Activists, suppliers and restaurateurs connect at food-safety confab

WASHINGTON The parties that routinely square off after a food-poisoning incident came together here last month to see if they could work in concert for a safer food supply.

Called Cooperating for Food Safety, the meeting brought together such traditional adversaries as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, restaurant chains, multinational food processors, governmental regulators, produce suppliers and food-poisoning victims. It was organized by self-avowed consumer activists in collaboration with academics and members of the food industry, several of whom noted that public trust in the food supply may be at an all-time low.

“They’re skeptical of our government, which, let’s face it, has from time to time let them down,” said Linda Golodner, president emeritus of the National Consumers League advocacy group and an organizer of the event. The meeting was conceived in part to allay those fears through a broad-based push for better safety practices.

“We realize that none of us in this room can solve these issues on our own,” said Ray Goldberg, professor emeritus of Harvard Business School and another co-organizer of the CFS. “We need each other. The question is, how do we do it?”

For that reason, he said, pulling together the major proponents of food safety was an historic step.

The stated purpose of the meeting was to share effective techniques for promoting food safety. Several meat processors, for instance, described what state-of-the-art processes they use within their plants to combat bacteria.

But it was unclear how all 135 attendees could benefit from those or other best practices that were aired by a particular type of attendee. For instance, the participants included restaurant chains that don’t do their own butchering or processing.

Yet, some speakers noted, restaurateurs could still play a key role by pushing their suppliers to adopt those practices.

“I would ask that the retail and foodservice communities exert as much pressure as possible on our industry,” said Kim Gorton, president and chief operating officer of Slade Gorton & Co., a seafood importer and distributor.

Attendees also cited some safety tools that could be adapted for use in a seemingly disparate business. For instance, a produce supplier detailed how it had embraced a high-speed, sophisticated machine to detect foreign material in its greens and automatically reject it.

Because many types of fresh produce aren’t subjected to the pathogen-killing step of cooking, “we’ve got to use sophisticated technology to help — another area of collaboration, I think,” said Catherine Adams, corporate vice president of worldwide quality, food safety and nutrition for McDonald’s Corp.

Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Costco, said his company was looking at a customer-alert system that could place 5,000 calls an hour in the event of a product recall. The system sounded as if it also could be used by restaurants, meat manufacturers and distributors in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak.

Other speakers noted how all stakeholders could benefit from advances that may seem far removed from their businesses, such as innovations in animal husbandry. As several speakers noted, the procedures currently used to keep E. coli out of beef begin largely after the animal has left the ranch or farm, without any attempts to eradicate it from live cattle through vaccines or antibiotics.

“If we could find the way to control E. coli in animals, it not only has benefits for the meat industry, it has implications for produce as well,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, a distinguished fellow of the Consumer Federation of America advocacy group and an organizer of CFS.

She was apparently referring to the transfer of E. coli from cows to produce through the animal’s droppings, which can leach the pathogens into the water supplies used by farms for irrigation.

In general, speakers and attendees seemed less focused on issues that may have divided them in the past, such as safety legislation and regulation, and more on common aims, like averting a bacterial contamination. Repeatedly cited from the podium was the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993.

Afoodborne illness outbreak “could happen to anyone, and I think we all know that,” said Adams of McDonald’s. And “if one of us stubs our toe, we all feel the pain.”

And pathogens aren’t the only common foe, said Danny Wegman, chief executive of the Wegmans supermarket chain in upstate New York.

“The real enemy we face is obesity,” he said in his keynote address. “If we make the wrong decisions on food safety, our own customers are not going to eat what they should be eating. They’re not going to eat the leafy greens and vegetables.”

Wegman stressed that consumers have to be part of retailers’ efforts to combat food contamination, since they’re the ones who will be handling the food right before it is consumed. “The other group we need to work with, but are not, are the restaurant groups,” he said.

Some 14 restaurant operations were listed on the CFS attendance roster, including representatives from Potbelly Sandwich Works, Chick-fil-A, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Levy Restaurants, Dunkin’ Brands and a local company, Clyde’s Restaurant Group. A representative of the National Council of Chain Restaurants was also cited as an attendee.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mike Rosbach, vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill Inc. and an organizer of the meeting, acknowledged that the coordinators weren’t sure if the diverse parties in the audience would mesh. Yet the effort was lauded by a number of participants.

“It’s Washington. Any time you’ve got people with divergent viewpoints in one room, it’s a real step forward,” joked Michael Sansolo, a columnist for the retailing news provider Morning News Beat.

Participants suggested that the emerging alliance consider such matters in the future as farm-level safety practices, the ability to trace the path of a food back to its source, educating consumers and the ambitious goal of testing every food serving before it’s sold, a possibility mentioned by a processor.

Others suggested that lawmakers and regulators be informed of the stab at collaboration. “We need to let government know that we are working together,” said Bill Buckner, a senior vice president of Cargill.

Others noted that the work of an alliance, particularly the sharing of safety ideas, could alleviate the need for additional regulation.

“What do you think about a partnership going forward? Is it a go or isn’t it?” asked Nancy Donley, who formed the consumer advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, after her son Alex died during s 1993 E. coli outbreak.

“Press on,” one of the attendees shouted from the audience. “Why do you even ask?”