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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Buying Safe Food In A Changing World

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 6, 2006

Today we have an important letter. It is important both because it comes from someone with experience outside of the produce trade and because it draws on the increasing recognition that food safety efforts can’t be limited to spinach but, inevitably, must address issues throughout the produce trade:

I have held back commenting on the spinach issues as I am not in the spinach business and do not wish to be perceived as suggesting I know better than they do how to manage their business. However, now that the dialog has logically broadened well beyond the spinach incident to the whole produce industry and government regulation I am compelled to offer my two cents to your valuable forum.

The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative is important if it is effective. Government involvement in food safety, even at the level of processing plant inspections, does not eliminate food safety problems. Prior to being recruited by the potato industry, I worked for the US beef industry for twelve years; the meat industry has the ultimate government food safety program — inspection and USDA certification, which is stamped right on the product.

However during my tenure with the beef industry, despite USDA inspection programs, we dealt with the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli 0157:H7 incident, numerous other E. coli 0157:H7 recalls and the media fallout from the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the UK (which is also a highly government-regulated and inspected industry).

A government mandated standard establishes the table stakes and forces everyone in the business to meet the ante, which is a good thing. However, those that differentiate themselves and their products above the minimum standard are better positioned to win in the long run. Which explains a lot about why foodservice groups such as Darden have invested in a supply chain initiative that substantially reduces their risk of food safety issues (with the additional benefits of improving quality and alignment of value systems); over time they see the cost of their initiative and supplier partnerships as much lower than the blow to their business and brand image they would experience if any food safety incidents occur in their restaurants. If the buyer-led initiative stimulates processes above the minimum standard, such as Darden’s, and alters buyers’ purchasing criteria to value attributes from their suppliers beyond price, it will have great meaning to the produce industry.

Given my experience with government inspection and regulation, I place much more value on a supply chain-led initiative to deliver meaningful long term results. I have been studying food supply chain systems in the UK for the past six years; they are light years ahead of the US in food safety, innovation and value creation for both buyers and suppliers. In my opinion that is the model the US produce industry needs to go to school on; and we are way behind.

I enjoy and value your thought-provoking commentary and the robust dialog your forum facilitates for the produce industry.

— Tim O’Connor
President & CEO
United States Potato Board

We greatly appreciate Tim’s recognition of the Pundit for“… thought-provoking commentary and the robust dialog your forum facilitates for the produce industry.” That means a great deal as does Tim’s thoughtful commentary.

His letter raises many interesting issues. He warns those buyers who are urging government regulation, as we dealt with here, to not see it as a panacea. He is pointing out the same with grower-led mandatory regulatory schemes, such as we dealt with here. In other words, a government mandate may help, but it won’t give buyers what they are looking for: The ability to buy from anyone, anywhere and still feel confident in the product they are selling.

The problem with the buyer-led food safety initiative is that in its collective nature, it can’t be like Darden’s highly rated program. The very nature of Darden’s buying program is that Darden doesn’t just buy randomly from everyone; it selects who it will work with and builds an aligned supply chain. Mark Munger of Andrew-Williamson wrote an excellent letter on this subject, and we heard from another shipper who pointed out that it is only this kind of commitment from buyers that allows for advances in areas such as flavor and food safety.

Tim poses the $64,000 question: If the buyer-led initiative stimulates processes above the minimum standard, such as Darden’s, and alters buyers’ purchasing criteria to value attributes from their suppliers beyond price, it will have great meaning to the produce industry.

Indeed it would. But, of course, a buying organization doesn’t need to have a club to do that. A buyer just has to do it.

One of our most e-mailed pieces, Tale of Two Buyers, pointed out that cultural and compensation issues were holding back buying organizations from embracing food safety.

To some extent, the buyer-led food safety initiative, at least in its first phase, is a plea to the associations to raise the minimum standard so that the buyers can continue doing what they always did.

Tim O’Conner’s letter is a salient reminder that the world has changed and buying practices have to change too.

Just as the British regulatory scheme didn’t protect its people from BSE and the USDA scheme didn’t protect against Jack in the Box, no scheme, mandatory or voluntary, guarantees food safety.

That means no scheme can excuse buyers from their responsibility to act on behalf of their customers. Which means that buyers have to convincingly communicate a willingness to commit to food safety so that vendor organizations will know they can recoup their money if they make big investments in this area.

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