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Vetting the Food Supply

Vetting the Food Supply

In a recent interview with the show's Matt Lauer, President Obama, addressing the wave of peanut-product recalls, pointed out that his daughter Sasha often eats peanut butter for lunch. I don't want to have to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence to having her lunch, said Obama. Given the security protocols surrounding the president and his family, it's highly unlikely that

In a recent interview with the “Today” show's Matt Lauer, President Obama, addressing the wave of peanut-product recalls, pointed out that his daughter Sasha often eats peanut butter for lunch. “I don't want to have to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence to having her lunch,” said Obama.

Given the security protocols surrounding the president and his family, it's highly unlikely that Sasha Obama will ever ingest any tainted food product. But the same can't be said for the American public. As of Feb. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tied 637 illnesses and nine deaths to the salmonella outbreak traced to a peanut processing plant operated by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). The outbreak has so far triggered recalls from more than 200 companies of more than 2,100 products containing peanuts, peanut butter or peanut paste provided by PCA.

This, of course, is only the latest in the hundreds of product recalls that have taken place in the past two years, raising serious concerns about the safety of the U.S. food supply among the public, the federal government and the food industry. The latest peanut recalls, moreover, underline the impact that just a single company can have on the food supply chain; in this case, PCA's peanut butter and paste were ingredients in hundreds of other products — made by national-brand and private-label manufacturers — such as cookies, crackers, ice cream and energy bars.

“The majority of food companies are putting an enormous effort into food safety,” said Robert Brackett, chief science officer at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington. “But all it takes is one small actor like this to bring the system down — and that's unacceptable.”

Much of the blame for the increase in food recalls over the past few years has been aimed at the federal government, particularly the Food and Drug Administration, for failing to properly oversee the food supply. In response, the Obama administration has vowed to conduct a comprehensive overview of the FDA and make significant changes, including the appointment of a new commissioner. Calls for strengthening the FDA's oversight powers are also coming from Congress and the food industry associations.

Meanwhile, the food industry continues to grapple with its own shortcomings, making progress with at least two major initiatives. One, spearheaded by the Food Marketing Institute, is the creation of a Food Recall Portal that allows manufacturers to quickly communicate information about food recalls to retailers and wholesalers. But the Web portal's effectiveness will depend on attracting enough subscribers, a process that is ongoing. (See “FMI Product Recall Portal Seeks More Users,” SN, Feb. 2.)

Another key industry effort is the Produce Traceability Initiative, which calls for growers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers to label each case of produce with standard pieces of identification and traceability data, and capture that data at each stop along the supply chain. Last October, industry groups set a timeline of goals for the initiative, with the objective of being fully compliant by 2012.

But perhaps the biggest lesson to emerge from the PCA case is the need for greater oversight by individual food manufacturers and retailers over the ingredients supplied to them.

“Manufacturers may take great care of their own facilities, but the weak link is often ingredients,” said GMA's Brackett. “So they have to validate that the food safety practices used by their [ingredient] suppliers are up to their own standards.” GMA spells out how companies can do this in a document called the “Food Supply Chain Handbook” that can be downloaded at

In exercising greater vigilance over their suppliers, individual retailers and manufacturers are beginning to embrace the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), a set of food-safety audit and certification standards managed by Paris-based CIES, the Food Business Forum. Wal-Mart Stores, for example, is requiring its private-label suppliers to be certified as meeting GFSI standards. And FMI is building a database for retailers containing detailed manufacturer audit data collected via its subsidiary the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI), which follows GFSI guidelines (see story below).


To help the industry strengthen the food safety net and weed out companies such as PCA, FMI and other food associations are supporting proposals that would give Congress and the FDA greater oversight authority.

For example, in one proposal, Congress would require every food manufacturer to develop its own “food safety plan” that identifies potential sources of contamination and establishes food safety controls, allowing the FDA to review the plans. “The FDA could go into a plant and see if the plan was in place,” said Brackett. “Even if they can't get to every plant, at least they can see whether a plant even looked at food safety as an issue.” A bill sponsored last year by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., among others (one of dozens of pending food safety bills), includes provisions for a food safety plan.

The food associations would also like to give the FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall when a company refuses to conduct a voluntary recall and there is a significant risk to public health.

GMA is also asking Congress to boost the FDA's food-related spending from $510 million in 2008 to $900 million by 2012. “We've got to have a strong and effective FDA that the whole industry knows will be on the beat,” said Brackett.

GMA is not opposed to the idea of eventually creating a new agency that focuses only on food issues, incorporating what is now handled by the FDA, the Agriculture Department and other agencies, but for now would rather provide the FDA with the resources and authority it needs to be effective, he said.

GMA is still discussing whether the FDA should be allowed to have access to a company's records on food safety without the company's permission. In some instances, the FDA can invoke the Bioterrorism Act to obtain documents. GMA is not opposed to giving the FDA additional authority in this area, “but it should be the right kind of authority so they don't go on fishing trips when there is no risk,” said Brackett.

