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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry:
Foodbuy’s Maurice Totty

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 21, 2006

Foodservice operators are a most difficult bunch for the produce industry to get in sync with. Typically, the problem is that while retailers have dedicated produce personnel, foodservice operators tend to buy many products, more often being general food and beverage buyers. One exception to that rule is Maurice Totty of Foodbuy, the purchasing arm of the Compass Group.

Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, spoke with Maurice as part of our series of Foodservice Pundit Pulses. We’ve reached out to foodservice because the general perception in the industry is that with an ability to focus on a limited number of items and an aligned supply chain driven by contracted produce; foodservice operators do a better job on food safety than do retailers.

However, recent outbreaks at Taco Bell and Taco John’s raise the issue of whether foodservice operators’ reliance on fresh-cut product, especially at quick-service restaurants, doesn’t offset any benefits from an aligned supply chain.

We started out by hearing from Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins and thus got the perspective of a smaller QSR chain and a single campus university foodservice operator. Though both of these individuals are with smaller operators, they share a broader industry perspective due to their service on the main PMA board, of which Janet Erickson was Chairman last year. We then spoke with Michael Spinazzola of Diversified Restaurant Systems, which supplies the Subway chain, to get the perspective of a larger organization, but one still focused on a select group of products. Michael serves on the PMA Foodservice Board as does Maurice Totty.

We turn to Maurice today in a part because the Compass Group offers a different perspective. A highly diversified operation, operating globally, they do not have the luxury of focusing on only a few items as a limited-menu QSR chain might. Additionally, Maurice is both frank and broadly experienced.

The Pundit wishes to express enormous appreciation to Janet and Dan, Michael and Maurice, as well as to their organizations: Del Taco, the University of Notre Dame, Diversified Restaurant Systems, Foodbuy and the Compass Group.

It is only because individuals of this caliber share their insights and organizations of this stature encourage them to do so that our industry advances and that, ultimately, we will produce safer product for everyone. These folks and others who contribute to building a better industry and food safety system are part of the solution and our debt to them meaningful.

Maurice Totty
Senior Procurement Manager Produce, Foodbuy, Charlotte, North Carolina, purchasing arm for the
UK-based Compass Group.

Q: Could you describe your role at Foodbuy?

A: Foodbuy is the purchasing arm of the Compass Group, made up of numerous foodservice operations, including restaurants, higher education and K through 12, corporate food establishments, hospitals, nursing homes, canteens, vending machines, and sports arenas in the United States and 93 other countries, making it one of the largest foodservice providers in the world.

Based out of the Charlotte, North Carolina, office, I’m in charge of produce sourcing, logistics, and distribution for produce in all sectors across the United States. There are now about 12,000 outlets in the U.S. that operate under the Compass banner.

Q: What food safety mechanisms do you have in place for produce procurement?

A: Much of our distribution network for produce is fragmented. One of the reasons I was brought into Foodbuy was to reduce the number of distributors, get to know them and understand their food procurement systems. Do they understand GAP is something other than a clothing store? Part of the supply chain link is making sure distributors’ food safety standards are as high as ours.

In some instances we deal directly with suppliers. We have 15 suppliers contracted in different areas, some regional processors, many on the West Coast, potato suppliers in different parts of country. We require audits of all facilities to make sure proper GAP plans are being followed all the way down to the fields and harvesting. We specify one of three auditing companies knowledgeable in foodservice operations; Primus Labs, Silliker Labs, and Cook & Thurber are the three that we accept.

We do realize other companies out there also do this for their business and can provide the necessary food safety expertise and testing we require, but we’ve thoroughly evaluated these three and feel confident in them. These labs are very objective, understand the foodservice industry and provide the most accurate audit.

We also must require the same auditing requirements for produce distributors. We have a very large number of produce distributors in the system and we are in the process of consolidating that number down to select those that provide audits from one of these three companies, and that have agreed to purchase from our approved suppliers.

Food safety is extremely important to me and the Compass Group, and the quality assurance team is right there with the changes we’re now implementing.

If you can control distribution, you can control the entire supply chain. The distributor ensures it buys the products from your approved suppliers.

Q: But even then, do you really have control over all areas where food safety issues could arise?

