Kevin Herglotz, a familiar name to many in the industry, just today submitted this column and I thought it would work well in this space.
OUT IN FRONT: Grocers Can Gain Favor with Consumers by Supporting Food Safety Reform
By Kevin Herglotz
Most consumers today trust their local grocer to deliver quality, wholesome and safe products. Our local stores are part of the community and in the wake of some of the most high profile food safety recalls in our nation’s history, consumers trust their local stores to protect them should the food safety system fail. However, consumers are nervous about the antiquated system and generally supportive of a major overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws and regulations.
Without missing a beat, Congress and the Obama administration are ready to act and have a mandate to significantly change the outdated food safety system. Aside from a small group of vocal CEOs, the industry has been relatively silent, failing to engage in a proactive strategy to better position grocers during the debate. There’s more information about what the sector is “against,” rather than what it’s “for.” That’s not a good strategy for success.
Undoubtedly, sweeping changes that will impact the entire food sector—from farm to table—will become law in the coming year. The silence on such a critical issue that impacts business and resonates so strongly with customers is a miscalculation and missed opportunity. That said, the industry has time to influence the outcome and gain a seat at the negotiating table. To be relevant, there needs to be effective engagement from grocers and trade associations and more collaboration with elected leaders and consumer groups. Here are seven broad policy positions the industry should publicly embrace in launching an effective public and government affairs strategy to influence the debate.
Support an integrated approach to food safety. The current patchwork system is ineffective, duplicative and slow to respond. The lack of effective inter-government agency coordination puts consumers at risk and creates confusion, diminished government credibility and wasted resources. There should be a consolidated approach dedicated to food safety that integrates current authorities and resources.
Overhaul the nation’s food safety inspection system. More public and private inspectors are needed, but stronger checks and balances with independent verification are also needed. Inspection systems should be integrated, risk-based and focused on critical points. The government should double its funding for scientific research to spark more innovation and new technologies.
Raise the standards for imports. Stronger food import verification and inspections are needed to ensure products entering the country are safe and wholesome. This shouldn’t be a tool toward protectionism, but rather a move to strengthen the system to ensure domestic standards are met by international producers.
Embrace mandatory recall authority. It’s time to officially give the government what it already technically has. However, government agencies can use flawed “best guess” approaches to determining potential contamination. As we saw with the tomato recall last year, this can lead to more harm than good. Appropriate checks and balances to ensure accuracy and integrity of the system are also needed.
Create a public-private commission to examine weaknesses and mitigate risks. The current food safety regulatory system is a complicated, multi-year process riddled with delays that often result in outdated, ineffective rules that don’t prevent risk. A commission, modeled after the successful California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, would provide an independent voice with the ability to make changes based on the highest risks and eliminating potential hazards. It would also expand agriculture and food manufacturing best-practice agreements to improve industry food safety standards.
Strengthen traceability and animal identification systems. Consumers want to know the origin of their food and regulators need tools to trace back products when necessary. Unfortunately, the country of origin issue tainted the debate. Politicians pushed COOL for protectionist reasons, resulting in a regulatory scheme that is confusing and misguided. Much like nutritional labeling, there needs to be consistency across the board for labeling, identification and traceability.
Adopt better methods of communication. A one-stop recall information center should be created with consistent protocols and consumer information. Retailers should embrace new ways to inform customers on these issues, such as the use of technologies that can alert checkers when a recalled product is scanned. A new public-private consumer education program about food safety, including prevention and safe handling practices, needs to be established.
The time is now for the grocery industry to proactively engage in the public debate on food safety reform and gain the upper hand in the public policy discussion with customers and elected officials.
Kevin Herglotz is president of HPA Strategies Inc., a public affairs and government relations firm based in California. Herglotz is former senior vice president of public and government affairs for Safeway Inc. and former deputy chief of staff and director of communications for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at email@example.com or at www.hpastrategies.com.