By: Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh, Industry Relations, Food Marketing Institute

mg-caption: Gigi Vita, vice president of Sales, Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) discusess the need to advance a culture of food safety in the fresh industry.Achieving fresh foods safety can sometimes feel like a game of whack-a-mole. That’s because retailers and suppliers are often forced to react to food safety ongoing outbreaks and recalls.

Despite this, stakeholders across the fresh supply chain are working very hard to make progress. At the recent FMI FreshForward conference in Minneapolis, a panel of food safety experts addressed the complexities, opportunities, and next steps in this effort. One of the challenges cited is that solutions are still evolving. 

“There’s a need to improve food safety cultures, but it’s still an emerging field,” said panelist Adam Johnson, vice president and general manager, Global Food Retail Service, Ecolab. “You need to do this collaboratively and take actionable steps to measure and enhance cultures.”

FreshForward panelists pointed to key steps – such as enhancing the use of technology and ensuring supplier accountability – to achieve impactful solutions.

Driving a Food Safety Culture 

Making progress requires advancing a culture of food safety in the fresh industry, said panelist Gigi Vita, vice president of Sales, Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI).

“A food safety culture is about continuous improvement, learning as you go, and being supported by a food safety management system,” she said. “The leadership team creates it, but you need to make sure every department and employee is accountable.”

The Safe Quality Food (SQF) program is recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and designed to meet industry, customer and regulatory requirements across the supply chain. It helps promote food safety through certification programs. As a division of FMI, its mission is to deliver consistent, globally-recognized food safety and quality certification programs that are based on sound scientific principles, applied across all industry sectors, and valued by all stakeholders.

“No GFSI benchmark certification will eliminate recalls, but it can mitigate risks,” Vita said. 

She urged retailers and suppliers to take a more industry-focused, rather than siloed, approach to improving food safety cultures.

Measuring Effectiveness of Culture 

Ecolab’s Johnson addressed the topic of food safety cultures by posing some questions to FreshForward attendees. 

“What are associates doing when no one’s watching?” he asked. “Are they committed to food safety?”

He underscored the importance of being able to measure the health of food safety cultures so organizations can benchmark themselves. 

“Safe companies measure themselves and benchmark to drive continuous improvement,” he asserted. 

This can be supported by an assessment tool to help ensure food safety expectations are clearly defined for employees, training and education are offered, leaders are communicating priorities, goals are in place, and problems are corrected.

Systems and technology need to be leveraged to improve compliance, he added. 

Emphasizing Accountability and Research

Achieving food safety progress relies on investing in research, holding suppliers accountable, and making effective use of technology, said panelist Natalie Dyenson, vice president, Food Safety and Quality, Dole Food Company. 

Research enables the industry to leverage the latest science and explore key risk factors, she emphasized. The industry needs to ensure suppliers are meeting proper standards.

“Suppliers need to be held accountable,” she said. “That may sound funny coming from a supplier, but you need to make sure suppliers have proper controls in place.” 

Technology is an essential element of the mix, but the industry needs to prioritize interoperability of systems so information can be shared, she added.

Identifying Next Steps for the Industry

Attendees at FreshForward broke out into groups after the food safety panel to identify key takeaways and next steps for the industry. Some of their suggestions included the need for standards in communicating recalls, enabling improved retailer and supplier benchmarking, and investing in data scientists for enhanced food safety analysis. 

I believe there isn’t a single magic bullet for the fresh industry’s food safety challenges. The most effective approach will be multi-layered, including the involvement of effective food safety cultures, technology, research, and collaboration. All this requires the industry to come together and engage on next steps. FMI and Deloitte, our FreshForward partner, will help the industry to make progress in the coming months on some of the most important insights and takeaways.