These days, news of food contamination doesn't just unfold — it explodes. Take the recent pet food scare: In a matter of hours, word of pet deaths and illnesses evolved into a multimedia blitz of information, racing across the nation's airwaves, presses and blogospheres.
Such explosions sow both awareness and uneasiness, and sometimes panic as well. Retailers pull mass quantities of product, and consumers often avoid an entire category. Even after the direct source of a contamination surfaces, as with the E coli outbreak in spinach crops from California's Salinas Valley, sales can suffer for months.
The question that looms is: How can the industry effectively target the problem and still reassure consumers?
Balancing business interests with the perceptions and well-being of consumers is, in many ways, at the heart of contemporary food safety. This was certainly one of the prominent topics in a recent SN roundtable, held in Newark, N.J., that brought together eight members of The Food Institute who cumulatively represent several different sides of the food safety issue.
Like many of the participating panelists, David Durkin, principal with the Washington, D.C., law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda, believes the industry as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service need to improve their technical capabilities to hone in on contamination sources.
“I'd like to see more research on the part of government and the industry about where the real risks are, so we can eliminate what everyone is supposed to get all panicked about,” said Durkin.
But even the correct context, such as what farm or facility is responsible, has a hard time overcoming the public's flight response. Often those initial headlines stick in consumers' minds.
Referring to the spinach case, Win Taylor, food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, explained, “I think it's a shame that the bagged salad business is off, and that the spinach is off. But I know that if I were a consumer who had that in my kitchen, I would want to know that it is a problem.”
Any improvements to the system will have to travel a tough road. Recent FDA budget cuts have meant a decrease in the number of staff and overall inspections.
“We have good attitudes and hard-working people,” said Bill Bishop, chairman of Barrington, Ill.-based Willard Bishop, a consulting firm. “But I just feel there are gaping holes where things could drop through the cracks with some fairly negative consequences.”
According to Durkin and Barbara Masters, also of Olsson, Frank and Weeda, the FDA and FSIS have all the authority they need, and are selectively allocating their resources based on risk. Even so, panelists said, food safety responsibility falls heavier now on the industry's shoulders.
Many, like Dean Erstad, senior vice president of sales for Seneca Foods, Marion, N.Y., hold high praise for the initiative retailers have taken.
“I think the people who have really been at the forefront are the retailers,” he said. “They're the ones really pushing forward for standards across all segments. If there's one way to come together, it's behind a retailer.”
One of the ways to effectively prevent and tackle contamination is through good communication. Panelists said that retailers and manufacturers do a great job at sticking to a system, but are less prepared for an after-hours incident.
“If an event occurs between 9 and 5 Monday to Friday, you're in great shape,” said Mike Slattery, president of Slattery Marketing, Ridgefield Park, N.J. “But what happens if it occurs at 11 o'clock at night on a Saturday or Sunday? I think all of us have a little tightening up to do in this area.”
At the same time, responsibility also falls to the consumers. The industry is one of the entities charged with educating people on how to prepare food and read labels, but they can't guard the kitchen of every American household.
“I think a lot of people don't pay attention to the labels,” said Brian Todd, president of The Food Institute, Elmwood Park, N.J. “I'm not completely sure how we go about making sure that they do, but it's the responsibility of the consumer and the processor.”
Food safety is arguably the most important issue facing supermarkets today. For in the end, they are the ones on the front lines with consumers.
“The retailer is the face of the industry to the consumer,” said Peter Lavoy, former president and chief operating officer of Foodtown, Avenel, N.J. “When the consumer has a problem, they come to the retailer.”
SN: Obviously, we're all aware of the recent high-profile contamination instances in the news, ranging from spinach to peanut butter. What are some of the issues that have developed out of these occurrences, and how might they affect the industry in the near future?
BISHOP: One of the issues it's raised is: Who's really responsible? Particularly with the lettuce problems earlier this year, I think there was a frustratingly long period associated with what the causes were, who was responsible, and honing in on whatever actions needed to be taken to protect the public in the future. And I think that's a much more important issue than it would have been perhaps five years ago, because in the post-9/11 world we worry a lot more about maintaining our safety. It's just a higher priority matter. And when safety is called into question, people want it fixed right away. If we can't figure out who's responsible, I think that raises a really critical question. I think it's one that up until now, at least in the U.S., people felt that even though we didn't know the answer, everything was handled.
TAYLOR: One of the major trends in the food business today is fresh and organics. I think we have to be much more diligent as we try to develop policies and procedures to monitor fresh, organic, unprocessed and natural foods. For many years FDA and USDA have monitored food processors very closely. I wonder if those same kinds of procedures are in place with organic, fresh, natural, unprocessed imported foods.
