PHOENIX -- The strict fresh food handling regimen of HACCP is poised to move downstream from food processing to retailing -- whether supermarkets are ready or not, according to food safety experts at the Food Marketing Institute's MealSolutions conference.
HACCP is short for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, the rigorous system devised to monitor food handling practices, and that, on the wings of regulatory and legislative mandates, is swiftly becoming the standard for the food processing industry.
At a workshop called "Legislative, Regulatory and Code Update" representatives of the food protection community at the grocery wholesale and retail levels said the adoption of HACCP standards will likely be as inevitable for stores as it is now for manufacturing plants.
The food safety professionals' message for the retail community was clear: HACCP is coming, costly and difficult though it may be, whether it reaches stores as a voluntary industry effort or a legislated mandate.
"We will be seeing HACCP at the processor level. USDA's expectation is that retailers will follow suit," said Jonathan Seltzer, vice president of industry and government relations for Supervalu, Minneapolis.
As HACCP increasingly dominates the handling practices at the companies that process fresh meat, poultry, seafood and produce, "Stores will be seen as downstream handlers," Seltzer said.
The impetus for HACCP to move down the line comes both from the regulatory reforms embodied in the federal initiative known as the food Mega-Reg, and from the guides for food handling and inspections set forth in the federal government's Food Code, which was updated in 1995 and will be revised again next year, to the likely effect of broadening its scope and putting greater emphasis on HACCP than ever.
However, the flash point for retailers will be at the state, county and local levels, Seltzer said. "They will build on it. We will see it trickle down from the processor level to restaurants and retailers."
He said that the philosophy behind HACCP, which is to place the burden of assuring food safety on the shoulders of industry rather than government, could have ramifications for retailers. "USDA always said that once freed up at the processor level, it will look closer downstream."
Seltzer added that at the same time as the government will rely on industry to take on more of the burden, indications are that the public will also place more of a "reliance on food stores and less on themselves" for dealing with food safety.
"Further regulation and attention is something we need to expect." And that portends difficulties for companies and individuals who don't prepare for it, Seltzer said.
"There is a role for anticipation. Be in compliance with all laws and regulations," he advised, since "public opinion can be merciless in this situation" if a company is exposed as being in less than full compliance.
He noted several times the industry's tendency to be reactive when it comes to food safety issues. "You can choose to wait or to respond, but why not take the initiative?"
Seltzer's bent toward preparedness was shared by another industry expert who spoke at the workshop. Peter Rojeck, corporate director of environmental health for A&P, Montvale, N.J., agreed that the Food Code takes "a big step toward HACCP," a fact that cannot be ignored or dealt with only if it is convenient.
"We need to become ever more vigilant. One negative can spell the death of a program, a store or en entire company." Rojeck said his industry is becoming especially more vulnerable because of growing trends in selling more value-added foods. The more that food handling bears on in-store operations, the greater the ramifications of the Food Code 1997 and HACCP are likely to be.
"It will be costly," he said. "Be advised that the Code is heading in that direction."
Rojeck urged the retailers in attendance, some of them fellow executives with direct food safety or government relations responsibility, to become intimately familiar with the 450-page Food Code and its upcoming revision.
It was obvious that he and Seltzer were hoping their cautionary messages would get to other MealSolutions attendees as well, especially those at the higher levels of corporate hierarchy, who hold the power to make difficult things such as the implementation of HACCP in stores happen.
And in that regard, the frustration felt by their food safety colleagues in the room, at least, was palpable. When it came time for questions, Anne Marie Davee, manager of customer information for Hannaford Bros., Portland, Maine, rose and asked for more discussion about HACCP, which she termed a "costly and, to me, mandatory investment."
Specifically, Davee wanted to hear advice on how to convince the executives who run the show that they should share her assessment of HACCP. She asked the panel, "Are there any equations helpful in justifying the costs? How do we go back to upper management?"
Her question was especially poignant, given that in the general session earlier that morning, one such top executive, Nicholas D'Agostino Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., declared that trying to make HACCP controls "happen at the stores, basically, is almost impossible."
At the same session, Mike Eardley, senior director of fresh foods for D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., said that at his operation's central kitchen he had 50 HACCP controls in action every day, but if any operators claim that they have such controls in all their stores they are "kidding themselves."
At the food safety workshop, however, A&P's Rojek said that HACCP will be legislated eventually, and that "the fear factor" could actually be persuasive in terms of getting HACCP implementation past the head office and the accounting department.
However, he added, "There is no amount where you could say, 'If you put HACCP into place you'll save this much.' "
Also from the audience, fellow food safety expert Fred Reimers, corporate sanitarian for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, said in defense of HACCP that "documented studies" exist that can, for example, show that fresh meat shrink can be reduced by implementing even one "CCP," or critical control point, in in-store sanitation practices.
He added that using one such CCP has allowed H.E. Butt to save $250,000 in its routine meat operations.