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Navigate The Maze.

Byline: Kathie Canning

When it comes to the oversight of food safety efforts for store brands, retailers must deal with a complicated, increasingly global supply chain. But new initiatives and technology can help.

Even the most vigilant of food processors faces a challenge when it comes to food safety. After all, it is extremely difficult to keep watch over multiple ingredient suppliers, an assortment of processing equipment and product transport conditions. An undetected problem, however, has the potential to create a public health crisis -- and even destroy a brand or a company.

Consider the massive salmonella outbreak in late 2008/early 2009 traced to peanut butter from Lynchburg, Va.-based Peanut Corporation of America. The tainted peanut butter created major problems for processors that used the peanut butter in food products -- and ultimately forced the company out of business.

Retailers -- typically an additional step removed from the production process -- potentially confront an even greater challenge when it comes to ensuring store brand food safety.

They traditionally have relied on auditing, training, qualification and testing programs to help ensure the highest levels of food safety for store brand items throughout the supply chain, notes Arthur Rumpf, senior technical consultant at Specialized Technology Resources Inc. (STR), Canton, Mass. Such programs usually have been managed by in-house quality assurance staff, often with third-party assistance.

But "the effectiveness of the traditional oversight efforts has come under increased pressure," Rumpf maintains.

That's because limited resources are available to address a number of significant risk factors that exist today, he explains. Those risk factors include a rise in the number of ingredient/ food suppliers in an increasingly global marketplace; a decline in consumer trust, thanks to widespread media coverage of food safety issues and recalls; increased demand on the part of consumers for more healthful foods with no preservatives and minimal processing; and potential food security threats.

Kristen Vieira Traynor, a partner with the global professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), notes that the greatest hurdle of all is the globalization of the supply chain.

"The complexities are significant," she says, "so it makes it really hard even for some of the retailers with the best quality programs to totally stay on top of it -- because it's often your downstream supplier that is one or two down from your immediate supplier that could be causing the problem."

Johann Heydenrych, director of industry solutions for itelligence Inc., Cincinnati, agrees.

"We are moving larger and larger quantities of materials through the supply chain," he notes, "and we are moving more and more between countries and between continents and within the United States. Maintaining the integrity of the supply chain is becoming very, very difficult."

A matter of risk

That means a retailer needs to gain a strong understanding of its entire supply chain to get a good handle on what its potential safety risks might be, Vieira Traynor says. Although the food safety risk is no greater for a store brand than it is for a national brand, a food safety snafu could pose a reputational risk to that store brand -- or even to the store or the entire chain.

The most extreme risk, of course, is the liability a retailer would have if a tainted store brand product harmed or sickened someone, notes James Rushing, a partner in Chicago-based SymphonylRI Group's Consulting & Innovation practice.

"But one of the biggest concerns I hear from retailers now is loyalty -- 'How do we make our shoppers more loyal?"' he says. "Any issue that causes them to feel they cannot trust a retailer, whether it directly affects the shopper or not, has incrementally bad effects."

To help retailers identify where their approaches to store brand food safety might be falling short -- and learn how to address those problems -- Rumpf recommends they take a look at a recent FDA Retail Trend Analysis Report, available online at

The GFSI effect

One major food safety effort that is helping companies enhance food safety across the board is the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), a voluntary initiative that traces its roots back a decade or so ago to Europe. According to Tom Chestnut, vice president of food safety and quality for NSF International, Ann Arbor, Mich., three or four companies were conducting audits for a number of companies throughout Europe back then, and a high degree of redundancy was occurring.

"They thought if they could get together and benchmark these against common criteria, then they could use kind of a 'once-audited, accepted everywhere' approach instead of having multiple audits," he explains.

The United States was facing a similar issue, he notes, leading a group of large companies -- including McDonald's, Walmart, U.S. Foodservice and more -- to jointly discuss a way to work through ANSI to develop a common food safety platform. In 2007, the companies brought leaders from across all industries, including third-party auditors such as NSF, Silliker and AIB, together for a meeting.