A: Even with the upgraded food safety programs, knowing the distribution base, and striving to evolve by contracting directly with suppliers, there is never 100 percent guarantee of removing foodborne illness. The best you can do is try to leverage the odds to reduce the potential risks that are out there. You do what you can.

Later in the supply chain, I believe foodservice has a higher risk variable than at retail. The retail sector usually has no human contact directly with the product inside the package. Basically, the employee is taking it out of the case and placing it on the shelf and that is the entire contact. On the foodservice side, most product being used has to be processed, taking the tomato out of the box being sure it’s washed, before it’s sliced and diced, it’s properly stored, cooled and handled down the line.

A lot of potential risks stem from human contact, which is of high importance in controlling food safety through the supply chain. If the pathogen is on the outside, the triple washing chlorine bath should remove it. But once it enters the leaf, all the washing in the world won’t remove it. Unfortunately, food safety issues are complex and often difficult to trace. That is why we need to approach food safety from many different angles.

Q: How has your varied career background helped you in this regard?

A: I’ve worked in both retail and foodservice at all levels of management, to now being on the procurement side at Foodbuy. My first real job out of high school was in grocery stores, and I stayed in retail 15 years working for Big Star Foods. I gravitated to the produce section and eventually became responsible for 30 grocery stores in the state of Virginia. Then I went to owning a restaurant by the name of Southern Delights located in the Waterside Festival Marketplace in Norfolk, Virginia, one of most fascinating, rewarding experiences where I learned about the responsibilities and challenges on the operations side.

From there I worked at Chi Chi’s restaurants in management positions, becoming director of operations in corporate, heavily involved in food and beverage. When the company decided to relocate to Irvine, California, from Kentucky, I didn’t want to move there. I left before the green onion outbreak, where four people died and more than 600 people were sickened. The chain never recovered from that and, eventually, ceased operations.

I joined Applebee’s in management on the produce purchasing side, which also afforded me the opportunity to get to the East Coast. Understanding all sides of the business and gaining different perspectives is beneficial in making food safety decisions at Foodbuy regarding distribution changes, product specifications, and operational adjustments.

Food safety strategies can’t be made in a bubble. You have to involve the operators, distributors and suppliers. Every decision has a ripple effect through the food chain network, and it is important to assure that everyone understands why changes need to be made. Most often changes are pushed back and people are quick to say why they won’t work. I’ve found that the more involved people are in the decisions and in understanding how it will benefit the company, the more they buy in.

Q: Some industry executives believe the only way to get everyone to buy in is with government regulations.

A: I believe within the next year, the government will be getting involved in mandating food safety standards applicable within the produce industry. We prefer to monitor food safety ourselves without government intervention. However, with the recent food outbreaks and the issues that continue, we won’t have a choice.

With government intervention, we won’t reach the level of food safety we need.

We still see mad cow disease. We haven’t been struck by bird flu yet, but risk of it occurring in the United States is very high. I believe we would have more control and flexibility to react quickly to incidents by taking charge of food safety requirements ourselves.

In the produce category, people are involved because they have a passion for it. I love the people in the industry I have the opportunity to work with. It is like a large family. Yes, we compete against each other, but if needed, produce executives would give the shirts off their backs. I think in terms of food safety, the industry will continue to work together to find solutions and hopefully not have government intervention pushing unsatisfactory solutions at us.

The other issue is that government regulation is focused on addressing grower/shipper problems or concerns, but will it have any control over freight and transport, handling in retail and foodservice operations? Will it do anything to educate consumers? For years, produce has been a commodity people don’t think can kill you. Outbreaks have proven that wrong. People understand that you don’t leave chicken out because it may get you sick. How many people wash produce before they pop it in their mouth?

Q: Wouldn’t the string of recent food outbreaks increase consumer awareness of food safety issues in produce?

A: Everyone is hypersensitive about food outbreaks now. Sadly, we’re seeing the media jumping on stories that never would have been stories or made the press a year ago. The Canada spinach salmonella news, which turned out to be an isolated incident and not a food outbreak at all, is the perfect example of how a story was blown out of proportion.

Unfortunately since the spinach outbreak, every hint of a potential issue has made it on 6:00 national news. A lot of companies are being hurt badly because of inaccurate, or misinformation or not having the full story available. Most of the time, the public never gets the rest of the story. They just hear foodborne illness, people in hospital, produce is bad.

