Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

One need look no further than into the eyes of Dana from Florida, now 15 years old, to understand why food safety should be more than a series of checklists — it’s a moral imperative.

I first met Dana last year as part of the Center for Produce Safety Research Symposium.

When Dana was just 3 years old, she ate cantaloupe contaminated with salmonella.

The incident left her in the hospital for nearly two weeks and she will, for the rest of her life, suffer from reactive arthritis and chronic pain.

Even so, she was one of the lucky ones. More than 3,000 people die each year because of foodborne illnesses, and as an industry we have to do better.

It starts by creating a culture based on the premise that food safety is about people.

This requires an understanding that — at the end of the day — we want to provide safe food to customers and consumers not just to comply with food safety regulations or limit liability, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Our company values include “do the right thing” and “people matter” — a perspective that as an industry we should all embrace.

But to be effective, these values can’t be something that reside only in employee handbooks or on the company website. Organizations must communicate these values, and live and breathe these values day in and day out.

That means talking about them often and demonstrating to all stakeholders how they tie to the larger vision.

More importantly, core values should be used to guide decision making — and this shouldn’t be left solely to the discretion of individuals. Rather, operational policies and practices should align with these values.

At Markon, we create alignment with values in several ways. First, compliance with our 5-Star Food Safety Program is non-negotiable for our suppliers.

Suppliers who don’t pass our rigorous standards can’t receive purchase orders from Markon, plain and simple.

When evaluating growers, we are looking for those who not only say they philosophically align with our values and commitment to people and food safety, but demonstrate it in the field — the proverbial “walking the talk.”

During our observational audits, we ask questions, observe operations and record findings.

The result is that when customers purchase Markon produce, they can have confidence that what’s in the carton is of the highest quality and safety standards.

With members and operators, we’re consistently reminding them of the role they play as well as the end result: protecting people.

Safe produce starts in the field, but ends on the plate. All points along the way need to have the shared commitment to food safety, with the moral imperative as our guiding principle.

For foodservice operators and buyers, walking the talk means thinking beyond price, and evaluating suppliers from multiple perspectives — and food safety should be high on the list.

Some may say food safety is important, but they don’t look at food safety as a true differentiator on purchases.

If buyers evaluate lettuce, for example, purely on price per head, while ignoring food safety and sustainability metrics, they are missing the boat.

To this day, I think about Dana often. Everyone at Markon knows her story, and she serves as constant reminder of why we do what we do.

We, and others in the industry, must not forget what happened to her, and, more importantly, we need to do our best to prevent other tragedies stemming from foodborne illnesses.

This means remembering food safety is about people, and creating a culture within organizations that not only keeps this top of mind, but also puts in place practices, policies and procedures that support this notion.

Tim York is chief executive officer of Markon Cooperative, Salinas, Calif., which is made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. He is also the founding chairman of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis.

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