For their part, more CPG manufacturers are making use of audits based on global standards, such as those conducted via SQFI, Brackett observed. Some are doing so because their retail customers are requiring it, and because a single SQFI audit may be accepted by multiple retailers. GMA has met with officials at the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to discuss the advantages of global audit standards, he noted.

Cargill, the Minneapolis-based producer of meat and poultry products as well as numerous food ingredients, takes a very proactive approach toward overseeing the food safety practices of its ingredient and raw material suppliers, said Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs.

“As part of our supplier quality program, we vet our suppliers to ensure they are meeting the same standards we hold our own plants to,” Robach said. “We buy only from those suppliers that meet those requirements.”

Cargill employs its own auditors as well as third-party auditors to evaluate a supplier's assessment of risks and internal controls. “For us, a big thing is to know your suppliers,” Robach said.

Cargill also asks questions about where its suppliers sourced their ingredients. “A lot of people just go one step forward and back, but you've got to go to the source and understand where something is coming from,” said Robach. This approach helped Cargill track the source of adulterated pet food ingredients coming out of China in 2007.

Cargill's own food safety system is based on the Codex food safety system developed by the United Nations, the HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) standard and various “prerequisites,” including facility conditions, sanitation programs, employee training and water quality.

Robach acknowledged that Cargill's own experience with recalls — the company had two major ground-beef recalls in late 2007 — causes it to revisit its safety programs. “When issues arise, we reevaluate our programs and look at ways of strengthening them,” he said. “But strengthening programs is a continual process, so we're always reevaluating them.”


Retailers are also stepping up scrutiny of their suppliers' food safety programs and sourcing practices, especially those of private-label suppliers. For example, during the peanut-product recalls, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., contacted each of its suppliers to verify the source of ingredients it uses in its private-label products, according to its website.

Food Lion requires its private-brand suppliers to pass an annual food safety audit. “Private-brand suppliers must adhere to one of the approved auditing schemes under the Global Food Safety Initiative,” said James Ball, the chain's director of food safety and regulatory compliance. (GFSI-recognized food safety programs include SQFI, the British Retail Consortium, the International Food Standard and Dutch HACCP.)

Last year, Wal-Mart set a December deadline for the “bulk of our private-label suppliers” to acquire a factory certification showing compliance with one of the GFSI-approved standards, Frank Yiannas, its vice president of food safety, said in an SN-hosted webinar. The rest of its private-label and fresh-food suppliers have until this July to comply, he said.

Supervalu, Minneapolis, uses third-party auditors to vet the food safety practices of its private-label suppliers, said John Hanlin, vice president of food safety. On top of that, the retail-wholesale giant also dispatches one of its quality assurance managers to conduct a “shadow audit” of the third-party auditor. “We make sure we have a calibration of [third-party] auditors, so we feel the audit firm is protecting consumers,” he said.

Over the past month, Supervalu has issued three press releases announcing recalls of private-label products, including ice cream and trail mix, containing peanut products sourced from PCA's Georgia or Texas plants. As a result of these recalls, Supervalu plans to engage in “root-cause analysis” and take “strong corrective actions” that “could impact our private-label suppliers,” said Hanlin.

Supervalu's private-label suppliers are also required to be “working toward” GFSI certification, said Hanlin, who observed that there are not enough auditors to hold those suppliers to a strict deadline. The private-label companies are expected to check that their own suppliers follow “good manufacturing practices.”

Some of Cargill's audits are conducted according to GFSI-approved SQFI standards, and the company is “looking at” whether to be part of a new SQFI database of audit information available to retailers, said Robach. Overall, close to 3,000 manufacturers worldwide are now audited via SQFI certification bodies, said Jill Hollingsworth-Reed, group vice president, food safety, SQFI. In the U.S., many apple and tree-fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest are SQFI-certified, as are many dairy companies, she added.

Although SQFI auditors do not specifically check for salmonella, “they look for proof that a company is managing food safely at all times,” said Hollingsworth-Reed. Manufacturers are required to source ingredients from suppliers that have “some type of food safety audit in place,” she said.

Hollingsworth-Reed believes that SQFI and other accredited third-party auditors can help relieve some of the oversight burden on the FDA. “No one agency can inspect all facilities,” she said. “So we want FDA to see us as a tool that can help them.”

Similarly, the FDA “can't hold up every shipment coming into the U.S.,” she noted. “But if they look at the SQFI database and see that a company has already been audited, that company might get expedited entry.”

The FDA's current thinking on the value of third-party audits is described in a Guidance for Industry issued last month called “Voluntary Third-Party Certification Programs for Foods and Feeds.” The document, available at, states in part: “The Federal government supports voluntary certification programs as one way to help ensure products meet U.S. safety and security standards and to allow Federal agencies to target their resources more effectively.”

Percentage of consumers who have taken precautions in response to peanut-product recalls.

Source: Harvard Opinion Research Program

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