Distributors Are Key to Ensuring Food Safety

On the heels of a nationwide recall of fresh spinach due to the presence E.coli in bagged lettuce, the Food Safety Supply Chain Conference speakers and participants here had a multitude of media images fresh in their minds regarding the vulnerability of their organizations and the supply chains.

The "CEO Panel Discussion: Why Food Safety Really Matters" acknowledged three key elements underlying this question. One, the foodservice business is symbiotic with each link in the supply chain touched by and relying on the previous or the next link. Two, each link has a responsibility to be vigilant regarding keeping the food quality and food safety transparent to the end-user. And, three, the brand is only as good as its performance in maintaining public trust.

The panel included: Jeffrey Ettinger, president and ceo, Hormel Foods, Inc.; Rick Schnieders, chairman, ceo and president, Sysco Corp.; Lloyd Hill, chairman, Applebee's International, Inc.; and Norman Rich, president and ceo, Weis Markets, Inc. Their theme was to include remarks on "how the industry might improve collaboration and accelerate progress (regarding food safety) moving forward."

"Distributors are a vital link in ensuring traceability of product, which is a key component of our safety efforts." – Lloyd Hill
Each speaker spoke to what his organization was doing internally to ensure that the consumers' expectation for "wholesome" safe food was being met. Most commented on the issue of brand protection vis-à-vis a perceived tenuous relationship held with the public regarding food safety. To a person the comments centered on internal commitment to food safety through protocols, HACCP, audits, leadership, recall preparedness, the use of state-of the-art technology and so forth. The audience obtained good insight about what each organization was doing to ensure that the food on its watch was protected.

One of the few supply chain comments was made by Schnieders. Picking up on a statement that it is the responsibility of each member in the supply chain to ensure that nothing goes awry, Schnieders, who serves as a trustee on the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) board, commented on the importance of vigilance and employee training.

He noted Sysco's commitment to safe food handling through its support and dissemination of the NRAEF ServSafe food-safety training and certification program. Foodservice distributors have the opportunity to assist their operators in meeting consumers' expectations for food that will not harm them, only nourish and delight them though correct food-handling training, he said.

After the session, ID asked Hill to chime in with his thoughts regarding the foodservice distributors' role in ensuring food safety throughout the supply chain. He stated that "Nothing is more important to our restaurants than food safety. The distribution network has a significant role to play in those efforts. Distributors are a vital link in ensuring traceability of product, which is a key component of our safety efforts."

On reflection about this session, one might speculate that if the event were held under different circumstances more discussion might have occurred regarding the interdependency of supply chain members and resources that are being offered, like Sysco's deployment of ServSafe training. However, the major take-away from the panel discussion reinforced the point that consumer trust is a very precious commodity and certainly no one on this panel was taking it for granted.

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