With Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) implementation looming, the food industry, including supermarkets, must figure out the best ways of complying with what Greg Ferrara, VP of public affairs at Arlington, Va.-based National Grocers Association (NGA), calls “the most sweeping reform of American food safety laws in more than 70 years.”
FSMA’s regulations will affect the entire food supply chain, including food production, distribution and retail sales. As this issue went to press, the Food & Drug Administration had issued three additional final rules covering produce safety, foreign supplier verification and third-party auditor certification.
Some observers believe that the industry hasn’t been doing enough to prepare. According to John Rand, SVP market insights at Wilton, Conn.-based Kantar Retail, “[A] certain number of retailers and suppliers seem to be waiting too long to begin to do the obviously needful things that will be required.” Once they do make the required changes, however, they’ll be amply rewarded. “In the long run, the benefits, in shopper trust and in vendor protection from both real and legal harm, are incalculable,” Rand says.
Ferrara acknowledges the challenge that food safety presents. “Nowadays, it is not enough to know who you are purchasing products from, but rather, you have to consider the source and whether that company has high food safety standards that are enforced,” he says. “Food safety is and has been a top priority, but recent outbreaks and recalls, along with the implementation of FSMA, have likely helped raise the profile and importance of food safety throughout the entire supply chain.”
According to Ferrara, “FSMA’s largest impact will be on wholesalers and self-distributing retailers, which includes quite a few independents.”
One such company getting ready for implementation is Salt Lake City-based Associated Food Stores (AFS), a cooperatively owned wholesale distributor to almost 500 independently owned supermarkets across eight Western states. “FSMA requires retailers to establish a recall plan and post standardized recall notices per the Preventative Controls Review Act,” says Malinda Sweat, AFS’ director of food safety. “FSMA will play an indirect role at retail in other ways by implementing prevention controls. Changes to distribution, transportation, processors, packers and growers will help prevent food safety and recall issues for retail stores that purchase from approved suppliers.”
As part of its FSMA preparations, AFS is “working with growers to help them become GAP-certified,” notes Sweat, since a major barrier to compliance is that local produce suppliers often don’t understand the need for such certification. For their part, grocers are often confused by the legislation’s rules. “Retailers will need to rely on qualified industry and regulatory experts to help them through the process,” advises Sweat. “Attending meetings and training will be beneficial in understanding how the rules apply.”
Of the law’s requirements, NGA’s Ferrara says: “Changes in how commodities are shipped and stored from the farm to the store are being implemented, including significant recordkeeping requirements. While the greatest recordkeeping requirements are further up the supply chain from retail, grocers must be more keenly aware of supply chain standards, particularly when sourcing local products.”
In terms of AFS’ proactive food safety measures, Sweat observes: “We already have a robust recall program in place that is tested on a regular basis to ensure effectiveness. ... We also provide frequent training to our retail teams.”
Ferrara sounds a similar note on the subject of recalls. “As [their] number … continues to increase, it’s important for retailers to have a strong system in place to ensure all recalls are handled properly and quickly, and records are kept to track actions for recalled items,” he points out.
Even with such precautions, however, food safety is an ongoing mission, requiring constant vigilance. “Retail has a strong impact on food safety,” asserts Sweat. “Consistently monitoring regulations, controls and establishing proper protocols will keep food safety standards in control.”
“Food safety is a top issue for the vast majority of retailers today, but all retailers should treat food safety as their No. 1 priority,” agrees Ferrara. “Simply put, if consumers don’t have confidence in the food we sell, they won’t shop at our stores, and with food safety, we’re talking about lives. Standards must be set and followed, and employees must be trained.”
“One of the biggest barriers to compliance is visibility, and in turn auditability,” counsels Colin Speakman, senior manager at Kalypso, a Beachwood, Ohio-based global innovation consulting firm. “Grocers will need to institute supplier quality programs for specific product categories like produce and meats that include third-party food safety audits, self-audits or planned grocer audits of suppliers. To execute supply chain control and compliance, supermarkets need supply chain visibility — both in terms of ensuring suppliers are FSMA-compliant and in getting a clear account of how products are going from the farm to your store shelves. Those that manufacture their own products under store labels will be required to comply in the same manner as large manufacturers. FSMA can actually serve as the catalyst to open up communications and overcome the transparency issues. The regulations will affect everyone involved in food supply.”
To grocers gearing up for compliance, Speakman offers the following advice: “Know your suppliers. Understanding their efforts toward FSMA compliance can identify potential gaps and concerns early on, allowing both parties to course-correct. A relatively cheap and effective way is to leverage your vendor management capabilities to quickly expose potential gaps, either in information collection or in compliance. Then you can leverage upcoming 2016 planning sessions and shelf resets as an opportunity to start addressing gaps. There will also be internal standards developed by grocers to make sure their suppliers meet or exceed the FSMA regulations. Proof of standards and expectations by the grocers will be important for [them] to minimize consumer concern.”
Keep it Simple — and Cost-effective
Various technological and packaging solutions exist to help retailers beef up their food safety procedures, but they can’t ignore the staffer element. “The best-laid plans can fall apart by the actions of one front-line worker, which can have a serious impact on food safety,” cautions Tom Ford, VP of food safety for global retail services at Ecolab, a St. Paul, Minn.-based provider of water, hygiene and energy technologies. “Retailers should continue to look for ways to simplify procedures that make achieving food safety easier.”
The most cost-effective way they can do this, adds Ford, “is by looking at the total cost of compliance. That should not only include the products, tools and training required, but also the water, energy and time savings.”
Among Ecolab’s recent innovations are LmENTARY (pronounced elementary), a floor and drain cleaner and sanitizer designed to combat listeria monocytogenes while reducing an eight-step, 25-minute procedure to just four steps and 15 minutes, and SaniSave, a no-rinse cleaner/sanitizing solution that eliminates the rinse step in the traditional wash-rinse-sanitize procedure, while boosting food safety results.
“The only way to prove compliance is through documentation, because if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” says Randy Fields, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Park City Group, corporate parent of ReposiTrak, whose platform offers compliance management and track-and-trace systems. Thanks in large part to FSMA, “the scale of documents retailers must now manage becomes very large, very quickly,” he notes.
However, according to Fields, “cloud-based technology now exists to enable all trading partners in the food supply chain to more efficiently meet FSMA requirements while working to prevent outbreaks and quickly limiting situations when they occur. These systems ... help manage compliance with exception-based alerts for expired, missing or inaccurate records.”
“The biggest compliance risk for supermarkets is cross-contamination in the back room as product is prepared to be merchandised, and with leaking packages that can either leak in the case, on the checkout counter or onto the consumer,” notes Sean Brady, marketing director for ready meals/case-ready solutions at Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air.
The most cost-effective way that retailers can address these hygiene issues is with “a case-ready program that extends quality life while providing a hermetically sealed package, [freeing] up the retailer for training and monitoring employees [on] food safety,” says Brady, adding that Sealed Air has “both vacuum (Darfresh on Tray, Oven Ease and Grip&Tear) and modified-atmosphere (Low and High Ox packaging) options” that do just that.
Ultimately, regardless of any present or future legislation, retailers need to take full responsibility for food safety. “Consumers will continue to demand transparency, and retailers will need to become even more focused on product sourcing and food safety standards from farm to fork,” says Ferrara. “Retailers shouldn’t necessarily view food safety as a challenge, but as an opportunity. That being said, the regulatory burdens hitting the industry today from multiple angles are real and impactful. Grocers will need to devote additional resources to staying abreast of food developments, which includes trained staff, technology and standards, to continue to play a large role in ensuring a secure food chain.”