DURKIN: We're starting to see some changes already. The FDA issued its final guidance document on safe production of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. So the Feds are moving ahead not with formal regulatory changes, but with informal guidance to the industry. There are segments of the industry that are moving forward in California, attempting to put together a marketing agreement that would have some metrics for safe food production all the way down to the farm level. National trade associations in the produce industry have called for mandatory and enforceable and uniform food safety standards for fresh fruits and vegetables. The thinking behind these developments is that the food industry and the produce industry in particular right now want consumers to regain confidence in the wholesomeness of their products.
LAVOY: These are high-profile categories. These are things we've been eating for years, whether it be the beef, the spinach or even the peanut butter. Peter Pan is a company that's been around for so many years. If a large company like ConAgra has these problems, I think there's a real level of concern.
BISHOP: To build on Peter's point, a lot of the science that's coming out today says that further processed food isn't as good for you as minimally or unprocessed food. So here we have a circumstance where a lot of our attention has been on processed food, when in fact we're being coached and counseled to go the other way. It appears that a lot of the regulations and controls may be way behind in terms of catching up.
DURKIN: At the same time, we need to remember that our reporting on foodborne disease outbreaks is getting a whole lot better than it used to be. Not too long ago, you would find out that there had been a foodborne disease outbreak. It would be published in the [Center for Disease Control and Prevention's] morbidity and mortality weekly reporter that six months ago several hundred people had gotten sick. And it was probably all traced to one particular product. That's not the case now. What we saw with spinach in September — and the CDC has said this publicly — was that was the first time they've ever been able to track a foodborne disease outbreak in real time. We knew what the incubation period was for the pathogen. We knew when production was cut off. They knew that there were going to be other cases, and in fact there were some more cases that developed days after people stopped eating the spinach. So yes, the health concerns, diet and nutrition are leading us toward more fresh products. I'm not so sure that the science should be scaring us away from these products. But we do need to realize that the reporting is getting a whole lot better now.
SLATTERY: One of the concerns I've seen locally, just in our papers here in northern New Jersey, is the concern coming out of Washington with establishing national standards. It seems it's going to be geared toward the massive operations out on the West Coast, particularly in California. How is that going to impact our small local and regional produce group? There's some concern about that, and I think our friends in Washington need to be aware of that.
DURKIN: Those sorts of issues are being looked at within the industry, and the industry does realize that any standards that are promulgated need to be uniform, need to apply to domestic production and imported product, and have to make scientific and practical sense no matter what the growing region is, no matter what the production region is.
MASTERS: Something I might add that I found very encouraging: There was a food safety summit about two weeks ago in Dallas where the beef processors got together with the produce industry to share some of the best practices. They recognized that it didn't matter the size of the grower if they could get together and share best practices. This was similar to what the beef industry had done five years ago, when they really started making the gains in food safety. I think that was a really good step to get a program that was working for the beef industry handed over to the produce industry.
TAYLOR: Does produce have to be inspected by a government agency?
DURKIN: It doesn't have to be. But the FDA has full authority to go to the farm to inspect. They've always had that authority. They can do that now. They exercised that authority in conducting the traceback investigations on some of the more recent outbreaks. From a legal and regulatory view, it's hard to imagine any additional authority that the FDA could possibly need. It's just a question of resources for the agency. And that's an important question.
ERSTAD: That's a real challenge when you talk about all the imports that are coming in, and all the organic products that are coming in from offshore too — managing that whole process.
SN: Supermarket News has reported that most food safety money goes to the Agriculture Department, which only regulates 20% of the food supply. FDA safety inspections have dropped sharply due to budget cuts, including a declining number of inspections of imported foods. And we all know that imported foods are becoming more popular. How do you view that?
DURKIN: The FDA does not have the personnel to inspect the 25% of the [gross domestic product] that they regulate. If Congress wants to address these issues by increasing inspectional frequency, they're going to have to shift resources. One of the ways the FDA constantly strives to meet these is by identifying what are the inspectional priorities. In the past few years we have seen increased attention to food safety issues within the department, despite the fact that the personnel levels are flat or shrinking. So I think what we can count on is that the agency is going to continue to be smart and target its resources, but I don't believe that under the current budget climate we should expect to see a massive increase in personnel resources at FDA.
SLATTERY: I read recently that the USDA had announced a risk-based inspection plan. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
MASTERS: They are gearing for a prototype of that program. So they've not yet begun to implement that. That, however, is not a program that would decrease the number of inspectors that they have. It is taking the same number of inspectors and allowing them to do inspections in those facilities that have more risk in their operations based on the type of products they're producing, based on their ability to control risk in their establishment, and giving them more inspection time on resources compared to an establishment that has less inherent risk and a better control of the risk in their establishment, and giving them less inspection on a daily basis. So there's an inspector in every meat and poultry plant every day. For example, there's inherently more risk associated with a ground raw product. Additionally, if a plant is not controlling their processes well — they've had a recall, enforcement actions, consumer complaints — those are the operations where FSIS is considering putting more inspection time. Their inspectors are on patrol assignment where they might go to four or five establishments in a day. They may spend 75% of their time in the facility that's at greatest risk, and 25% of their time at the other establishments, based on the amount of risk and the establishment's ability to handle that risk. This is their way of taking their limited resources and trying to put them in the best locations to protect public health.
