CEOs grow louder on food-safety reform

Articles
March 23, 2009

CEOs grow louder on food-safety reform

The gloves are coming off in the food-safety controversy. CPG chief executives are raising their voices to try to distance their companies from blame for dangerous compromises in the way pipeline suppliers (growers, processors, etc.) are investigated when their turns come. Better yet, their comments aren’t finger-pointing exercises; some actually provide constructive advice. Only thing is, CEOs who speak up in the line of fire need to keep their own houses in order. For instance, Kellogg Company CEO David Mackay pressed last week for the national food-safety system to revamp. He noted the company lost nearly $70 million worth of peanut products, and recalled more than 7 million cases of products, due to salmonella contamination at Peanut Corp. of America. He told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “the recent outbreak illustrated that the U.S. food-safety system must be strengthened…the key is to focus on prevention, so that potential sources of contamination are identified and properly addressed before they become actual food-safety problems,” according to an Associated Press account. That prompted committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) to call Kellogg “sloppy” because it, like many other food companies, relied on audits of PCA by food inspectors from the American Institute of Baking International, rather than scrutinize the plant itself. Mackey countered that “we did everything we could do [but PCA was] an unethical, dishonest supplier”—and that from now on it will audit suppliers making products most vulnerable to bacterial contamination, noted a USA Today report.

The gloves are coming off in the food-safety controversy.  CPG chief executives are raising their voices to try to distance their companies from blame for dangerous compromises in the way pipeline suppliers (growers, processors, etc.) are investigated when their turns come.

Better yet, their comments aren’t finger-pointing exercises; some actually provide constructive advice.

Only thing is, CEOs who speak up in the line of fire need to keep their own houses in order.

For instance, Kellogg Company CEO David Mackay pressed last week for the national food-safety system to revamp. He noted the company lost nearly $70 million worth of peanut products, and recalled more than 7 million cases of products, due to salmonella contamination at Peanut Corp. of America. He told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “the recent outbreak illustrated that the U.S. food-safety system must be strengthened…the key is to focus on prevention, so that potential sources of contamination are identified and properly addressed before they become actual food-safety problems,” according to an Associated Press account.

That prompted committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) to call Kellogg “sloppy” because it, like many other food companies, relied on audits of PCA by food inspectors from the American Institute of Baking International, rather than scrutinize the plant itself. Mackey countered that “we did everything we could do [but PCA was] an unethical, dishonest supplier”—and that from now on it will audit suppliers making products most vulnerable to bacterial contamination, noted a USA Today report.

Kellogg wants to be seen as a victim, but Waxman implied that food brand makers aren’t blameless victims if they fail to exhaustively examine the companies that supply them. We at SupermarketGuru.com believe that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore—that Kellogg followed common industry practice with its cursory third-party exam of PCA, but the industry needs to do more to vigorously protect the integrity of the food pipeline.

This upfront approach will build the consumer confidence it will take to keep people buying their brands.  It takes leaders like Nestle, whose own inspectors found two PCA processing plants to be unsanitary, and rejected the notion of doing business with them.  A 2006 audit release by Waxman’s committee and reported on by USA Today, revealed poor pest control, the lack of an environmental monitoring program for pathogens, and the potential for microbiological cross-contamination. 

Could all these shortcomings have been missed by the third-party inspectors whom PCA paid for their services?

Industries that fail to police themselves invite government intervention.  The beef-up of FDA looks likely to occur anyway this year, but the food industry will still do the right thing if it sides with the government’s safety motive and calls out the greedy and irresponsible among them to be fully accountable.