From Ed Thompson’s point of view, there have been significant improvements in recent years when it comes to food safety in the U.S. As vice president of quality assurance for Avendra, a leading North American procurement services provider for the hospitality industry, Thompson is unquestionably qualified to make that assessment.
New rules and regulations are helping, too. “The Food Safety Modernization Act is really impacting the food supply chain,” says Thompson. And while legislation and the consequences associated with non-compliance are piquing companies’ attention, so are risks related to an outbreak of foodborne illness or other events that can damage a brand.
“The industry realizes this now and they understand that while it may require and upfront investment to improve food safety and mitigate risk exposure, it pays off,” he says.
Produce suppliers, in particular, have made great strides in food safety over the past few years, says Thompson, ranging from research to traceability. “In the research area alone so much has been done at the field level, starting with the seed, fertilizer and soil. In addition, researchers have looked at how the produce in the field is handled, packed, and even equipment design has been studied.”
Earlier this year, the FDA confirmed 552 food recalls were issued during the last quarter of 2012, affecting 18.4 million products and amounting to the highest number of recalls in two years. On the surface, these statistics hardly seem encouraging, but Thompson explains that “we’re able to detect harmful bacteria at much more minute levels than we used to. In fact, there was a time when E. coli wasn’t even considered an adulterant.”
Not surprisingly, some companies wait until mandatory legislation is in effect or a potentially damaging incident occurs before implementing more rigorous food safety programs. Fortunately, there are other companies that choose to take a leadership role.
“These companies take it upon themselves to look at the entire supply chain, from the very first ingredient all the way through the supply chain, including the transportation and distribution of the finished product that finally reaches the end consumer,” explains Thompson. “They understand that they have ownership in the process and whatever happens, who was responsible or where it occurred, it ultimately affects the brand.”
In recent years, other industries have focused upstream and increased control over their supply chains to better manage various suppliers, yet this same discipline has often been lacking in the food sector. To be fair, the nature of modern food supply chains—multiple suppliers [sometimes overseas] of raw ingredients, the labor-intensive nature of picking, packing and processing food, lack of uniform regulations, the many touch points along the supply chain—make supply chain management more difficult. Nonetheless, companies who take steps to raise awareness in their organizations; educate their employees, vendors and partners; and conduct regular audits are positively changing the industry.
At Avendra, one of the most popular services is the Meet the Truck audit, says Thompson, which he likens to a “mystery shopper in the consumer world.” The audit is pre-arranged with Avendra’s customer (a hotel, for example). The hotel’s suppliers, meanwhile, are not notified of the audit, but are met and subsequently audited by the Avendra quality assurance professional, who rates them on various delivery criteria, including adherence to specifications, completeness of orders, condition of delivery equipment, product integrity and overall performance.
Technology advancements are also changing the marketplace, says Steve Dollase, executive vice president at Inmar.