SN: We can all understand the wisdom of putting resources where they're most needed. Do you think we're walking down a slippery slope in regard to the limited resources out there?
DURKIN: Is it a slippery slope? Is the food supply getting more dangerous? I don't think that's the case at all. I think the food supply is at least as safe as it has always been, and probably safer because people are paying attention to this. Think of the food safety systems that have been put in place in the past dozen years or so. You have fewer and fewer food processors and distributors that are not paying attention to these issues. In addition to the regulatory measures that are being suggested, the market is driving much of this. Some of the most advanced food safety systems are a result of customer specifications. The large, chain quick-service restaurants are and have been in the forefront of requiring their suppliers to put in sophisticated food safety systems. So is our lack of resources making U.S. more dangerous? Not any more dangerous than we already were. Is the market and the public demanding that food be made as safe and wholesome as possible? Yes, they are. I think that's due to the confluence of better reporting regarding foodborne outbreaks and food safety issues, customer-driven desire for food safety, and the economic incentives on the part of food producers to make sure they don't incur liability for an unsafe product. I think that's all pushing the American food supply to an even safer position, when we have long and proudly said that the American food supply is the safest and most affordable in the world.
TAYLOR: But isn't there a real reason to be concerned about organics producers who may be much smaller operators and are under the radar? That is a concern of mine. Also, if you do look at the trends on the supermarket side of the business, there's much more focus on premise-made, chilled entrees — those type of products that you carry home and eat. Isn't there a much better chance of bacteria, spoilage, lack of rotation, all the things that more intensely processed foods aren't faced with? Meanwhile, we continue to inspect more heavily the intensely processed foods.
SN: So has government really caught up to the trends of what people are eating?
DURKIN: In a lot of ways, I would prefer to have a product that was produced in a commercial setting by trained individuals, having processes that have been examined, than the kitchens of many of my friends. We can't forget there is a not insignificant proportion of foodborne disease that is generated with at-home preparation. Does that mean we shouldn't be concerned about the food going into homes? No, we should be concerned about that. But we should also be concerned with educating the public at large as to safe food-handling practices.
MASTERS: I think there is quite a bit of data out there that would demonstrate that there is a lot of work yet to be done in educating the home preparer. We need to continue to work on that.
GOVERNMENT AND RETAIL GUIDANCE
SN: Well, the industry does have programs in place. There's Project Chill, which tells people how to properly utilize refrigeration. There's the Fight Bac! program, which goes after foodborne illnesses because of poor handling in the home. Does anyone in the room have an opinion on how effective these programs have been?
TAYLOR: I know in the frozen food business the Market Zero program was very successful in terms of measuring the handling of frozen foods throughout the distribution system, at least to that retail store. It's probably 10 or 12 years old by now. The whole idea was that products that are commercially frozen have to be maintained at a certain temperature. The idea was to monitor the product throughout the distribution cycle to ensure that it was maintained at or below the prescribed temperature. There were gauges developed that attached to some of the loads, to ensure that. As you know, if frozen products are thawed and then re-frozen, they lose their quality rapidly.
BISHOP: A lot of the retailers are doing something about food safety as well. I'll give you a couple examples. There's Publix's “A Guide to Food Safety,” which is available at the front of the store to all their customers. It covers cleaning food, cross-contamination, proper cooking. Another great example is Whole Foods. They have booklets about home storage and preparation.
TODD: Referring to the retail side, I think things like the Food Network, which more people are watching, is showing more food safety practices, and that helps as well, especially with the younger generations who are watching that. I also think the Internet has helped. So many products now have websites, and often those will have preparation and storage instructions for that specific food. It is an education system that has to be in place. I think a lot of people don't pay attention to the labels. I'm not completely sure how we go about making sure that they do, but it's the responsibility of the consumer and the processor.
SN: What about guiding employees all across the supply chain, especially in the store, to make sure to create the right environment? Has there been a stepping-up to make employees aware of food safety?
DURKIN: You've been talking about what sort of regulatory structures might be imposed. There's an important one that was passed as part of the transportation bill about two years back: the Safe Food Transportation Act, which directed the FDA to work with the Department of Transportation to develop regulatory framework regarding how food should be transported — temperature controls, combined loads, questions of whether or not particular products could not be shipped with other products under any circumstances. So there's statutory authority for rule making that's hanging out there which, if the Feds do not take up these practices and examine transportation as an important part of ensuring food safety, then we are likely to see the states take up that cudgel. There's anecdotal evidence that particular states at particular times start taking their responsibilities with safe transportation of food very seriously, and I've had clients call me up to ask me what's going on in this state or that state, because trucks are getting stopped and inspected, and temperature records being checked at the state level. That is a new development, and one that we can expect to see more activity on both the state and federal level.
