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Safety Counts.

Byline: Kathie Canning

To enhance food safety -- and keep consumers' trust -- more retailers are requiring store brand suppliers to be certified to a GFSI-benchmarked standard.

Even the smallest food safety misstep can create a major headache for manufacturers and retailers in terms of cost and consumer trust issues. And a major food safety snafu -- one that leads to illnesses or even deaths -- could jeopardize a company's entire future.

Although food manufacturers, including private label suppliers, have stepped up food safety efforts over the past couple of decades, they still face a number of challenges. As owners of their store brands, retailers need to be aware of these challenges and become actively involved in the enhancement of suppliers' food safety efforts.

"The significant consolidation of our global food chain has created new challenges for food processors and food retailers," says Sharrann Simmons, director of product marketing for Silliker Inc., Chicago. "There are larger, more centralized farms, resulting in both semi-processed and finished goods being shipped long distances in variable weather conditions. Potential contamination of irrigation water and introduction of other contaminants into food systems present real dangers to consumers' health and wellness."

Challenges tied to the global food chain aren't the only concern, however. Often, a food safety issue boils down to the failure of individuals and companies to adhere to practices already set forth, stresses Jim Cook, a food technologist with SGS Consumer Testing Services, Fairfield, N.J.

"A breakdown in food safety systems can come from a lack of management commitment, training, communication, record-keeping or other key food safety requirements," explains LeAnn Chuboff, senior technical director for the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI), Arlington, Va. Administered by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), SQFI oversees the SQF certification program, which is recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). (To learn more about GFSI, see "Navigating the Maze" in the January 2011 issue of Progressive Grocer's Store Brands,

No matter how the breakdown occurs, the results are the same.

"If you don't have the product on the shelf, you're not making the sales, so you're losing money every single day some snafu happens," Cook says.

Retailers also incur recall-related costs, notes Robert Prevendar, director of supply chain food safety for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International. Moreover, the loss of consumer trust in the recalled store brand product could spread to other store brand goods the retailer offers -- and even to the stores themselves.

To help prevent food safety snafus, store brand program managers must be meticulous when it comes to managing and monitoring their suppliers, Simmons maintains. They must create the appropriate specifications, verify the compliance of finished goods against those specifications, review trends related to supplier conformance and performance, and adjust the specifications and testing regimes to respond to those trends.

"The overwhelming amount of quality data created by a large store brand program mandates the use of an effective data management system or partnering with an external vendor," she adds.

Certification matters

Retailers could take a major step forward, food safety-wise, by asking store brand suppliers to seek certification of their food safety programs.

"Many retailers require their suppliers to achieve certification to a GFSI-benchmarked standard such as SQF as a means of demonstrating food safety and brand protection," Prevendar notes.

One supplier to achieve certification to a GFSI-benchmarked standard is Greencore USA. The Newburyport, Mass.-based supplier of store brand fresh sandwiches and Weight Watchers chilled prepared meals worked three years to achieve British Retail Consortium (BRC) Grade A accreditation for its Newburyport facility, notes Chris Solly, Greencore USA's vice president, licensed brands. The site represents one of "only a handful of sites" in the United States to achieve that level of certification.

"We recognize that it is very important for store brand managers and buyers to have the utmost confidence in product quality and safety when sourcing store brand items from suppliers," Solly says.

Like other GFSI-benchmarked standards, the SQF program verifies that a supplier's food safety and quality management systems not only are in place, but also are operating appropriately, Chuboff explains.

"We're marketing a program that's a risk-based program -- one that's preventative and reduces the risk for a food safety incident," she says.

"Since SQF [I] is a subsidiary of FMI, we have the advantage of hearing feedback from the retailers regarding the SQF code and are able to consider changes to the code based on their feedback. There are several retailers that sit on our Technical Advisory Council and provide their feedback to the program."

SQF takes a farm-to-fork approach, Chuboff adds, offering both agricultural and manufacturing certification codes. This approach allows suppliers to ensure customers' food is produced, processed, prepared and handled "according to the highest possible standards." And SQF has reapplied for benchmarking to the GFSI Guidance Document.

"Edition 7 of the SQF code is more streamlined to aid suppliers and auditors in implementation. It is modularized, providing facilities the opportunity to be audited against their specific industry scope," she says. "Edition 7 also includes technical elements, especially for primary producers, and more robust auditor requirements."

Another planned enhancement to the current SQF assessment, Chuboff says, is the addition of compliance and management software this summer by a new vendor, EtQ.

Third-party approach

Audits in support of the SQF scheme and other GFSI-benchmarked standards are performed by qualified third-party auditors such as NSF international, Silliker and SGS.

For its part, NSF helps retailers protect their own brands through solutions that ensure food safety and quality practices are built into products and the whole supply chain, Prevendar says.

