GHQ Cover Story: Collaborating for Food Safety

Jul 07, 2006

By Jessie Male, Assistant Editor, Grocery Headquarters magazine

Through special arrangement with Grocery Headquarters, what follows is an excerpt of the current cover article, presented here for discussion. Click
to view the entire article, “An endless campaign.

Technological advances, educational programs, media attention and consumer outreach have created a consciousness about food safety that protects both the food and the buyer.

The consensus is that the battle is ongoing and letting one’s guard down can have serious repercussions. Fortunately, there’s much evidence that the food industry as a whole is taking its responsibilities seriously.

Retail Credibility

Busch’s, the family-owned supermarket operator based in Ann Arbor, Mich., began its affiliation with NSF International, an independent not-for-profit organization that among other things provides food safety certification, to add to its credibility with shoppers and demonstrate that food safety was a top priority. The collaboration goes beyond third-party auditing. Over the course of the year, food safety information has been added to register tapes, weekly tips from NSF experts have become part of the sale circular and live demonstrations are provided for customers and their families. Though Busch’s certification is heavily advertised, spokeswoman Peggy Conlin says, “It is a trust issue. We think of it more as a responsibility than a marketing opportunity.”

This is no longer an unusual decision. Stores and manufacturers all over the country are hiring third-party auditors to assess the cleanliness of their establishments. According to Patrick Pimental, general manager of Ann Arbor-based NSF’s food safety programs, approximately 40 banners have been certified in the past year. “This is not something they just sign up for. This is something that they have to earn,” he says.

The Downside

However, Jeff Nelken, a food safety coach and HACCP expert based in Woodland Hills, Calif., has clear evidence that auditors are not a surefire solution. Nelken consulted with the television news program Dateline: NBC on a year-long investigation, broadcast in January, that uncovered a multitude of sanitary violations at supermarkets carrying the banners of the nation’s 10 largest grocery chains. “There were quite a few incidences of temperature and testing problems, and many of the major chains that were mentioned had third-party auditors or equivalents. They let the companies down,” he says. “The auditors have become a crutch. Ultimately, you have to depend on your local manager and the commitment of the team on site.”

Nelken says the ability of companies to self-regulate carries with it a tremendous responsibility for training workers to uphold food safety standards. “The question is, can people police themselves? Does the company have the controls in place so the staff really becomes the inspectors and watches the operations on a daily basis?” Nelken says.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nearly one in four cases of foodborne illness could be prevented by proper personal hygiene. “Workers need to be educated about not coming to work when they are,” explains NSF technical manager Mary Weaver. Basic hand-washing techniques and proper use of gloves are simple, but significant, skills.

FMI developed Super Safe Mark to train retail associates. The program is available in classes that last for one or two days, online and on a CD-ROM. The Conference of Food Protection recognizes the accredited certification exam. The Food Products Association offers manuals and is creating an online HACCP training course. “There are always people who are entering the food industry who need to be trained; it is ongoing,” says Jenny Scott, FPA vice president of food safety programs.

Moderator’s Question: What role should third-party auditors and trainers play in a retailer’s food safety program? Do you see a danger in relying too
heavily on outside parties, or is it best to “leave it up to the pros”? Is third-party credibility needed to assure consumer trust?

Rick Moss – Moderator

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4 Comments on "GHQ Cover Story: Collaborating for Food Safety"

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Odonna Mathews
Odonna Mathews
15 years 10 months ago
Food safety is a key corporate responsibility for any retailer today. Having clear food safety policies in place must be a corporate mandate from the top to establish the importance of food safety, whether it is done internally, externally, or a combination of both. Issues can result from just one customer experience, so addressing food safety proactively is essential. Consumers will quickly judge a company and often are not forgiving if it does not appear to err on the side of safety. Consumer education is equally important, but often not a visible component of many food safety efforts. Simple education messages can appear on product labels, brochures, websites, ads, or through toll free hotlines where one can speak with a “live” consumer representative and ask questions or report a problem. Coalitions to promote food safety messages, such as the Partnership for Food Safety Education ( provide effective ways to reach consumers and involve a variety of industry, scientific, consumer and government organizations. More retailers, manufacturers, and third-party auditors would be well served by participating in… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
15 years 10 months ago

There really isn’t an easy either this or that answer to the question. While I tend to agree with Race about not wanting to instill too much fear in our daily lives, we cannot really afford to be complacent. We can’t afford to rely on self-checks (as evidenced by Cadburys in the UK recently with its decision that the levels of salmonella contaminating its chocolate bars and kids’ Easter Eggs was low enough not to merit reporting – oh yeah???!!) and trusting outside organisations whose priority has to be their own bottom line rather than the client’s. Most of you know that I almost always side with a policy of cooperation rather than competition. This is a class example of how training staff AND double checking with independent inspectors is both necessary and beneficial.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 10 months ago
This shouldn’t be an “either-or” question. My recommendation is “both,” with internal and external parties doing their jobs and monitoring each other. This is clearly a teamwork issue, and the best food chains are already handling food safety in this way. The only time this approach does not work properly is when the retailer limits full, third-party access to certain areas where shenanigans often occur. Like the fresh meat department (e.g., Food Lion). And, I must strongly disagree with my highly respected friend Race, and his thesis. When we make the decision “to be or not to be” afraid of something, we are making that decision for those around us, too. Being afraid of something doesn’t isolate us. Instead, it unites us with responsibility. Responsibility to handle food safely so someone else doesn’t get sick. Responsibility to monitor tire wear so we don’t have a traffic accident and injure those around us. Responsibility to vote so we and our fellow citizens and families are represented in the best possible way. The second part of this… Read more »
Race Cowgill
Race Cowgill
15 years 10 months ago
Mind if we back up a bit and ask: should retail approach this issue in this way? GHQ quote: “The consensus is that the battle is ongoing and letting one’s guard down can have serious repercussions, including the loss of money, integrity or even life.” Is this REALLY the kind of attitude that we ought to promote? On one hand we have an unprecedented focus on finding and eliminating the hundreds of hidden threats in every area of our lives. On the other hand, we are teaching ourselves to become very afraid, all the time. Which is worse? Which poses the greater risk? Personally, I find the fear-of-everything very destructive — it is incredibly stressful, it isolates us from each other, it is self-fulfilling, it costs so much money, it utterly destroys joy. And what are we really after? Can we no longer tolerate even mild illness if we are able to prevent it? Are we THAT afraid? We are now afraid of our food, our air, our houses, our neighbors, our government, strangers, other… Read more »

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