Q: What is your opinion of how Taco Bell has handled its food crisis?

A: Taco Bell’s handling of its food outbreak is not good, the accusations being made and the determination to fire suppliers without justification do nothing to solve food safety problems. First it’s green onions, no, white onions, no, lettuce, maybe. Every time a speculation appears in a Taco Bell advertisement, a publication or over the internet, it hurts the industry and the suppliers of those products.

I’m sure Boskovich Farms and Ready Pac sales took a downturn. This is particularly unfair when these companies were doing what was asked of them. Suppliers and distributors will become extremely leery to come out and announce there is an issue.

Q: Have food outbreaks hit a tipping point in terms of consumer trust with produce?

A: In the case of Chi Chi’s, the outbreak was the final straw that the company couldn’t recover from. You ask how outbreaks affect consumers. Just like the outbreak at Chi Chi’s, I think over time these recent outbreaks will be forgotten, the industry will rebound, there will be changes, increased food safety measures put in place. I have talked to suppliers who are now testing or looking into testing sample lots of products that come out of the field after they are packaged before they are shipped, taking at least a day or two off the shelf life.

The continued efforts by the different produce groups — PMA, United Fresh — are critical. They need to stay involved in pushing for safer controls with growers/shippers and suppliers. The PMA has been a tremendous learning vehicle in my growth on the procurement side. It has allowed me first-hand experience on the grower and distributor side and access to a great cross section of all parts of the industry.

The reality is that in the produce supply chain, it’s not always at the grower level where food safety problems originate or reach the scope of an outbreak. There are so many areas where contamination could occur if the proper cold chain is not maintained from harvesting until the product is eaten by the consumer, during transport from the west coast to the east coast, when it reaches the distributor, how long that door stays open in that summer heat when the truck makes the delivery, etc.

The discussion cannot only focus on the grower. In foodservice, are operators handling the produce correctly or is it sitting in the kitchen un-refrigerated for two hours? With my restaurant background and exposure to all parts of the supply chain, maintaining food safety doesn’t fall on one select group. We are all part of the problem and solution.

Maurice’s comments are both intriguing and worth remembering. He points out that too many suppliers are difficult to monitor and so food safety has to start with a rationalization of the supply chain. Even then, the game is to improve your odds. It is not possible to guarantee success.

Even government regulation is no guarantee of success. Just look at more regulated industries such as beef and poultry and note that regulation doesn’t necessarily prevent mad cow disease or avian flu. Maurice also warns of the downside of government regulation: the loss of flexibility to respond to evolving food safety needs.

He reminds us, also, that source-based product problems are only part of the food safety puzzle. He cautions against forgetting about problems introduced throughout the distribution chain and warns us, particularly, that whatever advantages foodservice operators may have from better aligned supply chains, the advantages are substantially outweighed by the fact that restaurants are not selling sealed boxes of product but, instead, have to have human beings, with all their frailties, prepare and cook product. As we saw in the recent Olive Garden situation, you don’t need a problem in a field for a lot of people to get sick.

Maurice is critical, as was the Pundit here and here, of the new fashion of dumping suppliers who were doing everything asked of them. As Maurice reminds us: “Suppliers and distributors will become extremely leery to come out and announce there is an issue.” In other words, open lines of communication are crucial to food safety and are inhibited by such actions.

One refreshing note is how frankly Maurice acknowledges that all facets of the industry have a responsibility for food safety, even his own. The closing comments in the interview are well worth repeating:

The reality is that in the produce supply chain, it’s not always at the grower level where food safety problems originate or reach the scope of an outbreak. There are so many areas where contamination could occur if the proper cold chain is not maintained from harvesting until the product is eaten by the consumer, during transport from the west coast to the east coast, when it reaches the distributor, how long that door stays open in that summer heat when the truck makes the delivery, etc.

The discussion cannot only focus on the grower. In foodservice, are operators handling the produce correctly or is it sitting in the kitchen un-refrigerated for two hours? With my restaurant background and exposure to all parts of the supply chain, maintaining food safety doesn’t fall on one select group. We are all part of the problem and solution.

A lot of wisdom here. Thanks again to Maurice Totty, Foodbuy and the Compass Group. Your contributions help us build a better…and safer…industry.

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