ORLANDO, Fla. (FNS) -- Supermarket executives are working toward the next level -- worldwide accountability -- to keep the food supply safe, a Royal Ahold executive told attendees of the International Food Safety Congress 2000 here.
Already, Ahold, Asda/ Wal-Mart Europe, Delhaize Le Lion, Tesco, Safeway U.K. and other major retailers are participating in the Global Task Force on Food Safety, Quality and Security set up by Paris-based CIES, The Food Business Forum [see "CIES Planning Global Food-Safety Initiative," SN, May 22, 2000]. Currently encompassing 13 global food retailers, the group plans to expand to include major supermarket chains in the U.S. and other countries.
At the top of the task force's agenda is creation of a rapid-alert system that would allow retailer members to notify each other via a private Web site when there is a problem with a food supplier, according to Alfons Schmid, task force chairman and vice president of public and environmental affairs at Royal Ahold, based in Zaandam, The Netherlands. Recalls, government legislation and other issues will likely be included.
"We want to combine the best of what is already there," Schmid said. The notification system should be in place by the end of the year, and the task force hopes to work with the Food Marketing Institute and other organizations to attract both members and possible content for the Web site.
Aside from the more obvious issues of simple food safety, the growth of consumer awareness is compelling global retailers to cooperate, Schmid said. Shoppers now choose supermarkets not only on price, but also on food safety and community involvement.
"Social accountability is the thing of the future," he said. "People are now a member of a group with their [frequent shopper] card, and want their supermarket to be a community player."
In addition, busy consumers may not have time to participate in community organizations, so they are looking to supermarkets to handle issues pertaining to the environment, human and animal rights and other causes, Schmid noted, adding that these consumer awareness/activism trends are a worldwide phenomenon. For example, shoppers at Ahold's stores in Thailand are demanding more organic foods, he said.
To succeed, large industry players are going to have to be more willing to work together. In three to five years, Schmid predicted, there will be three to five global retailers along with several smaller players. The consolidated companies will require a "better grip on the 'farm-to-fork' supply chain."
To that end, the task force has plans to streamline numerous food safety standards, using Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point practices and its international equivalent, Codex, as base guidelines. This streamlining is necessary, Richard Fedigan, president and chief executive officer of CIES, recently told SN.
"Ahold, Carrefour and Wal-Mart all do their own inspections, so there's no harmonization. And the product standards are at different levels in the various countries these retailers use for sourcing. You need a minimum level of guidelines to apply uniformly across the world," Fedigan said.
Individual food categories, such as produce, are also taking steps to standardize food safety programs. Dr. Donna Garran, vice president of scientific and technical affairs at the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, said the need for global quality assurance and food safety protocols have come about because of the large variety of produce now available year-round from different countries, as well as consolidation among produce suppliers.
United is one of several industry organizations working with retailers, food-service companies and the produce industry on one voluntary standard that extends beyond the USDA/FDA's Good Agricultural Practices guidelines. Whereas GAP covers possible microbiological contamination, the pending industry standard would also address physical and chemical contamination.
"These are standards for the buyers of our produce to use as far as specs to ask suppliers," said Garran, who expects the universal rule to be completed this fall. As more retailers and suppliers operate globally, it is hoped that all supply-chain participants will join in adopting such measures.
United and the other industry groups are also pushing for audits of produce certifiers to maintain consistent qualifications and standards. With cooperation from European and U.S. retailers and organizations, Garran believes an audit system can be established soon.
"It's a fast-track issue for us. We're hoping to have something by the fall," she said.
Larry Scaglione, director of food safety for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, Dallas, said even now, operators can take simple, practical steps to assure that food sold and consumed by their customers is safe, despite sourcing from numerous local and regional food vendors around the world.
For instance, before his company opens a new property in a foreign country, representatives visit local hotels and comparable resorts in the area to determine which vendors they are using and whether or not they are satisfied with them, he said. In addition, the company determines which products are made by local vendors, and what processes and systems the supplier has incorporated into their manufacture.
Scaglione said he would rather start with a large supplier and distributor list rather than going with one single company right off the bat. He said a list allows Carlson Restaurants to weed out poor performers, including those who exhibit an "inability to be safe and consistent."