"The outcome of that meeting was that we needed something to move forward quickly in this country," Chestnut says. "We needed to avoid redundancy, to do things that would take the next step forward."

Instead of developing standards from scratch, which would have required one to two years, the leaders opted to support the European model -- what had become GFSI -- and bring it into North America. A month after that meeting, Chestnut notes, Walmart put out a letter to its suppliers stating that they would be required to be certified under one of the programs benchmarked by the GFSI, according to a category-specific timeframe.

Since then, Chestnut says, a number of other companies have put similar requirements on their suppliers -- and auditing firms have scrambled to build auditor capacity (the training requirements are strict). Although major suppliers with "sophisticated quality assurance staffs" were among the first to get certified, mid-range and smaller suppliers are starting to follow suit. A lot of these smaller players "need some sort of help" to get them to the next level, he notes.

For its part, NSF and its Cook & Thurber business -- a third-party auditing arm -- provides consultative audits to help suppliers.

"What is unique about the NSF program is that we hire people who generally have a minimum of 20 years of experience in the industry ... so they have a very high depth of knowledge," Chestnut says. "One of the pieces of advice that we give to [retailers] is know your suppliers and utilize strong partners in the industry, and that's what we think to be our role."

Despite the food safety enhancements GFSI brings to the table, numerous things still can go wrong on the food safety side. Moreover, certification does not guarantee 100 percent compliance post-certification.

"It gets to be one of those situations where you can't be everywhere at the same time," says Pat Conroy, vice chairman and U.S. consumer products leader, for Deloitte LLP, New York. "I think all of the companies that I personally am aware of do a fantastic job of making sure those guidelines are in place. ... The issue becomes how to figure out how to audit and get the most cost-effective coverage of the controls and assurances, checks and balances that are in place to catch those things when they might occur."

Even if a retailer is using a good GFSI standard, Vieira Traynor points to inconsistency related to audits.

"It's essentially a commoditized business," she says, "a checklist -- and you're not being given feedback necessarily on areas that could be improved. You're kind of just getting a pass/fail score."

Case in point: Only three weeks prior to its peanut butter recall, Vieira Traynor says, the Peanut Corporation of America passed a facility audit.

"They not only received a passing audit, but they got a 99 out of 100," she says. "The food safety score was very high, yet the food safety risks that still existed at that facility also were very high."

That said, Vieira Traynor is still an advocate for GFSI certification. After all, she contends, most facilities are going to have to make quite a few process improvements to attain that certification.

Still, one of the best safeguards, from a retailer and store brand standpoint, Vieira Traynor says, is to ask the right questions.

"It's not just getting a sense from your supplier that they are GFSI certified," she says, "but it's asking them, 'Who are your suppliers? -- and by the way, if something happens to one of those suppliers, who's your backup? What's your program for making sure they are OK?' So it's getting behind that upstream supply chain that I think is really what's most important."

Technology helps

In addition to putting into place requirements centered on food safety standards, retailers should count testing

-- in both the pre-qualification process and the ongoing monitoring process

-- as a critical food safety component, STR's Rumpf says.

"From a food safety and security standpoint, testing routines have become even more involved in order to detect potential product counterfeiting or adulteration of ingredients used to make the product," he adds. "Technology and equipment for analytical and microbiological testing methods continue to evolve at a rapid pace, allowing analysis of components in complex food matrices at lower detection levels in shorter time intervals."

Among the newer technologies available to retailers here for product tracking, identification, traceability and cold-chain monitoring are radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, 3-D bar codes and sensors, Rumpf says. And predictive modeling analysis also can help pinpoint potential problems before they occur.

Donal Mac Daid, a vice president with Aldata, a provider of integrated business solutions with U.S. headquarters in Atlanta, agrees that barcodes and RFID are useful, helping retailers "create a comprehensive product history capturing an item's total transformation, which helps trace goods back to their point of origin." He adds that retailers also could create a system to monitor the movement and transformation of all of their products, creating a warehouse-to-shelf record.

