Q: What insight have you gleaned from your multi-level vantage points regarding the dynamic dialogue on food safety initiatives enveloping the produce industry?
A: From my perspective on the buyer side, it’s all good, confirming the fact that everyone in the supply chain recognizes food safety is an important issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. The genesis of these different proposals — the one instigated and coordinated by Tim York, The National Restaurant Association’s task force led by Donna Garren, and Western Growers’ proposed regulatory measures all came about at the same time, because everyone has the same idea.
Q: What about concerns of overlap, confusion and divergence?
A: Maybe everyone didn’t call each other from the start. But since then, I’ve seen quite a lot of discussion going on between the groups. I’ve known Tim for years, and we’ve had conversations about what PMA is doing to reinforce food safety throughout the entire produce supply chain. While the specifics may vary, all groups are trying to accomplish the same end goal. I don’t view these different proposals as competitive or conflicting, and I am confident there will be a solution to satisfy all parties. Donna Garren with NRA’s task force is not looking for anything materially different from what all other groups are looking for. We are all making sure the end results address the problems with food safety programs and that consumer confidence in leafy greens and produce in general is restored.
Q: How does this goal relate to food safety programs at Del Taco? What do you require of your produce suppliers, and will you be making any immediate changes following the recent outbreaks?
A: We’re not as large a company as many of our competitors. We don’t do our own specific testing at the supplier level. The way we approach our supplier food safety is different than some of the larger companies. Our quality assurance director does go to the facility to do his own “audit”. He’ll spend a few hours there, mainly asking a lot of questions. In some ways most important, he asks who else you do business with, if the list of customers includes those that conduct stringent audits. We ask to see the most recent audit from a major lab and look at those results. If the supplier demonstrates being audited by others we respect, that is good enough for us.
It’s not that we don’t do our own analysis. We’ll look at operations ourselves and point out what may need attention. However, we don’t say you need to do a fifth audit if the company already is being audited four times.
We don’t have the resources to monitor in depth. Our suppliers are already doing business with many companies much larger in size that conduct extensive food safety measures. Best examples are Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, and Darden, all doing thorough jobs on food safety and quality assurance. That doesn’t mean we’re going to accept everything at face value. We always visit our suppliers and look at their operations with our own eyes, but also factor in their relationships with other customers.
Q: You describe a form of respect for some of your key competitors in their methods of handling food safety that is notable. Is there somewhat of a symbiotic relationship with restaurant chains in instances like this?
A: My quality assurance director participates in industry events with other restaurant chain executives and will call them to get feedback on important issues. In the restaurant business, we cooperate at the food safety/quality level, even though we compete at the cash registers. We recognize that a safety or quality problem at one company is a problem for all of us.
Q: So these kinds of relationships were going on long before the spinach crisis took hold?
A: The spinach outbreak was the straw that broke the camel’s back surrounding the whole food safety problem with produce. It happened too frequently and the FDA took dramatic measures. Everyone realizes that clearly it can’t be business as usual. Something has to change and there is a new sense of urgency. A lot people are coming at the problem from different angles.
Q: So where do we go from here?
A: We have an opportunity to make substantial change because everyone is so focused on food safety. All the associations are involved. Let’s use this energy and attention to get something done. Already there has been a lot of progress. Yes, it’s human nature to debate and ask questions, and invariably there will be some people who won’t always agree. I’m looking at these different proposals as an opportunity to improve the situation.
Q: Realistically, will there ever be an even playing field that includes stringent food safety regulations without government regulations and enforcement?
A: I don’t hear anyone disagreeing that we need to move quickly. The government regulations may come in time, but the industry has to participate in the changes.
Buyers have a key responsibility to get the best price, and I’ve heard many more comments about it on the retail side than in foodservice. Pressure to get good pricing is not going to go away. How each retail chain and individual buyer addresses that pricing pressure will be an important issue in our future. I can’t speak about the retail side, but in foodservice we tend to establish relationships and not buy out of those. In my experience, not just at Del Taco, but through my career, we tend to select a supplier and rely on that supplier for an extended period of time. When supplies get tight, what they do at that point is a different story. Produce is affected by Mother Nature, just one more reason why we need to come up with industry solutions.
I’m happy to say that I’m going into a meeting now to learn more about new items Del Taco will be integrating into its line, and while I don’t feel ready to unveil them yet, I can assure you they will include produce.
Many thanks to Janet for sharing a truly revelatory discussion with us:
First, she assures us that the various food safety efforts are coordinating. Phones are ringing. People are talking. Good stuff going on to serve the interests of the trade.
Second, she teaches us the very important role that large players can serve in the business: They legitimize suppliers. If Jack in the Box, Darden and McDonald’s all buy from a company, it means that the supplier has been vetted. Many large buyers signed the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative letter, but a more useful role might be to just do it. Right now you can tell very little about the food safety practices of a company just because they sell to a big retailer. If the top five retailers in the country would adopt a “Darden-like” attitude toward their suppliers, they would serve to not only enhance the product in their stores but establish a production base in the industry that other buyers of goodwill could tap into. Perhaps corporate giants don’t like the “free ride” little folks get. But that is a small price to pay considering how a weak link can bring the whole industry down.
