Food safety, sustainability highlight G.M.A. conference

by Keith Nunes
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Food safety was a key topic of discussion during the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s annual Executive Conference, which was held against the backdrop of Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs Aug. 29 to Sept. 1.

Frank Yiannas, vice-president of food safety for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Ark., outlined the food safety challenges he sees the food industry facing and recommended a shift in strategy for some. Mr. Yiannas told the room full of chief executive officers and upper-level executives for some of the largest food processors and retailers that the commitment to food safety starts at the top.

"I believe and am absolutely convinced that after a career in this field what we have to do is create a food safety culture," he said. "My job with Wal-Mart as v.p. of food safety is not to create a bigger food safety program. It is to further strengthen the culture of food safety within that organization, and that is certainly your role as the leaders of food manufacturers."

Mr. Yiannas emphasized he believes the culture is just as important as the science.

"People say ‘Frank, we are talking about safety and you should stick to the hard skills of science,’" he said. "But I am absolutely persuaded it is the soft stuff that is the real hard stuff."

"So who leads culture? There is one group of folks who own it. It is not the food safety manager that you hire. It is not the folks on the front line in your plant. Guess what folks? The people in this room own the food safety culture. If your organization has a less than acceptable food safety culture it is because you are okay with it. If your organization has an exceptional food safety program it is because you care."

Referring to the rash of foodborne illness outbreaks during the summer of 2008 as the "summer of Salmonella," Mr. Yiannas said it is clear the pace of product recalls is increasing as public health authorities use the PULSEnet system and are better able to identify and match illness-causing bacteria.

"I feel like, in general, the industry is in a race, and I hope you feel this way, too," he said. "The race is between public health’s ability to track foodborne illness outbreaks and industry’s ability to prevent foodborne illnesses. I think some in this industry are losing the race. I would suggest there are some food manufacturers who have in years past produced food that may have resulted in illnesses and they don’t even know about it."

To illustrate how far public health’s ability to identify and track foodborne illness outbreaks has progressed, Mr. Yiannas noted that if the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak had occurred a decade ago, public health authorities may not have been able to connect the dots and identify the source of the contamination.

"That is pretty amazing," he said. "To think that if this was a decade ago and I was standing here today talking to a group of c.e.o.s, we would not even know that P.C.A. happened.

"We wouldn’t know there were 600 illnesses and nine deaths. There probably wouldn’t be the Food Safety Enhancement Act. That is unbelievable. So we are in this race and some in the food industry have to accelerate their food safety prevention activities."

Speaking on the same panel as Mr. Yiannas, Michael P. Doyle, regents professor and director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety in Athens, said the C.D.C., through the PULSEnet system, is identifying new ingredients that may be high risk for causing foodborne illness, but were not recognized as high risk in the past.

"What the C.D.C. and state health departments have built is an incredible system," he said. "Ten years ago it went into existence and was being perfected. Now all 50 states are all not about equal in their commitment and ability to detect outbreaks, but they are getting there."

He added that on average the C.D.C. is monitoring about 30 clusters of foodborne illness outbreaks per day and they are now reporting about 1,200 to 1,500 outbreaks per year.

"We have now identified from this and other outbreaks what I would potentially call high risk ingredients," Mr. Doyle said. "And many of these foods are low moisture, high fat — such as chocolate, peanut paste and nuts. These are all now considered to be potentially high risk."

Mr. Doyle added that the F.D.A. will be introducing more advanced methods for detecting foodborne pathogens and toxicants, and the F.D.A. also will be increasing the percentage of food imports that are tested. In addition, he said there likely will be advances in the U.S. foodborne disease surveillance system.

"The hard part for them (C.D.C.) right now is to detect outbreaks from minor ingredients that go into a lot of different foods," he said. "I will predict that those problems will be fixed in a few years and we will find that a whole lot more minor ingredients, like spices, will be potential problems."

In conclusion, Mr. Yiannas outlined several steps, including developing a food safety culture, he thinks need to be considered to further improve food safety. They include the need to adopt internationally recognized standards such as the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Along those lines, he also noted there needs to be more transparency in the food system.

"The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 is talking about traceability and we are saying it needs to go beyond traceability," he said. "It doesn’t simply matter where your food came from. You need to know how it was produced; you need to know what is in your product.

"We saw after the P.C.A. event that it took some manufacturers weeks to figure out they had P.C.A. ingredients in their products. This is simply unacceptable. We will expect more from suppliers."

How the trend of sustainability will evolve was the focus of another session at the G.M.A. Executive Conference. Speakers on the panel, including Matt Kistler, senior vice-president of sustainability for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Gene Kahn, global sustainability officer for General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, noted a systems approach and consistency will be keys to future success.

"I think one thing you will see us doing as a company is we are looking at total system costs now and not just individual processes" Mr. Kistler said. "So a primary example would be in the area of packaging. We are actually now paying more for packaging, because our packaging network also has a recycled value after it is used as packaging. So the input cost is actually higher, but the total system cost is less. We are now thinking in those kinds of new ways."

Mr. Kahn added that there are challenges in identifying the most appropriate systems developing sustainable processes.

"There are a lot of different protocols and programs out there that don’t use good science," he said. "Our interest, and the interest of the G.M.A. membership, is to ensure that happens, and that whatever we come up with at the end of the day is not only relevant but also changes behavior."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 15, 2009, starting on Page 43. Click here to search that archive.

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