered.

This alarming growth in the number of recalls, as well as the weaknesses in the recall and traceability system, prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 last July. The country is still waiting for the Senate to pass its FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

Both the Senate and House bills give the Food and Drug Administration important new regulatory tools, including mandatory recall authority, more frequent food inspections and required food safety plans for all facilities. But if the recent impasse over health care legislation is any measure, the Senate can hardly be counted on to pass its food safety bill anytime soon. Industry trade associations as well as individual companies need to express their impatience to intransigent senators.

A boost in federal regulation is needed right away, before the next major outbreak of foodborne illness sickens consumers and undermines the industry.

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