Concerned about shaken consumer confidence, the food industry backs a new law.
Two years ago, Mike Ambrosio, head of food safety programs at Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp. for the past 30 years, told lawmakers in Washington how essential it is that consumers have confidence in the safety of America's food supply.
Ambrosio's statement summed up the reasons that much of the industry supported the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as it finally emerged from Congress and was signed into law by President Obama in January.
“Consumer confidence remains an essential factor in this debate,” said Ambrosio, VP, quality assurance for Wakefern, in his testimony. “Food safety issues can be extremely complex, and consumers vary greatly in their knowledge of the science and other issues affecting the safety of our food supply.” However,” he continued, “as food safety issues draw national headlines, consumer awareness as well as concern about the safety of commercially prepared foods and products purchased at the supermarket heightens. As a result, shoppers may quickly alter purchasing decisions and will even go as far as avoiding an entire product category if they are not confident of its safety,” he said.
That lesson is learned every time there's a major food recall with its attendant bad publicity; time-consuming, labor-intensive and costly responses at retail; and diminishing consumer confidence. It happened in 2009 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cited the Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) for knowingly selling peanuts tainted with salmonella. There were at least nine deaths and more than 700 illnesses in 46 states linked to the outbreak.
People stopped buying peanuts. They stopped buying peanut butter. They stopped buying peanut butter cookies. They stopped buying anything linked to peanuts — whether those products had anything to do with products from Lynchburg, Va.-based PCA or not.
According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), 74 percent of consumers said they avoided products containing peanuts in the midst of the recall.
In 2008, it was tomatoes that scared consumers silly. And though it turned out that scientists from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that the culprit behind the nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul was linked to jalapeño and serrano peppers, vs. the tomatoes that were mistakenly implicated in the early stages of the investigation, the damage was done. The tomato industry took a huge hit, as did processors and supermarkets, all of which had to pull hundreds of products from their shelves and deal with confused consumers whose confidence was shaken.
In 2010, when listeria was discovered in spinach packed by a Maryland company, resulting in a voluntary recall, there were more shudders, from grower to processor to distributor to retailer — and, of course, consumers. It wasn't the first time for spinach, and it wasn't the last.
Responding to such incidents that have virtually shut down industry segments, forced companies out of business and harmed consumers, the produce industry has developed, and is in varying stages of implementation with, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), which will identify any tainted product down to the case and track its history from the farm to the retailer's back door. Similar systems are underway for seafood, meat and poultry. (Editor's Note: PG will take a closer look at produce food safety in Part 2 of our Food Safety Series, which will appear in our July 2011 issue.)
As Ambrosio pointed out in his testimony to Congress, supermarket companies have many prevention programs in place to protect customers, including education campaigns, employee food safety training, extensive sanitation programs, food management systems, and programs that involve working closely with suppliers. However, he stressed, “All of these food safety initiatives at the retail level cannot ensure that we deliver safe food to our customers if the food coming into our stores isn't already produced and processed to the highest standards.”
And so, supermarket retailers and the trade associations that represent them supported the new food safety law as it was eventually signed by the president, giving FDA mandatory recall authority and specifying requirements aimed at preventing food contamination and improving food safety. It also includes provisions dealing with traceability, imported foods and consumer notification.
The industry had little choice but to back the legislation. “The driver for our support was prevention,” explains Jennifer Hatcher, SVP, government and public affairs at Arlington, Va.-based FMI. “We think that is the answer.” In other words, steps must be taken to prevent food contamination in the first place — before it ever turns into people getting sick, or worse, and recalls having to be implemented and enforced. Thus, prevention is the cornerstone of the new law.
Tom Wenning, EVP and general counsel at the Washington-based National Grocers Association, says his organization backed the final version because its provisions were more reasonable than previous ones, and that it would allow for time to determine its “workability, costs, and ways to minimize those costs” of compliance.