SN: But is this activity happening because they've seen lapses, or because they've decided to do the enforcement?
DURKIN: I think it's because they're deciding to do the enforcement.
MAKING FOOD SAFETY ‘GOOD BUSINESS’
SN: That brings up the question of whether the industry is putting more emphasis on the food chain. Does anyone here have examples of that taking place more than before?
LAVOY: I can give you a good example. The New Jersey Food Council has received a grant from the [state] Department of Health and Senior Services to run a food handlers' best practices and food safety course. I know most of the retailers have taken advantage of that in New Jersey, and I know that my company Foodtown has been to at least 10 of these sessions. We will send store owners, store managers and particularly people in our perishable departments.
BISHOP: One of the questions is how to make a focus on food safety good business. It's not always easy to get paid back for the expenditures in this area. Case in point would be the application of these time/temperature labels that have been put on refrigerated and frozen products. It's been a struggle for retailers to be agreeable to put that into the price of the product — that is, to let the shopper know that there would be some value added. But I can tell you based on conversations in just the past few months that there is an uptick in willingness on the part of retailers to take things like bagged salad and other refrigerated products, and see if there isn't an ability to add some value by virtue of putting some additional controls on their own private-label product, so they get credit for it, and see if the shopper won't pay for that. My guess is that before this is all going to hold together, somehow or other it has to be clear that there is a business case for certain food safety actions that boards and managers can get behind. And I want to come back to statutory authority and either the federal government or state kind of vying for positioning in this area. The retailers I've talked to are quite interested in minimizing any overt action by any regulators, because there's just going to be more headaches. So there probably is a business reason for the private enterprise sector to get ahead and preempt some of this governmental competition for more authority in this area. That in light of the fact that by everyone's admissions, the government is so woefully under-resourced that they're not going to solve the problem anyway. So it seems to me very problematic for business if we allow the government to have a bigger role and still not have the capabilities.
TAYLOR: There doesn't appear to be any standard used by dating by major or minor product manufacturers in the U.S. I can take out half a gallon of milk and find out when it should be used by. I can take out a can of soup, look at the top and find out when it should be used by. There are other products where I search and search for the code, and I can't figure it out. I don't know if it was made in Egypt or on the moon. It seems to me that would be a simple thing to address either by associations or manufacturers' groups. To me, that would be a simple first step to assure the population.
SN: Do we need dating on all products? We've seen more dating recently.
LAVOY: And it's getting better, and more readable. When we go back a few years ago the code was a secret, just for the manufacturer. But today the open coding is much better than it was. But there are a lot of imports that don't have coding.
SLATTERY: Those are the worst. You look at some of those and you can't for the life of you figure it out. Half the time they're unreadable or illegible. It is a problem, and it could become a nightmare. It comes in from any number of importers, any number of plants. To me, that is the loosest end of that whole issue.
ERSTAD: It is. And speaking as a manufacturer from our industry, we probably haven't done as good a job as we could at coming up with standards on some of this stuff. I think that's true of most segments that you look into. How do you facilitate that? It's not an easy process when you're competing with them day in and day out. That's the challenge.
SN: What is the state of affairs regarding coming up with more standards?
ERSTAD: I think the people who have been at the forefront are the retailers. They're the ones really pushing forward for standards across all segments. If there's one way to come together, it's behind a retailer that wants to do something.
TAYLOR: If you are a U.S. manufacturer exporting, the regulations on you to be able to export are tremendous.
ERSTAD: And it's different by country. Whether you go into Mexico, Japan, Taiwan. All those countries have different requirements.
TAYLOR: But I question that our import regulations are as strict.
ERSTAD: I don't think they are, not even close. Product that you actually have to ship into a country and then a country where you're actually bringing stuff in — I don't think it plays by the same rules.
A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY
SN: We said earlier that imported goods is an area that's getting less regulation from government than some people think it should. And people are loving imported foods more than ever.
DURKIN: Not to be disagreeable — the rules for labeling products, whether it's domestic or imported, are exactly the same. As a matter of fact, the imports have to have a little more information. Properly labeled, they should tell you what country they come from. I think that, again, this is a question of resources. The FDA operating at the ports actually has more authority over food imports than they do over domestic food moving in commerce. When you have an imported food, it doesn't have to be adulterated or misbranded to be stopped. It just has to appear to be adulterated or misbranded, in the opinion of the investigator. It's a very strict standard. The fact that mislabeled food gets in — even the fact that adulterated food gets in is not a question of the authority of the FDA. It's a question of whether they can inspect all of the food that we are importing, and they can't.
