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    Editor&#8217;s Note:<br />Tracing Steps Toward a New Food Safety Blueprint

    It should come as little surprise to learn that I spend a lot of time on grocery store Web sites, which obviously goes with the territory. But after years of seeing much of the same old/same old, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the latest incarnations of our core audience’s online store fronts, many of which have impressively developed into dynamic and sophisticated digital destinations.

    megIt should come as little surprise to learn that I spend a lot of time on grocery store Web sites, which obviously goes with the territory. But after years of seeing much of the same old/same old, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the latest incarnations of our core audience’s online store fronts, many of which have impressively developed into dynamic and sophisticated digital destinations.

    Focusing heavily on the aesthetics and functionality of their homepages, most progressive grocers are now integrating featured specials and “what’s new” sections alongside more dynamic layouts featuring dropdown menus and rollover lists in navigational areas.

    But with President Obama’s recent call for a much needed restructuring of the U.S. food safety system on my mind during the course of busy day last week, I was struck by another new twist that’s become an integral part of several retailers’ homepages these days, namely, the recall portal, which in many cases is as extensive and content-rich as anything else on the grocer’s sites -- not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    To the contrary, the rapid-fire rate of food-related recalls has obviously made it de rigueur for retailers of all stripes to keep their customers in the recall loop via as many means possible, and a devoted section for expeditious online updates is an original no-brainer to help communicate potentially disturbing news to customers (although not nearly as effective and efficient as the retailers which wisely utilize loyalty cards to rightly alert customers of pertinent recalls). But the sheer volume of recall information that grocers are now required – if not obligated -- to post gave me real pause for thought, and further hammers home the abundantly clear point that something’s just gotta give.

    With food safety reform presently – and thankfully -- a top policy priority of the new administration, leaders from the United Fresh Produce Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association were in the House last week providing testimony for an Appropriations Subcommittee Agriculture hearing to address food traceability systems.

    During his subcommittee testimony, United Fresh president/CEO Tom Stenzel highlighted current “one-up/one-down” traceability practices in the produce industry while calling on Congress to support the new Produce Traceability Initiative launched last year to drive streamlined whole-chain traceability based on common standards for case coding across the entire industry.

    “As you weigh various traceability provisions of all the food safety bills under consideration by Congress, I ask you to look at the unique aspects of tracking bulk fresh produce,” Stenzel urged while cautioning against “overly prescriptive mandates from the top down that are not as likely to be effective as bottom up efficiencies and systems designed for unique challenges. That’s what we believe we have achieved in the Produce Traceability Initiative,” for which Stenzel asked the committee to support by setting goals vs. mandates.

    Echoing those thoughts, Dr. Craig Henry, GMA’s SVP/chief science & regulatory affairs officer, said while Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world, “Food and beverage companies recognize that steps must be taken to make our food supply even safer.” Henry further pledged that the industry “is prepared to work collaboratively with government to identify and address gaps in our current traceability system, including measures that will ensure that responsibility for traceability is shared throughout the supply chain -- measures that will improve the interoperability of current and future traceability systems, and that which build upon and encourage industry innovation.”

    In the wake of the ongoing peanut-related salmonella outbreak – and yet another presstime scare involving pistachios -- Federal inspectors with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also weighed in with results of a survey the agency conducted to identify gaps in the nation’s food traceability system. The findings said quite a mouthful: a meager five of 40 products in the production and distribution pipeline were deemed unable to be definitively traceable. Even more troubling, over half of the food facilities contacted by investigators failed to meet FDA’s record keeping requirements, with one in four acknowledging they were unaware of their so-called obligation to keep records about their sources, recipients and transporters of food.

    While the inconsistent and unreliable findings confirm what many already believe -- that something is clearly wrong with this picture – Tom Stenzel told me late last week that United Fresh anticipates that comprehensive food safety legislation, most likely containing some form of mandate for traceability, will move forward in Congress sometime this year.  “It’s possible that the process could start as early as spring in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and be an active issue in both the House and Senate through the end of the year. It’s not definite that something will pass this year, but there’s certainly a good chance proponents will try.”

    Here’s hoping.

    Parting Thought: USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) late last week launched a set of RSS feeds for news and recall releases while also making available a new capability to bookmark and share food safety content on personal and publicly shared Web pages.

    The new RSS news feeds complement those already available for the FSIS podcasting series “Food Safety at Home and Food Safety for Meat, Poultry and Processed Egg Product Inspection Podcasts.” You can sign up at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Feeds/index.asp.

    Lending more cred to how social media is permeating the B2B world, FSIS also is launching a Twitter presence to reach out to an audience that the agency might not be reaching through traditional means of communication, such as news releases and other publications. You can
    follow FSIS by visiting www.twitter.com/USDAFoodSafety.

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