Editor's Plate: The Wal-Mart Effect on Food Safety

April 25, 2007
"We're rolling back prices … on food safety."

Two serious food contamination incidents have bowed the food industry over the past couple of months. The ConAgra and Menu Foods incidents are as far apart as peanut butter and pet food -- which in many ways are not that far apart. While distinct in many ways, together they show how you can never let your guard down on food safety.

Yet, that's exactly what the food industry has done, and not just in these two incidents. If you believe bad things happen in threes, I'm waiting for the third shoe to drop.

Between the thinning margins at food companies and the escalating costs of safety technologies, between the flood of products and ingredients from low-cost suppliers around the globe and the budget cuts at the FDA, food safety is getting short shrift. Corners are being cut, the low-price supplier wins, regardless of reliability or reputation, and consumers have been happily going along with this as long as they get the lowest price. But maybe we're at a turning point.

What's the common thread here? Always low prices! Isn't that the Wal-Mart motto? And the motto for too many of us, as well.

A leaky roof in a ConAgra plant. Cheap wheat gluten (and now, I hear, rice protein) from China. How can these things be allowed to happen in the world's strongest economy, a land where personal safety is placed above everything else? How? Because we think we can save a couple of pennies on our food. I know more than a few people who don't bother looking at the price of the newest 50-inch, 1080i high-definition TV screen -- it's a must-have. But these Great Value green beans are a few cents less than the famous-brand ones at the grocery store. Let's stock up.

The world's largest retailer is behind much of this low-price mentality. It's notorious for forcing manufacturers to find ways to lower their prices. It's notorious for keeping wages and other costs down in its own stores. And it has an incredible pipeline of cheap Chinese products that grows every day. But Wal-Mart shouldn't take the rap alone. Every food processor who caves into that way of thinking and every consumer who buys based on the retailer's ability to "roll back prices" is guilty, too.

"I suspect Wal-Mart has something to do with this. I'm very concerned about Wal-Mart's own commitment to food safety and how they drive other companies to lower prices in order to improve Wal-Mart's bottom line," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "In the process, food safety is suffering across the industry."

Just as we went to press, Dr. Doyle was asked by ConAgra to chair and create a Food Safety Advisory Committee to set things right at that beleaguered company. (See our news story.)

"Wal-Mart's top executive for food safety is leaving the company," Doyle notes. Joan Menke-Schaenzer, vice president of food safety and security, is taking a new food safety role at ConAgra. "Losing a talent like that tells me something about their commitment to food safety," says Doyle.

He guardedly says he has more than suspicions, but he refrains from sharing details. And Doyle worries about the growing role China is playing as a food and ingredient supplier. But mostly, he points a finger at "a lot of companies in the food industry not putting the emphasis on food safety that they have in the past. It's time the food industry steps back and re-evaluates its commitment to food safety," he sums.

ConAgra received its wake-up call. Menu Foods also got religion. I sincerely hope you don't have to learn the hard way.

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