CHICAGO — Wegmans Food Markets expects that half of its store-brand food suppliers will be certified to a Global Food Safety Initiative standard by the end of the year, up from the current 37%, and 17% last year.
The increase stems from a June 2008 directive the Rochester, N.Y., retailer gave its some 470 Wegmans-brand suppliers. The requirement specified that they should work toward GFSI compliancy within the year.
While many of the larger suppliers have complied, Wegmans is giving more time to small and midsize firms, which may have financial restraints, limited resources or other reasons for not participating.
“We're trying to be practical about this because we understand the work involved,” Gillian Kelleher, Wegmans' vice president of food safety and quality assurance, said in a presentation last week at the Private Label Manufacturers Association's annual trade show here. “We understand it's not an overnighter.”
Formed in 2000, the GFSI seeks to build consumer confidence in the world's food supply by holding suppliers more accountable for their manufacturing processes.
A series of food recalls and cases of foodborne illnesses have made consumers more skeptical about the safety of food they buy in supermarkets both nationally and abroad, Kelleher noted.
Wegmans alone was affected by 42 recalls in 2007, 46 in 2008 and 77 so far this year.
Wegmans' store brands have also been impacted. In 2007, seven Wegmans-brand items were recalled, six in 2008 and 11 so far this year.
To get GFSI's endorsement, suppliers must receive factory audit certification in one of several of its approved food safety standards, including the Safe Quality Food (SQF2000) standard. Each standard goes beyond food safety requirements established by the Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The GFSI has raised the bar,” Kelleher said.
GFSI-certified suppliers get far fewer visits from Wegmans' quality assurance auditors than non-certified manufacturers. Basically, the only time Wegmans will visit a GFSI-certified factory is for a special circumstance, such as a first production run or a customer complaint follow-up.
“If a Wegmans' supplier is certified to one of these standards, that's good enough for us,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher noted that Sara Lee Corp. and Ralcorp's Carriage House sauces and spreads division are among the participating companies, and both have written letters to Wegmans in support of the GFSI program.
Along with directing suppliers to become GFSI compliant, Wegmans is working to get SQF2000 certification for its two manufacturing facilities: the Central Bakeshop and the new $36 million Culinary Innovation Center.
“This is the direction we believe our company and the industry should be going in,” said Kelleher.
Wegmans is not alone. Last year, Wal-Mart Stores became the first U.S. supermarket company to require suppliers of its private-label and several other foods, including produce and meat, to have their factories certified to one the GFSI standards.