While the FSMA is sweeping in its force and effect, it still doesn't resolve the confusion from split food safety responsibilities in Washington, with FDA having responsibility for some food products such as produce, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) having jurisdiction over others such as meat and poultry. Still, it was a huge step toward improving safety and giving consumers reason to be confident in the food that they purchase at grocery stores.
Beefing Up Steps to Increase Safety
A new cattle vaccine can prevent foodborne illness.
Early this spring, the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo) released a new guidance document designed to help beef-processing companies implement proven pathogen-testing programs as part of a system aimed at advancing beef safety.
“Our No. 1 goal is to eliminate pathogens from the beef supply by placing multiple hurdles along the beef production chain,” explains James O. Reagan, chairman of BIFSCo and SVP of research, education and innovation for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor of the Beef Checkoff Program. “This new guidance document brings together the industry's best knowledge, coupled with years of experience in developing efficient and accurate sampling, lotting and pathogen analysis systems,” he says, adding that such systems “are essential in establishing sound food safety programs for the beef industry.”
The guidelines explain the proper procedures and methods that should be used to sample, lot and analyze different types of beef products such as whole-muscle cuts, trimmings destined for ground beef production, and frozen ground beef. Although voluntary, the guidelines simplify the process for companies, and identify the expectations and issues that should be considered when developing a program for pathogen testing.
Despite all of the efforts by the beef industry, as well as supermarket operators, to make certain that beef sold to consumers is safe and free of pathogens, there is still no guarantee that foodborne illness won't occur. However, a new vaccine application for use in live cattle is showing signs of virtually reaching that goal with respect to E. coli 0157-H7, which has been responsible for severe illnesses in humans, and even death.
Developed by Pfizer Animal Health, the vaccine has been tested in two large trials, according to Dr. Brad Morgan, former Oklahoma State University animal science professor and now a meat scientist at New York-based Pfizer. “We've got interventions at the packing plant,” notes Morgan. “We've done just about all we can do there” to eliminate hazards. But the vaccine is designed to prevent E. coli 0157-H7 from being in the animal before it ever goes to slaughter. “If we can prevent it at the source, ultimately the retailer will have more confidence in the product he is getting from suppliers,” he says.
According to the data resulting from tests that have involved thousands of beef cattle, the vaccine has reduced the contaminant by 85 percent, and among those animals that did test positive, there was a reduction of about 98 percent in the degree of contamination.
“This looks like a great tool. I think it is going to help our industry,” suggests Morgan. “If we can take a couple of bullets out of the chamber, it will allow us to do a better job on down the line.”
The vaccine has a conditional license from FDA, which allows it to be used for cattle, and a number of feed yards are on board. The vaccine was originally developed for turkeys, and proved to be highly successful, according to Morgan.
John Butler, CEO of the Great Bend, Kan.-based Beef Marketing Group (BMG), which includes 14 feed yards as participants, says his company has been involved in the trials of the vaccine. “We found the results were very impactful. We have been very impressed with the efficacy of this product. In all cases, we saw a reduction in the pathogen,” he says.
But there is a problem: two cents per pound.
That's the ultimate cost to the consumer of using the vaccine, which requires three doses per animal at a total cost of about $10 per head. Since BMG markets about 600,000 cattle per year, the cost to vaccinate each head would be $6 million annually. “It's a challenge,” admits Butler. “We have to educate the supply chain that we're trying to mitigate this issue. The average carcass weighs 750-800 pounds. If we got two cents extra, that would pay for the vaccine. Convert that to retail, it would be less than two cents a pound of additional cost to the consumer.”
Butler acknowledges that supermarket operators operate on slim margins and that pricing is competitive. “We know that pennies matter,” he says. “We're not trying to make money on this; we just want the cost to be offset. We need to inform and educate retailers so they understand that everything is being done to provide a safe product to the consumer.” Despite that challenge, Butler says a number of BMG feed-yard participants are using the vaccine, and he plans to make it standard operating procedure. “We want to get to 100 percent, but we need to create the demand on the retail side. If we can accomplish that, I can move mountains. We can get it implemented and escalated, and the supply chain can deliver on the promise of providing a safe product to the consumer. We've got to make a product that is right for the consumer. Period.”
