If these allegations are true, they raise multiple issues regarding food safety and quality. Most laypersons know that perishable food like milk and meat must be stored at proper cold temperatures to maximize food safety and minimize the growth of many dangerous pathogens. The USDA recommends discarding many perishable foods that have been held above 40 degrees F for more than two hours. Sysco clearly understands these concerns, as it (1) presents ServSafe “state-of-the-art food safety training” and (2) tells investors all about the high technology used in its climate-controlled warehouses.
Refrigeration is also critical to maintain food freshness throughout its recommended shelf life. Perishable foods that have been subjected to temperature abuse rapidly degrade in quality, so buyers may not be getting all of the freshness they paid for.
This also raises an issue of unnecessary food waste. Even utilizing modern temperature controls, each year, Americans throw away almost half of their food, worth an estimated $165 billion. This means more than just people going hungry; it wastes massive amounts of water, land productivity, and energy. Sysco represents that it takes its sustainability responsibility “seriously.”
So how can buyers protect themselves from temperature-abused food that might look just fine when it is delivered? Technologies like RFID provide data to verify proper holding temperatures throughout the supply chain, but they are not used as widely as they could be.
If the allegations are proven, “Sysco faces misdemeanor criminal charges and a one thousand dollar fine for each violation,” not including possible customer lawsuits.
By now, the use of “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB, known to its detractors as “pink slime”) in ground beef products is well-known. And that’s the problem. If its manufacturers had been proactive in disclosing (and even advertising) its use instead of waiting for others to define the debate, then they may have minimized their risk of huge financial losses.
The purpose of this posting is not to take sides in the “pink slime” vs. “boneless lean beef” debate or to argue that one side’s arguments are more palatable, no pun intended.
Rather, it is to highlight the importance of labeling, advertising, and promotional practices as part of a proactive risk management program. That’s why this blog addresses more than just food safety issues; regardless of the product’s purported safety or purity, the key issue appears to be the lack of disclosure to consumers. Why did it take 20-plus years for consumers to be able to identify what products contain this ingredient? How could BPI, the largest producer of this product, not have seen this PR train wreck coming?
The irony of industry complaints about how the media have “smeared” the product and its producers’ reputations is that the industry’s wounds are almost entirely self-inflicted. The producers chose not to disclose the pervasive addition of the product to ground beef, so critics naturally focused on why it was concealed from the public. Iowa Rep. Steve King called for congressional hearings about the product’s critics, stating “they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.” However, the congressman failed to address a key issue: if the producers had disclosed these “facts” proactively, there would probably have been no “damage” to the industry.
Consumers for decades (if not longer) have expected their ground “100 percent beef” to appear this way, not this way. Similarly, BPI does not have even one picture of its product anywhere on its website or in its YouTube video rebuttals to films like Food Inc. Its published images portray children enjoying burgers and the high technology used to produce its product. Its videos feature company officers, a scientist who can’t make eye contact with the camera, and a lobbyist. The lack of disclosure begs the question of what else might be in food fed to children?
Now, imagine that the companies producing this product had focused proactively on its claimed merits: that it’s a safe, sustainable, low cost, way to enjoy beef. Photos of production machinery that looks like an indoor oil refinery just might appeal to the market segment that enjoys products like toxic waste candy. Perhaps a catchy brand name like “spin safe” ™ could have defined the debate about using centrifuges to separate fat from lean meat. Most importantly, calls for mandatory labeling of the product would become irrelevant; half of consumers do not read labels anyway.
Lesson learned: manage labeling, advertising, and promotional issues proactively.
Today’s top story on Marler Clark’s Food Safety News site discusses a study (re-)confirming that people are willing to pay more for safer food. (The March 2011 Deloitte Consumer Food Safety Survey reached a similar conclusion.) However, as with most risk management plans, this recent study confirms consumers consider a cost/benefit analysis and will not pay an unlimited amount for minor safety improvements.
The bottom line for manufacturers, grocers, and restauranteurs: your customers will pay more to avoid food-borne illness (although they will not pay unlimited sums for minor food safety improvements), and a comprehensive food safety risk management plan may also reduce the costs and risks of litigation and lost brand value.
Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 8-14, 2011.
Have you considered whether this is an opportunity for your restaurant to reach out to the community of food-allergic consumers? If not, why not? Food-allergic consumers are loyal, repeat customers. Restaurants that accommodate them can grow their business.
Perhaps your staff are not sufficiently trained to handle requests from allergic customers? The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the National Restaurant Association published Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies, a free guide to help restaurants train staff to serve food safely to their food-allergic patrons.
The March 2011 Deloitte Consumer Food Safety Survey confirms that customers are aware of food safety issues, and they are willing to pay more for safer food products. Food processors, distributors, and retailers may all benefit from this trend by developing and implementing food safety risk management plans.
Customers are Aware of Food Safety Issues
According to the Deloitte survey, 73 percent of consumers are “more concerned than they were five years ago about the food [they] eat,” an increase of eight percentage points over 2010 figures. The top five food safety concerns include ingredient safety, toxins and chemicals in packaging materials, and contracting a food-borne illness. About 91 percent of consumers think the number of food recalls has stayed the same or increased since the prior year.
Consumers Concerned about Safety of Fresh and Imported Foods
Consumers generally reported the greatest safety concerns about fresh foods, such as meat, fish and seafood, and fruits and vegetables. Fresh food producers, distributors, and retailers may benefit from developing, implementing, and regularly updating their cold chain risk management and HACCP plans to maintain and improve food safety to minimize the risk of food-borne illness and food recalls (as well as the risks of litigation and lost brand value).
Consumers Hold Manufacturers and Retailers Accountable for Food Recalls
More than three-fourths of those surveyed told Deloitte that they hold manufacturers responsible for communicating food recall information. A majority expect that retailers will also notify them about food recalls. Critically, almost 20 percent of consumers reported they would buy “somewhat more expensive” products that included traceability information, compared to lower-priced products without it. These data highlight the need for food growers and manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to adopt and implement food recall risk management plans before a problem arises to meet your customers’ rising food safety demands. (You will be able to read more about food recall risk management plans in my upcoming July 2011 publication).
On March 26, the makers of Toxic Waste candy recalled their “Toxic Waste® Short Circuits™ Bubble Gum” for excessive lead content. This is the second Toxic Waste candy product recalled in 2011 for excessive lead levels.
The gum was distributed between January 4, 2011 and March 18, 2011. This raises the question of the extent to which the recalled product may already have been consumed. Time is of the essence for food recalls, and managing a food recall is easier for both the manfacturer and consumer when a product is recalled sooner than later.
As with the January 2011 recall of the company”s “nuclear sludge” candy, the recalled candy at issue here was imported. Although non-chocolate candy accounted for only 7.3 percent of FDA food import violations from 1998 to 2004, it is difficult to find specific data regarding the scope of these violations. However, the FDA provides information about how it monitors and regulates food importation. Additionally, while candy manufacturers are not at this time required to develop and implement HACCP plans, companies may want to consider doing so sooner than later to manage their risk of food recalls.
The FDA has published this quick-and-easy four-step guide to food safety while preparing food for your Super Bowl party. First, wash your hands. (I know, this seems so obvious, but the problems that are literally right in front of your face are the ones that so many people overlook.) Second, keep raw and ready-to-eat foods separate to prevent cross-contamination. Third, cook foods thoroughly. Finally, keep in mind that it’s always better to prevent problems than to respond to them. (Perhaps the FDA should have put this step first.) The site includes other food safety links to help address specific food safety questions.
In any event, enjoy the game.