If you were to ask average consumers just a few years ago what most concerns them about food safety, you would have gotten a variety of answers that reflected individual concerns.
For some, it mea
FDA chemists view data from food samples taken from a “digester,” a device used to identify and detect the presence of heavy metals, like mercury, in food products such as milk, dietary supplements, juices, herbs, tea, and fish.
nt special awareness of gluten, peanuts, shellfish or other potential allergens. As the natural and organic movements gained force, the discussion may have centered on additives, preservatives, colorings and other products added during processing. Consumers wanted more beet juice and less red dye, more natural sweeteners and a greater variety of organic ingredients. Maybe they wanted meat or milk without hormones and antibiotics, from animals that were fed naturally and treated humanely.
But when family pets became sick and died last year from trusted pet food brands, food safety became synonymous with ingredient safety. The connection was made, even though there were no other cases of ingredients tainting food products, especially ones for human consumption. Consumers had learned that even the biggest, most trusted companies depend upon ingredients from other, less familiar companies. And some of those ingredients are coming from countries with safety standards lower than ours.
“There’s a whole lot of concern out there, says Barbara Heidolf, principal for food phosphates at ICL Performance Products LP, St. Louis. ICL supplies phosphorus, phosphoric acid, phosphate salts and derivative products for food and industrial applications.
An FDA research pharmacologist develops tests designed to detect certain proteins in cattle feed. The proteins, which are prohibited in cattle feed, may carry a risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
“Until recently, much of the attention paid to ingredient safety has centered on potential allergens, and the increased variety of foods on the market continues to make this a major concern. But events like the contamination of pet food with melamine, spinach with E. coli, mad cow disease and other incidents in the headlines have increased consumer awareness of many potential food contaminants.
“Contaminated ingredients carry a negative effect that ripples across the industry. Even if your products are not affected, consumers may transfer the mistrust of one product or group of products to all related items,” she says. “In a sense, the contaminant scare has reminded us that we are all part of the same food chain.”
At the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago earlier this year, Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, warned that the nation's food safety system "could be just one incident away from some catastrophic event ... If there was an additional crisis, it might be at the breaking point."
Strengthening the chain
There are critical checkpoints up and down the food chain designed to guarantee the safety of ingredients that begin with defining when a raw material is indeed an ingredient and continue through third party audits, some of them governmental. But with the ever-growing list of ingredient suppliers from literally all over the globe, keeping track of the food chain is now an order of magnitude more complex.
Barbara’s Bakery bar codes incoming ingredients so they can be tested and electronically tracked throughout the process.
The FDA’s diminished capacity to protect the food supply doesn’t mean consumers will settle for unsafe foods. They are making their concerns known. Retailers are getting the message and passing it along. In October 2007, Trader Joe's grocery markets announced it would phase out all end-products from China. Though executives at Trader Joe’s were confident that all products met their high standards, consumers voiced their concern, and Trader Joe’s listened. And acted.
At Barbara’s Bakery, investment in consumer trust has been part of company philosophy from its humble beginning as a small organic bakery in 1971, and it has paid off in customer loyalty. “We follow a very rigorous protocol when handling ingredients. Incoming samples are tested and bar code labeled so we can electronically track them throughout the entire process,” says Kent Spalding, vice president of marketing for Barbara’s/Weetabix North America, Petaluma, Calif.
“We inspect facilities where we purchase our ingredients and require the proper certification from the appropriate organizations -- Certified Organic, ABI certified, etc. It is not the cheapest ingredients we are after, but instead the quality that best meets the objectives of our finished goods (taste, texture, appearance).”
Robert Hurlbut honed his safety background when he was CEO of Niman Ranch. There he built the nation's leading brand of premium, natural meat and created an innovative supply chain that allowed sustainable family farmers access to this fast-growing market. Source verification from farm to consumer was critical to maintaining consumer trust.