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Tainted Food, Hackers Making Trips to the Store Too Risky

Tainted Food, Hackers Making Trips to the Store Too Risky

Like doctors, food retailers have a paramount duty to “do no harm.” Yet lately, it's become increasingly difficult for retailers to keep consumers out of harm's way.

One does not have to look far into the recent past to come up with some good examples. Last month, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., based in Chino, Calif., issued the largest beef recall in history, 143 million pounds, after an undercover video showed workers kicking sick cows and using forklifts to try to force them to walk.

And earlier this month, Quaker Oats recalled certain boxes of its Aunt Jemima Pancake & Waffle mixes because of potential salmonella contamination. The remarkable parade of recalls that began in earnest with the spinach scare of 2006 shows little sign of abating.

On a separate but equally troubling front, last week Hannaford Bros. acknowledged a security breach at its stores that exposed more than 4 million credit and debit card numbers and led to about 1,800 cases of fraud. (See story, Page 1). The threat of security intrusions, like that of recalls, also promises to be with us for some time to come.

These issues call for food retailers to take aggressive stands to protect shoppers from both tainted food and credit card thieves. While some strides have been made in these areas, it's clear that more remains to be done.

Let's look at the recall issue first. In addition to working with suppliers on quality control from the farm all the way through to the shelf, retailers need a reliable and precise traceability system that can target tainted products and get them removed from the system as quickly as possible.

But, as delineated in a special report beginning on Page 31, the U.S. food industry has not excelled in traceability, falling well short of what its counterparts in Europe and elsewhere around the world are doing. Even when a company does employ a traceability system, unless everyone in its supply chain is on board with a similar system and process, a recall may well miss the mark.

Fortunately, the produce industry is asserting itself in this area with a program called the Produce Traceability Initiative. If all goes as planned, the initiative will result in all players in the produce supply chain — growers, packers, manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers, and retailers — using the same data and procedures to track and trace cases of produce when the need arises.

The key is, everyone will be singing from the same songbook. This would be a model that other product groups — including CPG companies — could emulate.

The data security issue appears in some ways more troublesome than the recall issue. In Hannaford's case, the chain has adhered to standards for data security — the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) — and yet its network was infiltrated nevertheless.

At a minimum, retailers, banks and processors will need to come up with more hacker-resistant security standards than what's prescribed by PCI. And retailers will need to be more proactive about applying those standards without the fines and deadlines imposed by the card associations.

Because, before anything else, do no harm.