"We have very strong internal systems, and our more than 300 auditors conduct roughly 32,000 audits to GFSI-benchmarked standards each year around the world," he says. "NSF's global food safety auditors average over 10 years of experience and have industry-specific expertise that provides our customers with a high-quality evaluation against SQF and other GFSI-benchmarked food safety standards."

SGS, too, is highly experienced in audits to GFSI-benchmarked standards. And like all other third-party auditors, the company is willing to perform a gap analysis prior to an audit to allow the supplier to address any shortcomings that exist, Cooks says. Supplier certification to the SQF scheme or another GFSI-benchmarked standard brings tangible benefits to retailers and their store brand programs, he adds.

"For example, we had one [retailer] that had all of its suppliers go for a GFSI standard, whether it be SQF or BRC, etc., and they went from dealing with 120-plus recalls per year down to three," Cook says.

As for Silliker, it also performs numerous audits to GFSI-benchmarked standards -- and provides multiple services to enhance store brand safety and increase the overall effectiveness of retailers' quality management programs, Simmons notes.

"Monitoring supplier performance is a critical factor and can include setting and reviewing specifications, data assessment and analysis, trending on key performance criteria and in-store sampling followed by lab testing (microbiological, chemical and sensory)," she says. "Silliker brings the store brand retailer peace of mind by condensing the myriad data and SKUs into a clear picture of product quality with actionable insights for improvement."

Beyond certification

Retailers also could take steps outside certification to enhance the safety of store brand foods.

For example, because mislabeling related to allergens, nutritional claims and more is a source of many product recalls today, retailers need to ensure store brand labeling is accurate, Simmons says. She says Silliker provides full lab analysis of nutritional labeling components and conducts full product label reviews.

Retailers also need to train in-store employees in the latest food-handling and quality procedures, Prevender says. He notes that NSF supports both retailers and restaurants here by offering customizable educational programs that cover HACCP, food safety and HACCP manager certifications, allergen control and seafood safety and quality,

'If you don't have the product on the shelf, you're not making the sales, so you're losing money every single day some snafu happens.'

-- Jim Cook, food technologist, SGS Consumer Testing Services

Wage war against E. coli

Escherichia coli (E. coli) -- specifically the E. coli 0157 strain -- long has been a major thorn in the side for food processors, retailers and foodservice operators. Foods contaminated with the bacterium have sickened -- and killed -- a number of people over the years.

But a new vaccine represents a potential weapon in the war against E. coli 0157 -- at least when it comes to beef products. Approved by the USDA to reduce the amount of E. coli 0157 pathogens in cattle intestines, the Escherichia Coli Bacterial Extract vaccine with SRP technology is offered commercially by Pfizer Animal Health Products, Madison, N.J.

Originally developed by Willmar, Minn.-based Epitopix to control Salmonella in its turkey operations, the technology eventually was adapted to control Salmonella in cattle and then applied to create the current cattle vaccine, explains Guy Loneragan, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with Texas Tech University. USDA granted a conditional license for its use in early 2009 (simply meaning USDA hasn't completed all of its regulatory review), and both Pfizer Animal Health and Epitopix are progressing toward full licensure for the vaccine.

In a nutshell, the vaccine interferes with E. coli 0157's ability to get iron, a nutrient needed for the bacterium's survival, by causing the cattle to produce antibodies that bind to the bacteria, Loneragan explains. The result? The bacterium is either reduced or eliminated from the animal's gut. The vaccine already has been applied across a variety of production settings.

"The efficacy is not 100 percent," he notes.

"There is no such thing as a silver bullet, but it doesn't need to be 100 percent to have a positive impact. There are other systems already in place across the beef industry that this vaccine would supplement."

Still, the potential benefits appear to be huge. H. Scott Hurd D.V.M., Ph.D., an associate professor at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, performed a study to quantify just what those benefits could be.

"We created a simulation model that measured the impact of the vaccine all the way through to human illnesses," he says, "and we found that there was quite a remarkable decrease in the predicted number of human illnesses if a large number of packers used this vaccine.... If the vaccine was used [nationally] so as to be 80 percent effective -- that's kind of the best case scenario -- the model shows a 60 percent reduction in human illnesses, which is whopping big."

Fewer pathogens in beef not only could reduce the burden of beef-related foodborne illness and pathogens on farms, but also minimize pathogens on adjacent produce farmlands and in watersheds used for irrigation, says Sarah A. Klein, J.D., M.A., staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) Food Safety Program.

"While we don't know the extent of reduction possible from an E. coli vaccine -- because so much depends on adoption by the industry -- anything that helps to protect consumers from the devastating consequences of an E. coli infection would be welcome," she adds.

For store brand beef products, retailers could work with their upstream partners to implement use of the vaccine, Loneragen maintains.

"A perfectly efficacious intervention has no impact if it sits on the shelf," he stresses.
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Author:Canning, Kathie
Publication:Progressive Grocer's Store Brands
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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