ERSTAD: In your opinion, what percent of containers coming in are being inspected?
DURKIN: It's in the single digits.
TODD: I believe it was less then 5% in a report I saw.
DURKIN: I know that the FDA is targeting their resources at specific types of foods — foods that are more susceptible to pathogens of concern, food products from particular production areas. FDA has the authority, simply by notice, to shut down imports from an entire country based on a history of adulterated or misbranded product coming in. And they do that occasionally. You get disruptions in the shrimp supply of the U.S. because some Southeast Asian country that's producing it suddenly gets shut down.
TAYLOR: But do we require imports to have open codes? Do we require used-by dates?
DURKIN: No, and I question whether that would really address the issues you're thinking of, because best-when-used-by expiration dating for perishable product has to be read in conjunction with whether or not that product has been properly maintained in the cold chain. It doesn't matter what the used-by date is if the product has been abused during shipment.
BISHOP: We're looking for a basis for the American public to have a trust level with their food, and ideally part of that trust is what's communicated to each of us on the package itself. Is there a way to come together with some of the additional requirements we're talking about here — is there a mechanism to build that into requirements for imported products, or will it just be a cold day before that ever happens?
DURKIN: I think whatever requirements are considered and implemented, they have to be uniform across both imported and domestic product. And really, uniformity on product coding — that could be used to address food quality issues, but I'm not really sure it goes toward food safety, because of all of the pathogens of concern out there. Very little of how that gets transported into a foodborne disease outbreak is determined by how long that product has been around. Either it's contaminated and it's going to make someone sick, or it isn't. It's not that it's going to grow it en route. Most of the pathogens of concern are very poor competitors against spoilage bacteria. And usually spoilage bacteria will ruin the food before the pathogen would even have a chance to make you sick.
SN: How much of the problem results from the hierarchy of the government agencies. We're all familiar with how many agencies get involved with food safety. There are a lot of them to different degrees. Would centralizing things or paring down to a few agencies make a difference? Does something structurally need to be done different?
DURKIN: Please consider that if Congress today passed, and the president signed into law, any of the agency bills that are pending before the Congress, that it would be years before the bureaucracies were successfully melded. Would a single food agency provide any immediate benefit to the regulation of food safety in America? It's an awfully big country, and it would take an awful long time to get that pulled together. The most likely outcome is that it's going to take some time — and I mean years. Under whatever name you call it, those bits of FDA that regulate their types of food would still do that for a number of years, and those parts of USDA that regulate meat and poultry would still do it for a number of years. It's not a question of whether it's good policy or not, it's just a practical consideration that people should keep in mind.
SN: So it might have some long-term benefit, but it wouldn't become an immediate panacea of any kind.
DURKIN: That's right.
BISHOP: Could we shift what we're looking at right now to two areas that I think are perhaps more important today. One is, for example, when we import from China, I know there's a question in some of the commodities of the presence of heavy metals. Do we have regulations for determining if we have heavy metal presence in the products that we might get in China that would be a low- to no-probability event in the United States? Question two revolves around tampering or intentionally destroying the wholesomeness of the food. I know there was a case study three or four years ago at a major dairy processing plant out West that was really not broadly discussed. The result was that it would be possible to infect hundreds of thousands of people by going into the central holding tanks of one of these mixing dairies and adulterating the product in some way. Those, unfortunately, are more high-probability food safety issues today. Could you in Washington speak to either of those?
DURKIN: The food rules governing adulteration and misbranding are the same whether the product is imported or domestic. It's a question of the agency learning and trying to deal with relative risk for imported product. When the bioterrorism bill passed in 2002, the FDA was given a lot more authority to inspect, to detain product upon the simple order of the district director, and to get records access. These were all put in as part of the bioterrorism legislation, when in fact, in my opinion, I don't think they have anything to do with bioterrorism or product tampering at all. If we were so unfortunate as to have a terrorism incident involving the food supply in the U.S., it is not going to be the FDA and their enhanced inspectional authority coming in to look at your records. It's going to be the FBI and U.S. marshals with firearms and a search warrant. Food security is something people are looking at, and USDA and FDA have had joint efforts and have put out publications on the sorts of things companies should be considering with regard to securing their food facilities.
TODD: I think that food security has become a whole separate area too. Many of our members call us up looking at that, wondering are their plants safe? Are there other companies on the security side looking to make plants safe? There are background checks, different things to be put in place. Definitely more and more plants and companies have been doing that. I think we'll see an increase in the future.
SN: Certainly when it comes to food security, but also with food safety, the first line of defense you look at is your own company. But then comes the question of communication across the food chain. How do you feel the communication is between different levels of the supply chain at this point, and what do you see that could help to solidify that communication?
SLATTERY: If an event occurs between 9 and 5 Monday to Friday, you're in great shape. But what happens if it occurs at 11 o'clock at night on a Saturday or Sunday? I think all of us have a little tightening up to do in this area. I don't know that we're as buttoned up as we should be.