Among the food safety initiatives the company has in place is its source-verification system, which tracks cattle back to the ranch where they were born. An RFID chip placed in the ear includes relevant source information, and allows additional information to be added to the record simply by “running a wand” over the ear. It's all part of BMG's Progressive Beef Food Safety Program, a pre-harvest Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program designed to address food safety hazards at the feedlot.
Michael Rice: CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
John Battendieri, FOUNDER
Ed Cassano, SENIOR VP AND DIRECTOR OF SUSTAINABILITY
Blue Horizon Wild, Respecting Our Oceans
More retailers are making the commitment to provide sustainable seafood to their shoppers. However, seafood buyers are finding it challenging to deliver on this commitment, especially when the industry lacks sustainability standards and the protocols to ensure transparency.
One company trying to help seafood buyers make that transition is Blue Horizon Wild. Headquartered on the Monterey Bay Peninsula, Blue Horizon Wild offers a full line of wild-caught, sustainable frozen seafood, in a wide variety ranging from gourmet salmon burgers to lobster mac-and-cheese to gluten-free fish sticks. Blue Horizon Wild's senior management recently shared their thoughts on some challenges facing seafood buyers today.
A lot of companies are talking about sustainability. What makes Blue Horizon Wild different when it comes to delivering on this promise?
Michael Rice: I'd say three things set us apart: 1) Over the last six years, we've built relationships with some of the strongest sustainable fisheries and distributors in North America; 2) We have retained Ed Cassano as our Director of Sustainability. Ed ran the Seafood Watch Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium, and gives us the expertise to navigate through sourcing complexities; and 3) We back up this commitment to sustainability with a proven line of great-tasting, restaurant quality seafood, marketed under a distinctive brand.
Why are retailers finding it difficult to source sustainable seafood?
Ed Cassano: Seafood is the most complicated protein to source due to the different extraction techniques, variety of species and difficulty in assessing a stock's overall health. It gets even more complicated when you add the sustainability challenges around aquaculture However, there can be sustainably harvested populations of wild seafood if certain criteria are met. We have a clear, concise Responsible Sourcing Policy: we only source seafood that is rated Green or Yellow by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and/or that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. You won't find a more straightforward statement on sourcing seafood.
How does Blue Horizon Wild communicate its sustainable seafood solutions to both retailers and consumers?
John Battendieri: It's a confusing time in seafood. We're trying to help retailers simplify their buying decisions by only sourcing sustainable seafood and formulating popular, innovative dishes their shoppers will love.
For the consumer, the confusion goes beyond just being sustainable. How can you have Swordfish rated a “Best Choice” in terms of sustainability but labeled as “Dangerous, may contain high levels of Mercury”. That's why we're proud all Blue Horizon Wild products have a clean label. That means our seafood doesn't contain hormones or antibiotics found in aquaculture, we test for dangerous toxins, and we never use chemicals like sulfites or tripolyphosphates in processing.
How is Blue Horizon Wild poised for growth and expansion?
JB: We are ready to take on more grocery customers and give them an integrated frozen seafood option that reflects the quality and variety of their fresh case. We recognize we are just part of their sustainable solution, but it's one less piece of the puzzle buyers need to worry about. If you are committed to sustainable seafood, we'll help you deliver on that commitment.
What is the big picture on the horizon — or the Blue Horizon as it may be?
JB: The oceans are in a state of crisis at a time when demand for seafood is rapidly growing. So how fish is caught, where it's caught and how it is managed is critical. Retailers have recognized that their buying patterns are part of the solution and they are making a bigger commitment to sustainable seafood solutions like Blue Horizon Wild. We realize that it still takes one boat, one retailer and one consumer at a time, but our sustainable seafood program really provides a step in that direction.