FMI annual convention
CHICAGO -- After years of sidestepping the issue, it's time for retailers to take responsibility for food safety, Daniel Wegman, president of Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., said here last week.
Addressing attendees at the State of the Food Industry: Speaks 96 presentation at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention, Wegman also said his chain is considering switching to more outside suppliers for some of its needs because of the costs involved in ensuring the safety of fresh products.
According to Wegman, food safety should not be used as a competitive tool "because that only sends a negative message about the industry. "Rather, each of us should do everything we can to make sure the foods we offer our customers are as wholesome and safe as they can be, because when one of us has a problem with customers' health, all of us have a problem." He said the industry cannot afford to take food safety for granted. "As an industry, we have to take responsibility for ensuring that the food products in the retail store are as safe and wholesome as possible. "But for years we have sidestepped that obligation, saying it is the job of government and suppliers to protect the food supply. "Today it is time for retailers to step up and assume leadership in this area. As the last link in the supply chain, we can provide the final safety checks before food products reach consumers' hands." Although Wegman appeared in person during the Speaks presentation, he also appeared in a video shot at a Wegmans' store, in which he discussed his company's growing interest in using outside suppliers. "We've produced a lot of food in stores," Wegman said in the video segment. "However, we find that some of the measures necessary to ensure that the food is safe are very difficult to maintain across every item that you might produce. "So we're really questioning, from a food safety standpoint, whether we can do the job that is required profitably. Because even if we put all the measures in place, [the cost] might exceed what it's worth. And it is worth a lot.
"So we're beginning to rethink our relationships with our suppliers in terms of, is there a better way to solve our problem, and we're looking to outside suppliers to perhaps provide us with a number of goods. "In fact, we have a whole wall of food on [one] side of the store that is produced for us by outside suppliers. And they have the volume and the expertise to produce very safe food and very good food, too." Joining Wegman in the video segment was Bill Pool, Wegmans' manager of food safety and regulation, who echoed his boss' remarks. "As we look at the supply chain, we've recognized that we need to do business differently than we've done in the past," Pool said. "We need to find ways to prevent problems in the first place, instead of inspecting for them after the fact. We're really looking for suppliers that have that same kind of attitude." As an example, Pool noted that the chain's ground beef supplier tests for bacteria contamination before the product is shipped, "and it also controls the slaughter operation -- it's all under one roof -- which, combined with the testing, gives us a high degree of assurance that the ground beef we sell is absolutely safe for customers." Regarding ready-to-eat products, Pool said, "We don't have the luxury of the customer taking them home and heating or cooking them through. They're going to be consumed as is. And if they're not right when they leave the store, there's a potential for a problem." To raise the level of employee expertise in food safety, Pool said Wegmans introduced a more formalized approach to training last summer, consisting of a four-hour session that deals with basic concepts of microbiology, personal hygiene, product temperatures and proper storage -- "simple, basic information that people working with food really ought to know," he explained. Wegman told the Speaks audience that FMI's food safety task force, of which he is a member, endorses the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, which "is proven and effective, yet our surveys indicate that only one-third of the industry is using it. All members of our industry need to apply this discipline to all perishable products." Wegman said the HACCP system "brings food safety controls to the next level by helping us identify where contamination is most likely to occur and developing controls for those vulnerable points. And the nice thing about HAACP is that it pays for itself by reducing spoilage and shrink." He also said the task force is promoting the Food and Drug Administration's Model Food Code, "but the code is the size of a telephone book. We need to break it down into user-friendly pieces and make sure the right information reaches the right people," Wegman said. According to Wegman, FMI's food safety task force was formed "to develop a comprehensive, model food safety program for supermarkets, to heighten the awareness and level of responsibility of retailers and store associates, and to develop key consumer messages." He said the task force is focusing on three areas to achieve its goals: "Inside the store, we are developing best practices and [other] guidelines to make sure that we're doing everything we can to keep the product as safe and wholesome as possible. "Outside the store, we're looking to other parts of the food system that affect safety before products reach us, including more rigorous buying specifications and ensuring that product integrity and safety are maintained throughout transportation and delivery "And we have to educate our customers through public education to deliver key messages to increase their knowledge and personal responsibility for food safety. We're beginning that effort with research to identify the effective messages and mediums that will actually change consumer behavior." Prior to introducing Wegman, Michael Sansolo, FMI's group vice president of education and industry relations -- who moderated the Speaks session -- said consumer confidence in the ability of supermarkets to provide safe food has increased to 84%, according to FMI's 1996 Trends survey, compared with 77% a year ago. Sansolo said the 1996 percentage is the highest confidence level since 1989, when the level was 89%. "Then we had food safety scares involving the pesticide Alar and the alleged tampering involving Chilean grapes, and confidence plunged to a record low of 65% over a period of only six months," he said. While the majority of consumers in the Trends survey noted they still hold themselves primarily responsible for ensuring that the products they buy are safe, the 1996 survey found 16% of respondents said they are relying more on their food stores to ensure that products are safe, up from 8% in the 1995 survey, Sansolo noted.
Consumer Confidence in Food Safety [chart]
Percentage of shoppers who are completely or mostly confident that the food in their supermarket is safe:
Source: Food Marketing Institute, Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes & the Supermarket, 1996