Comprised of original perspectives from leading experts in food retail on a selection of the most critical issues executives must confront in boardrooms across the country and around the world, in the fifth part of our Q&A series, I spoke with Hilary Thesmar, PhD, RD, CFS, VP of food safety programs at FMI, and Chris Baker, partner in Oliver Wyman’s Retail Practice, on the importance of food safety to our industry. Food safety has always been a priority for the supermarket industry, and our U.S. Food Retailing Industry Speaks 2015 data suggests that grocers are expecting its impact to only gain attention within their businesses.
Why is it important for food retailers to understand the food safety ecosystem in the US and globally?
Thesmar: From my point of view, there are two reasons – one, as sellers of the products and being at the end of supply chain, I think it is imperative that retailers are keepers of the system. They are responsible for everything that comes through the supply chain and to the consumer. The second reason is that retailers are increasingly doing more than just selling food they get from other people – this includes their own private brands, prepared foods, and food service. Grocers have more responsibility in terms of ensuring that the foods are taken care of while they are in their control and that the food is safely prepared, handled, and delivered to customers. There are numerous ways to communicate food safety – but they all relate to the changing role of the retailer.
Baker: I agree with Hilary. For me, it really comes down to one word - trust. Historically retailers haven’t owned every point along the food production or distribution chain, but they still own the trusted relationship with the end consumer. So, even though the regulations only say you need to know what’s happening “one up and one back” from you in the supply chain, retailers really need to have an end-to-end understanding of where food is actually coming from and to be able to communicate that to consumers. Also, as some retailers take ownership of more of the supply chain, they have even more of a responsibility to be a trusted source for end consumers.
What steps can food retailers take to ensure a top notch food safety program?
Baker: There are a couple ways to look at this: there is “what do you have to do” from a regulatory perspective – and Hilary can speak in more detail about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) – and then there is “what should you be doing” to create a culture of food safety in the industry and within your organization. To do the latter, CEOs and management teams need to take a hard look at where they currently stand and what they could and should be doing to instill that culture. Some of this is mandated through FSMA regulations and will come as part of compliance with the new regulations. Making sure your suppliers are certified through food safety certification schemes like SQF, BRC and others is another component. The best retailers take it further and really embed it in the way the organization thinks and works.
Thesmar: Requiring and motivating a food safety culture comes from the top in any organization; it’s about going above and beyond what the regulations require. Our members tell me it’s really about a management commitment and caring about your customers in order to do the right thing.
How can FMI help companies navigate their food safety needs?
Thesmar: FMI provides an entire end-to-end solution for the food industry, including all of our retail and supplier members. In fact, FMI’s Safe Quality Food Institute, which is a GFSI-benchmarked food safety program, includes production and manufacturing compliance schemes for manufacturers and processors and even growers and farmers. While there’s a strong effort from farm to fork, FMI also offers in-store retail solutions, such as our associate training program SafeMark®. We also go so far as to work with retailers to help with their consumer food safety education programs. In between, we counsel on regulatory compliance, government affairs issues as well as traceability programs. Mirroring our members’ priorities, food safety remains principal to our portfolio at FMI.
Anything else to add?
Baker: One closing thought. So, why is food safety so important? The easiest answer is to look at the headlines over the last 10 years to see how many companies have been rocked by food safety issues. In many cases, one issue can shut down an entire product category or an entire retail segment for an extended period of time. The reputational and financial risks are huge, which is why it is so important that food safety continue to be the number one priority issue for the industry.
*This interview is the fifth of a six-part Q&A series between FMI executives and Oliver Wyman partners on the inaugural issue of our joint journal Boardroom.
By Heather Garlich, FMI's Director of Media & Public Relations