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Taking a stand: grocers get out front on several vital and high-profile issues. (Washington Perspective).

The retail food industry is becoming increasingly proactive on a number of fronts. The industry has taken stands on food-related social issues and is working cooperatively with government agencies such as OSHA to craft regulations that are both effective for workers and livable for the industry.

Heading off what could have evolved into a nasty public food fight or difficult government regulations, the Food Marketing Institute (EMI), in coordination with the National Council of Chain Restaurants, has developed a set of guidelines on how animals should be treated en route to supermarket meat cases and diners' plates. The guidelines are the culmination of a two-year effort by the two organizations to address growing public concern. More are sure to follow.

While some animal rights activists have, at times, crossed the line of acceptable tactics and common sense, they have also raised awareness of ghastly practices that would make the average person choke on his chicken or recoil from a roast. For example, can cutting off a chicken's beak and denying it food and water to induce molting and thereby greater production possibly be acceptable just for cheaper eggs?

While supermarkets may have no direct hand in how animals destined for market are treated, the supermarket is the direct point of contact between consumers and the food industry. We live in an age of shared responsibility. It's no longer good enough to shrug and say, "I just sell the stuff."

FMI and national restaurant associations were asked by several of their members to step in and develop guidelines after they found themselves in the crosshairs of a campaign by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one of the most aggressive animal rights organizations. PETA is pushing for animal welfare legislation similar to that of the stringent laws found in Europe.

In April 2001, the FMI Board of Directors adopted an animal welfare policy. Its newly released voluntary guidelines set forth retailer expectations for growers, producers and processors. They are expected to have a significant impact on the way animals headed to market are treated, though resistance from some meat processors is likely and no enforcement tool is in place. The guidelines for the pork, egg, chicken, dairy and beef industries were reviewed and endorsed by seven leading animal welfare specialists, including the American Humane Association.

This decision is a major step forward for the retail grocery industry and one likely to sit well with a public whose faith in big corporations has been shaken to the core. The emphasis on animal welfare by a segment of the food industry with limited direct responsibility for the animals themselves stands in stark contrast to the anything-for-a-buck corporate policies now on display in the news. It will be nice for grocers to assure their customers that they really do care.

In case you missed the latest installment in the ergonomics saga, OSHA's new approach toward ergonomics scraps the former heavy-handed, mandatory regulatory model in favor of voluntary industry-specific and task-specific guidelines. Industry representatives will play a leading role in assisting OSHA in the development of these guidelines.

In June, OSHA announced that two sets of guidelines would be developed for retail grocery stores and poultry processors. "The number of ergonomic-related injuries suffered by workers in the retail grocery store industry continues to rank near the top of the list," says OSHA Administrator John Henshaw.

FMI and the National Grocers Association have pledged their cooperation in working with OSHA and have met with agency representatives. Retailers brought a lot to the table in terms of guidance, programs, training and materials already developed in recent years aimed at reducing workplace injuries. FMI established as far back as 1990 an Ergonomics Task Force, which issued extensive recommendations for reducing repetitive-motion injuries. These efforts are paying off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, injuries and illnesses in grocery stores fell 33% from 1989 to 2000.

The ergonomics guidelines are scheduled to be published in draft form later this year. OSHA's ergonomic plan also included workplace outreach, advanced research and efforts to protect Hispanic and other immigrant workers. Tough enforcement measures are promised if workers are found to be in danger.

The industry should keep its collective eye on current efforts in Congress to pass a prescription drug benefits bill for seniors. Senate Republicans and Democrats knocked off each other's bills in late July, raising doubts about whether compromise legislation can be moved. Any Senate bill would still have to be reconciled with a House-passed version already on the table.

What's important for grocers? Key provisions are those that spell out who controls the program, where seniors may fill their prescriptions and at what cost. Many seniors use and rely on grocery store pharmacies not only for prescriptions, but also for pharmacy-based medication counseling. With so many seniors taking multiple medications, it's important that they receive sound advice and proper cautions.

Grocery store pharmacies could stand to lose significant business should a prescription ding benefit bill contain adverse provisions.

Cecelia Blalock can be reached by e-mail at
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Author:Blalock, Cecelia
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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