COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Working cooperatively, not competitively, on food safety issues has greatly benefited the food retail industry and would similarly be a plus for the flour milling industry, said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer and senior vice-president, government relations, Food Marketing Institute.
Consumer perspectives on a number of health and food safety issues were shared by Ms. Hatcher at the general session of the North American Millers’ Association annual meeting Oct. 17 at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.
Ms. Hatcher’s comments were presented against a backdrop of numerous high-profile food recalls and advisories in recent years, including two from an outbreak of illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 in 2018 stemming from romaine lettuce grown in California and Arizona. Hundreds of hospitalizations and several deaths resulted from the outbreak.
For many years, F.M.I., the leading trade group for food retailers, wholesalers and marketers, has convened food protection committee and food safety committees in an effort to ensure the safest possible food supply. The food protection committee includes food safety and food and product protection professionals from member companies. The food safety committee includes chief executive officers from member companies.
“In the highly competitive grocery industry, both of those groups have agreed that on food safety we’re only as good as our weakest link,” Ms. Hatcher said. “We have members from Amazon and Walmart down to one-store operators. Our members involved in the food protection and food safety committees share all of what they’re trying, what they’ve learned, what the challenges are and what the opportunities are. I would challenge you all to do the same thing. To figure out what are those things we can be doing together.”
The objective, Ms. Hatcher said, is for consumers to have confidence that the product in their stores is safe.
The start of baking season, with many retailers installing prominent displays with family flour together with other baking ingredients, makes lessons from the romaine lettuce recall particularly germane, Ms. Hatcher said. Flour has been subject to recalls in recent years, and increased baking during the holiday season by new or inexperienced home bakers potentially heightens risks, she said.
The ripple effects from the romaine lettuce product withdrawal were far greater than just removing lettuce from produce aisles, she said. Catering trays lined with lettuce had to be discarded completely as did large amounts of fish that are displayed atop romaine lettuce.
The fact flour is invariably paired with other ingredients makes greater food safety vigilance and communication with consumers that much more important. She commended the millers for their efforts to remind consumers flour is a raw food that should be consumed only after it is cooked.
Like food retailers, millers are under a “huge microscope” because of recent recalls, Ms. Hatcher said.
Finding quick and effective ways for retailers to communicate food recalls/advisories has been a challenge, she said. The primary source consumers identified as their information source for food recalls at present is television and newspapers, Ms. Hatcher said. By contrast, consumers said they would prefer to have recall information texted to them or sent by email. Posted notices at supermarkets are also welcome by consumers, she said. The challenge with texts is that many consumers are unwilling to share their mobile phone numbers with their supermarkets or don’t share updates.
“My supermarket has the phone number of an au pair we had seven years ago,” she said. “The au pair doesn’t even live in this country any longer.”
Also in her presentation, Ms. Hatcher offered data showing consumer attitudes toward a wide variety of influencers in terms of whether these individuals/groups were helpful when it comes to their health goals. While food retailers, family members and growers received good scores, greater ambivalence was directed to food manufacturers/processors, according to the F.M.I. Trends data. She said consumers are looking for personalization from retailers as well as food manufacturers/processors.
Ms. Hatcher said F.M.I., the leading trade group for food retailers, wholesalers and marketers, has been gathering consumer data for 45 years as a way to promote policy decisions attuned with the public interest.
“What do our legislators and regulators want to know?” she asked. “They want information, especially on the consumer or business side they will be able to share on the Hill or through government.”
Regarding helpfulness of keeping them healthy, an area Ms. Hatcher said consumers increasingly are seeking help, 18% said food companies are on their side but 29% of consumers said food companies are working against them, for a net score of -11. It was the third lowest score out of 17 people/institutions. Scoring even lower were fast-food restaurants, with 13% “on their side” and 49% “working against them,” for a net score of -36. The entertainment industry, with scores of 10% and 32% yielded a net score of -22.
Ranking highest on the list was family, plus 65, and doctors, plus 64. Consumers’ primary food retail store scored a plus 45, with 49% “on their side” and 4% working against them.
Specifically discussing attitudes toward retailers, Ms. Hatcher said 93% of shoppers trust their grocery store to ensure their food is safe, a strong figure off only slightly from 95% a year earlier.
In a survey of members, Ms. Hatcher said priorities of retailers have shifted considerably in recent years to address more “social efforts” responding to their customers.
Specifically, more than half of retailers said they now are engaged in initiatives around reducing energy use, diversity, reducing food waste and reducing packaging waste. Many other retailers replied they intended to launch such initiatives moving forward.
“These issues hadn’t been on the radar screen in the past,” she said.