ERSTAD: I think what's happened now is the actual [quality control] departments within companies are probably a lot closer than they've ever been. We still have numerous companies that, when a problem comes up, it's one QC department to the other, as it should be. They're the ones who will facilitate the information faster than anyone else. We have specific people who are available day and night. Their cell phones are always on.
TAYLOR: When I was at Campbell Soup Co., we had a very specific protocol for handling product recalls or tampering incidents. Generally it was the responsibility of a corporate officer. Having been involved in a couple recall incidents, I can say the cooperation from the retailer was tremendous. They cared about our brands, but they cared most about the consumer. My own personal opinion is that the system seems to be in very good shape. I think with the spinach incident, the system worked well from what I've been able to read. They were able to identify the fields it was grown in, the batches, where it went.
DURKIN: In the first few hours of a recall or when an outbreak is identified, people's better natures tend to take over. Nobody wants a customer to get sick, but I have to say that after a day or two goes by, the entire exercise is like a circular firing squad. We saw this with the spinach outbreak. Yeah, contaminated product was swept off the shelves, but along with everything else. It wasn't merely that the product got pulled off the shelves. Trucks got turned around, harvesting stopped, planting stopped. And it didn't just happen in the Salinas Valley, where it was eventually traced to some weeks later. The spinach industry in Colorado was shut down. The spinach industry in Pennsylvania and New Jersey was shut down for several weeks, all on the basis of an FDA press release. If we want to ensure that industry shutdowns like that don't occur, or that recalls are not engaged in an overly broad manner, then the industry needs to carefully examine its ability to pull the trigger quickly and aim accurately.
LAVOY: When the spinach issue came out, the whole bag salad business went down. It wasn't just the spinach, it was all the lettuce, and all the mixes that are out there. That's a great category in the produce department, but people just walked away from it.
DURKIN: And they're still staying away from it. USA Today reported just a couple weeks ago that the product category was still 37% off from the same period last year.
SLATTERY: This is well over a month after the event.
SN: We just heard a good point about the need for the industry to pinpoint the items in question rather than doing a broad pull. What else have we learned from these incidents?
DURKIN: I think we learned that the government has all the authority they need.
TAYLOR: I think we need to always err on the side of safety. I think it's a shame that the bagged salad business is off, and that the spinach is off. But I know that if I were a consumer who had that in my kitchen, I would want to know that it is a problem.
BISHOP: I think we've also learned that we haven't pushed the technology of traceability as aggressively as we can. The cost of not being able to rifle shot back and know exactly where the problems occurred and get them selectively pulled has enormous and ongoing costs. This goes back to, if traceability is really important, how are we going to institute something like that? Just last fall, I saw one of the largest food-service operators and one of the largest food retailers involved in traceability all the way beyond the typical grower/shipper in fresh produce to the individual ranch. You can feel people beginning to explore how to track all those cases of product.
TODD: Under the bioterrorism regulations, the record-keeping acts require that companies follow food products back. Then the FDA can use that to trace any product if they need to.
MASTERS: Basically, Pulse Net is something where laboratories participate from various states across the country, all coordinated by the CDC. Then when there is an outbreak, these laboratories submit the strain to the CDC, who is then able to summarize the data to create a national database. That is where CDC reports food disease outbreaks over time. Both the spinach and the Taco Bell outbreak were in Pulse Net states. That is why they had significant outbreak data. So Pulse Net is a significant database for the CDC.
SN: What are some best practices to reaching out to consumers to rebuild trust after a crisis?
ERSTAD: I think from a manufacturer's perspective, it's not the easiest thing to do. You really have to go on the offensive. I think you have to really lay it out with a marketing program, even to the point where you get your senior management front and center to talk about the best practices that you have in the industry. I think that's the best way you can do it, is to be forthright in what you're doing.
SLATTERY: One of the textbook responses would be the one that Johnson & Johnson made on the Tylenol tampering. I think every business school has that cited as, This is the way you should deal with these problems. Fast, quick, honest, direct, utilizing your top guy. So many times, I think, people hope it's just going to go away.
SN: And the more private label comes into play, the more complicated it gets for the retailer. I imagine that's more and more of an issue.
TAYLOR: Having been on the private-label manufacturing side of the business, the standards that retailers require of private-label products are extremely strict. As strict as branded manufacturers.
SLATTERY: In many cases they're even tougher than branded. That's the retailer's reputation, that's their store name that's out there on the shelf. That's not something you want to mess up. If it's a branded product and there's a problem, that brand is going to take care of it. But if it's a store brand, then the store has to answer for that.
ERSTAD: I think if you asked any of the retailers out there, they'd say their specifications are stricter than most branded companies.
SN: What is the sales agent's role? Has that changed in the whole food safety question? Has that evolved over time?