"Swiss retailer Migros has created a system enabling it to track fish from receipt at the warehouse to sale in its stores," Mac Daid notes. "The fish undergoes a number of changes such as preparation to be sold, being packaged, weighed and priced. Using a mixture of RFID, warehouse management systems and scanning, Migros is able to track 'transformation' of the product."

Mac Daid notes that some retailers lack the technology to trace products back to their point of origin. However, pending legislation would give the U.S. Government greater oversight here, including the ability to mandate recalls. (In late December, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. President Obama signed the legislation on Jan. 4.)itelligence's Heydenrych also is a fan of technology when it comes to tracking and tracing.

"We need to take the human element out and use systems to achieve and ensure the integrity of the supply chain," he contends. "The only way we're going to achieve that is with high-class systems -- enterprise resource planning [ERP] systems. We must have technology that will allow those systems between organizations to talk to each other, so we can pass on vital information."

That information includes the identity of the material, the quality of that material, whether or not the material passed all food safety checks, and more, he says. What is needed is a solid ERP system, preconfigured to the food industry and inclusive of food safety and HACCP requirements.

"It's something we all have to work at over the next five to 10 years," Heydenrych says. "We have solutions that can help folks achieve that."

Recall considerations

Even the most cautious of retailers is not immune to a store brand-related food safety snafu, so Vieira Traynor strongly advises that they be ready to handle any issue -- and quickly.

"There are quite a few commercially available recall systems that retailers can use, and most of the big ones are using them now," she notes.

Some retailers are tapping into loyalty systems to manage recalls and customer communications, Mac Daid adds, alerting shoppers by e-mail or text that certain products have been recalled.

In the past, tracking "granularity" was lacking, and retailers and manufacturers had to err on the side of caution by recalling probably too many items, Deloitte's Conway says. But today companies have access to online solutions that allow them not only to increase the speed with which they notify parties, but also to pinpoint the exact location of the affected product.

"I think the goal is to be very surgical," he adds. "When a problem occurs, they can say without a doubt that it's these lots; it's these SKUs, and here's where they are."

Despite the food safety enhancements GFSI brings to the table, numerous things still can go wrong on the food safety side.

Educate the Shopper

Food safety concerns don't end when the product hits the store shelf, of course. Improper handling on the part of consumers can result in a whole new set of problems.

That's why the not-for-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education created the Be Food Safe platform. As Executive Director Shelley Feist explains, Be Food Safe was developed with input from retailers and food and consumer products companies as a way to educate consumers on safe food handling processes.

Through the modular Be Food Safe program, the partnership offers graphics and text to support any or all of the four core messages: clean, separate, cook and chill. Participation costs retailers nothing, Feist notes, adding that approximately 60 retailers already are onboard.

"We know from our research on the Be Food Safe Platform that consumers think more highly of a retailer and/or a food product when they see that they support telling them about food safety," she adds. "We did online focus groups, and this is something that consumers appreciated."

To learn more, contact the partnership at 202-220-0651.

Ponder the Pallet

Perhaps you've heard rumors linking wood pallets with food contamination risks. Well, scientific evidence puts those rumors to rest, stresses Derek Hannum, director of marketing for Orlando, Fla.-based CHEP.

First of all, pallets play an important role in food transportation, but seldom come into direct contact with the food, Hannum says. And second, studies have found that wooden surfaces actually absorb bacteria, giving them some "natural antibacterial properties."

More than a decade ago, Dr. Dean Cliver compared the safety of wooden cutting boards to that of plastic versions in a University of California-Davis study, Hannum notes. The study found that the wood's capillary action draws bacteria in, where they die off. On the other hand, the non-porous plastic cutting board surface, with rough spots from knife use, was more inclined to harbor bacteria.

CHEP contacted Cliver to find out if the science also applied to wooden pallets. Oliver's conclusion? Yes, Hannum says. And other studies also seem to support that conclusion, including "The Role of Pallets in Microbial Food Safety," an article that appeared in the October 2010 issue of Food Protection Trends.
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Author:Canning, Kathie
Publication:Progressive Grocer's Store Brands
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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