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While food makers and handlers strive to provide consumers with only the safest products, the truth is that problems still occur – a case in point is this past year’s massive multistate Blue Bell Ice Cream recall due to listeria contamination, which took months to resolve, during which the product was out of stores for its peak months of consumption – so taking a proactive approach, as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) does, is the recommended course of action in the continuing quest to ensure the safety of food items from farm to fork.
Going forward, however, what solutions and practices will enable retailers to be even more proactive in the area of food safety?
"One of the biggest evolutions in food safety will be the continued advancements in whole-genome sequencing and the ability to trace foodborne illness outbreaks to the source," says Tom Ford, VP, food safety, global retail services at Ecolab, a St. Paul, Minn.-based provider of water, hygiene and energy technologies. "This level of transparency is the new normal, where outbreaks are traced back to the source."
In the meantime, he advises retailers, "It is critical to foster a strong food safety culture with a foundation in education and training that underscores the importance of preventing illness."
"In the next five to 10 years, packaging breakthroughs that can sense the overall quality of the product and can indicate if pathogens are present will bring food safety to even a higher level of safety," notes Sean Brady, marketing director for ready meals/case-ready solutions at Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air. "The retailer will always be the last layer of defense before the product is purchased by the consumer. Making it easier for the retailer to train employees on food safety and giving them time to follow these procedures is one of the main goals of a food safety program."
"The ownership of and responsibility for food safety will continue to push throughout the supply chain, causing retailers to invest in performance management and compliance management capabilities," observes Colin Speakman, senior manager at Kalypso, a Beachwood, Ohio-based global innovation consulting firm. “Furthermore, retailers that identify food safety as a competitive advantage will gain leverage with their vendors and can manage shelf space appropriately. Consumers expect food safety, and the supermarkets and manufacturers that can demonstrate it will gain the trust – and associated ‘halo’ for their brand – that will drive more traffic and improved financial performance.”
As for the expected impact of the federal legislation, Speakman warns that it will be substantial. "Internally, FSMA will dramatically affect the supermarket supply chain," he says. "FDA-registered warehouses, distribution centers and product suppliers will be required to implement and document compliance with preventive controls. All touchpoints within the supply chain will also need to follow the requirements outlined for sanitary transportation of food. Grocers will begin to demand an auditable food safety record from each and every supply chain contributor."
The advantages should soon become apparent, however, he contends. "Although not tangibly noticeable at first, grocery shoppers should see improved food safety as a result of FSMA," asserts Speakman. "The frequency of product recalls should decline, whether the recalls are due to contamination or undeclared allergens. The wide-sweeping scope of FSMA (impacting food for animals, for humans, and even produce specifically) will create confidence in the system, and for supermarkets the scope will help reduce some of the current risks associated with stocking products from smaller suppliers. These improvements will trickle through the system in coming months for processed foods. Some large manufacturers are already implementing some FSMA compliance initiatives, and full benefits will be realized in 2017-18. Manufacturers and producers will begin to tout their food safety programs to grocers to ensure product acceptance. We may even see grocers begin to advertise Certified Safe Foods at the shelf level to assure the consumer that the products are safe."