MIAMI -- The first step in guarding against a food safety-related crisis is choosing a supplier carefully, according to the quality assurance director of a billion-dollar fast-food chain.
Chet England, chief food safety officer for Burger King Corp. and a frequent speaker on the subject, said there are two types of crises, and one is more dangerous for the retailer.
The first variety of foodborne illness can be traced to a product with a manufacturer's label, and is not as serious as the second type: foodborne illnesses traced to unprocessed commodities, such as raw meat, seafood or produce.
England said it's when retailers bring in these products -- which are sold "as is" -- that the challenges to maintain food safety are greatest, because it's much less likely the item will have a brand identity. Rather, it's perceived as the retailer's own product.
"The retailer may not be responsible for introducing a food safety hazard into a product, but he's responsible for selecting the supplier," England said. "That makes the retailer partially responsible, if not legally, then morally.
"Consider carefully your sources," he told SN in a follow-up interview, after speaking engagements at the annual convention of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, as well as the Food Safety Summit & Expo.
Indeed, retailers are responding by trying to take more control over the food they bring into their stores. A growing number of operators are now insisting on third-party audits of suppliers in all fresh food categories, and certification of growing areas and processing facilities, England noted.
While he acknowledged it might be difficult for small chains to do this, he said that there are basic precautions they can take to help protect their customers, and themselves.
"Don't pick your suppliers solely on the basis of who gives you the lowest prices," he advised. If a food safety crisis erupts, the retailer "might pay a lot more."
That high price could be in the form of a lawsuit if consumers sue because they suffer illness or injury through eating unsafe raw product or poorly prepared food, perhaps from a retailer's deli or home meal replacement department.
And, if this fear isn't enough to shake up the retailer, there's always the negative impact on the company's stock price, regulatory intervention and damage to the supermarket's brand image that litigation might well bring.
The intense reaction provoked when people become ill after eating food stems, in part, from the very personal and familial nature of food, suggested England.
"When either a mother or father shops for their family at a supermarket, the health of that person's children is literally in the supermarket's hands," he said. "The family trusts that what they get in the supermarket is safe and wholesome. When this trust is violated, there's outrage, and justifiably so."
England acknowledged that, with respect to food-related illnesses, retailers are often at the mercy of consumers who themselves may be responsible for the problem by preparing food sloppily or with little regard for the potential of cross contamination.
With variables like these, a retailer, in addition to choosing his supplier wisely, must take other precautions.
"The best way to manage a crisis is to prevent it from happening in the first place," said England.
But even though prevention is much better than crisis management, supermarkets need plans for both.
The supermarket's guiding principles for crisis prevention should include taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety and well-being of the store's customers and employees, England said, emphasizing that this means "cutting no corners." Putting the human factor above the cost factor, and providing timely and accurate information to the public and the media are also key. And, above all, England advises, tell the truth.
"If you lie to customers, your credibility is in the tank," he said.
England also emphasizes the importance of having a corporate culture of ethics and compliance where the inclination is to "do the right thing." By policy, a company needs to address how they'd handle a crisis. This often means hiring a chief safety or compliance officer who has accountability.
England also suggested a company create incentives for store managers and associates to better monitor potential food safety hazards. It's very important that a store's staff has a clear understanding of top management's standards and operating procedures, he said.
Even the high level of employee turnover, at both the managerial and food-handling level, should not preclude effective prevention measures, England noted. There's an increased array of technological offerings -- videos, interactive CD-ROMs and DVDs -- that provide a way to train large numbers of people in a cost-effective manner.
Documentation and tracking are also important ways to nip a crisis in the bud. Again, advances in technology can track customer complaints and determine patterns, especially when they emanate from a particular store, he said. Supermarkets should also find out how they stand up against their competitors with respect to food safety.
"Retailers should ask themselves, 'Am I leading the pack, in the pack or trailing the pack?"' England said.