Third, Janet is wise beyond her years in reminding us that in foodservice, as in retail, the best laid systems break down under certain circumstances. Part of a buyer’s food safety plan has to be what they will do when it does. In other words, if the vetted and contracted supplier has a problem, what is the plan: live without the product, buy it from an unknown on the free market or, perhaps, there always has to be a secondary supplier who can step in? To not plan for the unexpected is to not plan at all.
Q: How have the food safety problems in the produce industry impacted your business?
A: There have been food outbreaks in the past, but the spinach E. coli outbreak was different. One thing that hit home with me this time was the number of people approaching me in my personal life and at work asking me if it was safe to buy or eat produce anymore. It scared people in the number of illnesses and the three deaths that happened. Even though the dangers of getting on an airplane are far greater, it put people in fear mode.
In terms of our customers, we pulled spinach right away. There wasn’t too much of a stink from the student perspective. And we put spinach back when the FDA said it was ok to do so.
Q: How has being a PMA board member affected your perspective?
A: In terms of produce safety itself, being on the board, I know how many people are working on food safety from so many angles. Buyers are trying to fix things. I have Tim York’s buyer-led proposal on my desk. NRA is doing its own plan. PMA, Western Growers, United and other groups are getting together, but it is not easy to get everyone to agree and speak in one voice. PMA has been taking aggressive action, and Bryan Silberman has been working night and day on this. The problem is there’s not an easy solution, and no matter what, it will never be fixed completely. There is no way to be 100 percent sure produce is safe.
Q: What food safety measures do you have in place for your University of Notre Dame operation?
A: We do as much as we can to do internally. We use a produce wash. It does two things. Supposedly it kills germs, although I’m aware of arguments that it acts just like water. Studies go both ways. In any case, using the produce wash heightens the attention for employees to wash all produce well. If we said to employees, “Just rinse produce under water,” they would not view it as a big deal, and might not do it thoroughly. We insist it goes through the produce wash, but we’ve always done this procedure. The action wasn’t added because of the outbreak.
Q: Washing produce, while important, is only one step in the food safety process. What other actions do you take?
A: The scary thing with the spinach E. coli and tomato salmonella outbreaks is that washing might not make a difference anyway. You can’t necessarily wash it off if it’s already imbedded in the product. This problem requires better field management practices.
Q: Do you require any particular food safety standards or audits of your produce suppliers?
A: I’m not a produce buyer. I buy everything, and there’s no way I can do food safety audits. To really audit, you need a produce buyer that manages food safety issues. Some of the larger distributors or larger chains have produce buyers and quality control teams. But you won’t have that kind of structure in my size market.
It makes it a challenge in terms of handling the certification process or third party audits. This is a question we’re asking ourselves. What can we insist of our suppliers in terms of food safety?
Q: What happens with the added layer of bringing in your produce through a distributor?
A: Our distributor chooses the supplier. Stanz Foodservice, a local independent in South Bend, is the one distributor we use for produce. And we buy multiple products from them.
On occasion we do bring in some produce from Gordon Food Service in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gordon is part of Markon, so they would have more stringent food safety requirements for their suppliers, but a local distributor like Stanz Foodservice wouldn’t have the same types of food safety resources as a Markon.
Q: Isn’t that an argument for standardized food safety measures?
A: The industry has to have standards. I think its great Tim (York) is trying to get stronger food safety requirements implemented across the industry, but it is challenging from all perspectives.
For many people in the food service industry, it’s tough enough to understand the auditing process with so many categories we manage. Whether using a distributor or not, it would require heavy reliance on a third party.
We’re trying to figure out how to better manage food safety and to improve buying skills in this area. Our company is looking to do more sustainable buying, which requires a more scrutinizing approach to buying produce.
Dan has the incredibly appealing character trait of never trying to puff himself up. So he tells us straight that as a harried buyer of so many products on a local level (Notre Dame buys about $12 million in food of which about one million is produce each year), he doesn’t have the staff, the expertise or the money to be setting standards and auditing people. In this, he is much like almost everyone, except for the very largest buyers. In the end his produce will be as safe as what his distributor buys.
But he also teaches us that a lot of thought has gone into what they do. The idea of washing produce with a wash not much more effective than water seems silly, until the human psychology element is thought of. How do you make an employee think something is important? Give them something beyond their normal experience. It is very shrewd.
One lesson is that we need to work with local wholesalers and distributors to strengthen the abilities of this sector to monitor the safety of its suppliers. Otherwise weak producers will gravitate to this channel and their pricing will tend to drive food safety standards down to a lowest common denominator.
The Pundit extends special thanks to both Janet Erickson of Del Taco and Dan Crimmins of the University of Notre Dame. The willingness of these leaders to share with the industry on food safety issues will help us all get where we need to be that much faster.