SLATTERY: I don't know that it's really changed. Maybe 20 or 25 years ago there was more specialization within the sales agencies, where this guy was a great fish guy, this guy was a great fruit guy, this guy knew the detergent business. You're not seeing a whole lot of that today. There's been a lot of consolidation. You don't have that level of expertise at the sales agency level that you used to.
SN: Are companies reaching out more to education systems for such expertise?
TAYLOR: My only experience with that has been our Early Responders distance-learning center at St. Joseph's. That has proved to be very popular. As I say, it's partly sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The PDA is the No. 1 industry in Pennsylvania, so that program has been well attended. I would say the small to medium-sized food producers in Pennsylvania have been very responsive to the program. They're very interested in food safety, in having a system in place.
ERSTAD: I think manufacturers in general have been more open to reaching out to different educational agencies to help them with continuing education of their own people, and with policies and procedures.
LAVOY: If I could ask Brian, I know in your weekly bulletin you list all the recalls. There seems to be quite a few. Can you comment on that?
TODD: We list the recalls that the FDA lists in their enforcement report as well as any that the industry might put out. I can say that there's been a lot more interest over the past three or four years of people looking at that and requesting that type of information. I know our members look regularly to see if they're in there, if their competitors are in there. It is public information, and I think people do use it regularly. I don't know if the people in Washington know if there have been more recalls in the past two or three years than in the past. I really don't think so. It's just that more attention has been brought to it, particularly recently with the couple of large recalls we've had.
SN: As a retailer, ideally that information would come directly from a manufacturer?
LAVOY: Normally it is, but you never know.
SLATTERY: As a manufacturer representative, I usually will hear back pretty quick. We try to get ahead of the curve and explain everything to our customer in the best possible way using the best information that we have. Sometimes we'll make a personal call so someone doesn't get blindsided by this. But we wouldn't call the president of Foodtown, we'd call the buyer so that he doesn't get blindsided by the president walking into his office demanding information. We'll call the category manager that's responsible, inform them, and let them go up their chain of command.
LAVOY: We have a process in place to make sure product is removed immediately. It's not like we'd send out a memo over the Internet. We react instantaneously.
SN: What would that process involve? Would it be wireless alerts to store managers?
LAVOY: Pull a product, hold a product, make sure it's in a safe spot, and we'll let you know what's going to happen with it.
TODD: In some cases it might be a labeling problem, where it has to be relabeled.
SN: Would you try to at the same time educate the consumers, the other store employees, about what is happening?
LAVOY: Our immediate reaction is to get the product off the shelves. If there's a message to deliver, then that will follow.
MASTERS: We can't speak to the amount of recall from an FDA perspective, but from an FSIS regulative perspective, poultry recalls have gone down significantly since 2002, not only in the number of recalls but, more importantly, in the pounds of product that have been recalled. 2002 was a high, but since then the numbers have really dropped drastically.
DURKIN: Barb brings up a point of whether recalls are voluntary. The simple fact is that recalls are voluntary for both USDA- and FDA-regulated products. But please remember that if you're in a situation where you need to recall product because it's adulterated or misbranded, you've already broken the law. You've already committed a criminal offense. Those companies that are recalling product “voluntarily” are doing so because they've already been caught breaking the law, and they need to fix that problem. It's not that FDA or USDA needs mandatory authority. They don't. The reason they don't need it is because, if they think you should recall and you don't recall, they'll criminally prosecute you.
THE NEW CONGRESS
SN: How will the new Democratic Congress affect the equation, if at all?
DURKIN: The Democrats in the House and Senate have promised enhanced oversight. They've already engaged in that. We can expect to see more oversight, Congress asking more questions of FDA and FSIS of why things are happening the way they are, whether or not the agencies are doing everything they can, and whether or not the agencies have the resources that they think they need.
SN: So it's still the listening tour before any decisions or actions are taken.
DURKIN: My crystal ball says that there's going to be a lot more oversight before any substantive changes are implemented.
MASTERS: And I would agree with that. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think the agencies are up for the challenge. They're going to be asked to support the positions that they're taking, and I think there will be additional questioning about how the two agencies are communicating and sharing information.
ERSTAD: From your perspective in Washington, how do you think the two agencies work together?
MASTERS: When I was at FSIS I enjoyed a great working relationship with our sister agency. I worked closely with Dr. [Robert] Brackett [director of food safety at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition]. We often had lunch together to share information and exchange ideas on issues. I know that [FSIS] Undersecretary [Richard] Raymond also enjoys a great working relationship with the FDA. He had a previous relationship with several of his counterparts over at both FDA and CDC, and I believe he still has strong relationships with those agencies. His ideas on public health are consistent with those of the FDA, and I think that helps the fact that he brings those public health goals to food safety and FSIS. Having now David Goldman as acting administrator is going to strengthen thatrelationship.
