ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Certain quality factors like seasonality are acceptable in the produce department, but safety can never be compromised, said two veteran retailers during a technical seminar on food safety sponsored by the International Fresh-cut Produce Association here.
"The produce industry has had a long history of providing safe products, when you look at the billions of pounds of produce that are consumed each year," said Gale Prince, corporate director of regulatory affairs, Kroger Co., Cincinnati.
Still, he added, fruits and vegetables are implicated in outbreaks of food-borne illness as the source. Peter Rojek, vice president of environmental health and food safety, A&P, Montvale, N.J., said that such incidents have been the fuel for change.
"Unfortunately in this day and age, food safety is being driven by fear -- fear of litigation, fear of regulatory involvement, fear of media attention and fear of loss of business," he said.
The increased public attention has resulted in the creation of new supply structures that use best practices to protect products from the field to the display bin, and into customers' homes.
"Produce safety is a shared responsibility by everyone from the field producer to the consumer," Prince said. "Any deviation, no matter how small, may affect the safety of the final product."
Kroger, the country's largest supermarket chain, has developed a business plan with food-safety factors built in. According to Prince, its procurement program is somewhat unique in that it includes field-buying offices around the major growing areas.
"These buying offices employ individuals with expertise in fruits and vegetables, microbiology, horticulture and other sciences," he said. "These individuals work with growers on their business plans and include food-safety issues. They also monitor the production and packaging of the products as they move into the distribution channel."
At Kroger distribution centers, dedicated produce quality-control inspectors check incoming shipments, said Prince.
To keep associates on all levels updated on food-safety issues, the retailer has invested a tremendous sum in training programs. According to Prince, 35,000 associates and managers were either trained or retrained last year.
One practice coming to the forefront as retailers and suppliers redefine their relationships is third-party certification. Prince said that his company's size almost requires it to call on an outside force to serve as an impartial set of eyes.
"We're looking for that food-safety expertise to give us an overview of our food-safety programs that are in place, to evaluate their effectiveness," he said.
Prince noted that, to be successful, these certification programs require full disclosure of all records on behalf of the retailer, "to determine if the food-safety program is operating the way it should every day, and not just the day the third-party auditor was in the facility."
At A&P, food safety currently encompasses five functional areas: procurement, warehouse/distribution, store design, operating standards and training, said Rojek, who added that documentation is resulting in internal changes.
"We are currently reviewing all of our product categories and adding risk components, developing food-safety objectives and distributing questionnaires to suppliers," as well as reinventing the quality assurance department, he said.