DURKIN: As much as I make my living from fighting them all the time — if you press any FDA official in the Center for Food Safety, or anybody over at FSIS, you find out pretty quickly that their priority really is public safety and public health and the safety of the food supply. There's just no doubt in my mind that there are a lot of people at FDA and FSIS who work hard every day to make sure that we have the safest food supply in the world.
TODD: I would agree. In working with the FDA and FSIS, that is in their hearts to do that. They've always been helpful, and I think you would find that most people in the industry would say the same thing.
ERSTAD: From the manufacturing perspective, they've done an excellent job working together.
SN: What area of food safety needs more attention in the next year or two, and any suggestions you might have?
SLATTERY: I'd like to see us take more advantage of the technology that's available to us. We had mentioned earlier Pulse Net, which can identify the fingerprint of foodborne pathogens. So let's take advantage of technology, and give proper funding to the agencies that need it.
TAYLOR: As a marketing professor, I spend a lot of time talking to students about trends. Obviously, the biggest trends in the industry right now are organics, fresh, ready-to-eat foods. I think we need to do a much better job in those areas of inspecting, ensuring that we have traceability. I'm not anti-small operator, but a lot of these products are coming from smaller operators as opposed to the major manufacturers in the food industry. I think we need make sure we have the same kind of inspection and oversight on these smaller growers and producers that we've had on the major manufacturers for many, many years.
BISHOP: The increase in global trade highlights that our food safety work has to do more to get out ahead of possible risks in this area. I do understand that the same laws, maybe even stricter laws, apply to imported products as domestic products, but I'm not really that comforted that given the funding levels and the bureaucratic inertia that we have that we're moving out aggressively against these newer potential threats that we know are coming, or ideally would sense even ahead of time. I'd like to see more focus on innovation and — I know this will seem like a complete pipe dream — accountability. David and Barbara, you have been extremely informative, but not necessarily comforting in terms of the amount of responsibility that's being shouldered. We have good attitudes and hard-working people, but I just feel there are gaping holes where things could drop through the cracks with some fairly negative consequences.
DURKIN: As a consumer, I'd like to see more research on the part of government and the industry about where the real risks are, so we can eliminate what everyone's supposed to get all panicked about. I'd also like to see more education from the government about making sure that people understand their obligation to a healthy diet, and that concerns about food safety should not be taking away nutritious foods that we otherwise need. I probably eat more bagged spinach now than I used to.
MASTERS: I would like to see us take all the information out there — I think there's industry data, I think there's government data, I think there's academic data — and really find out what's happening in the world with pathogens. I think the question we answered the least as a group was how we're educating employees, and I think you can best educate employees when you have a realistic perspective. When I was at FSIS, the thing that I don't feel we did the best we could do on was data analysis. You could use all that data to make the best informational materials possible, and then share that.
LAVOY: As a retailer, we would continue to look to the manufacturers to continue to improve food safety, improve the integrity of the system. The retailer is the face of the industry to the customer. When the customer has a problem, they come to the retailer. The problem with our retail business is that there is such high turnover. We need to continue to work with our employees and teach them. The other area that we mentioned was imports, the specialty foods and the organics from small companies who really need to bring themselves up to the same level as the major manufacturers.
TODD: From what the people in Washington had to say, there are some opportunities here with the new Congress. They are looking at putting more into food safety, although they're only in oversight right now. It's an opportunity for the industry to be involved, to be commenting on these rules and regulations individually or through associations. Whether they have the ideas now or in the future, it's important that they stay involved.
ERSTAD: I'd like a closer-knit working relationship when it comes to label changes and the developments there. That's an extremely costly process for manufacturers and retailers, and I think we can work together more closely to bundle those things together and take that cost out of the equation. Another piece of it is speed to shelf. We talk about getting the new item out there, but the same thing can be said when you're recalling something. There's another area where you get everything but the kitchen sink back sometimes. Having the technology to go out there and be very specific on what you get and do it in a very timely manner will take a tremendous amount of cost out of the equation. You need to be precise. You want to err on the side of caution, but you want to make sure you get it done efficiently and in a very timely manner.
SN Food Safety Roundtable, Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott, Newark, N.J.
All of whom are members of The American Institute of Food Distribution (The Food Institute), a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey that provides news and information from “farm to fork.” Its activities for members include email and newsletter reports; seminars and webinars on key topics; statistics and information covering trade, pricing, recalls and other topics; and a staff of industry analysts to answer inquiries. The organization's activities are outlined at www.foodinstitute.com.
senior VP of sales,
The Food Institute,
Elmwood Park, N.J.
former president and COO,
Slattery Marketing Corp.,
Ridgefield Park, N.J.
professor of food marketing,
St. Joseph's University,
Olsson, Frank and Weeda,
senior policy advisor,
Olsson, Frank and Weeda,