BALTIMORE — Transparency and the inescapable need for robust food safety programs are the top two trending topics at the 16th annual Food Safety Summit.
About 1,500 attendees registered for this year’s show and conference at the Baltimore Convention Center, which includes an expanded tradeshow floor this year, according to the event’s organizers.
From individual seminars on wide-ranging topics such as water quality standards and social media to the keynote presentation, the common themes of the necessity of food safety plans and corporate transparency about food safety issues reverberated throughout the first day of the summit.
Academics, public relations consultants, corporate executives and staff from governmental agencies all told summit attendees that implementing food safety protocols is a business reality that is here to stay.
“Some growers may be exempt from the (Food Safety Modernization Act) standards, but the marketplace will demand participation,” said Elizabeth Bihn, senior extension associate for the department of food safety at Cornell University and director of the Produce Safety Alliance that is housed there.
Getting top management to buy into food safety programs isn’t always easy, though, regardless of the size of a company.
Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president for food safety at U.S. Foods said one tactic he has used is to put food safety science into language that executives can understand. He said he has even told his top boss that “I’m the one who keeps you out of jail.”
“Executives are not stupid, but sometimes they do need to be educated,” Hernandez said. “When you translate food safety into what it means in dollars and cents they are more likely to understand. Of course, nobody wants to go to jail, so that works, too.”
One executive who did not have to be convinced of the value of food safety spoke during the Food Safety Summit keynote presentation April 9.
Chiquita Brands International’s CEO, Ed Lonergan, was handed the reins in October 2012 as the company was posting huge losses, said Chiquita has found its way back to its roots and is moving forward with a triple bottom line approach that has moved food safety to the forefront.
In his keynote presentation, Lonergan said Chiquita’s board never meets without Courtney Parker, the company’s senior vice president for quality and food safety, at the table.
“Courtney’s team has veto power,” Lonergan said. “Food safety is not a competitive advantage. It’s a fact of business, all of our businesses.”
Lonergan said commitment to food safety requires commitment from top management to integrate it into all levels of business, which he said has helped return Chiquita to its core of bananas and packaged salads.
“Chiquita’s value chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said.
The Chiquita food safety staff serves double duty as the company’s quality assurance staff.
Lonergan said it is Chiquita’s food safety staff that clears each field for harvest. If they find a problem, the produce from that field isn’t used — and it isn’t sold to anyone else to use either, Lonergan said.
“Last week we recalled 1,600 boxes of expired (packaged salads) that weren’t even on the shelves any longer because it was the right thing to do,” Lonergan said. “We could have ignored it, but we didn’t. Transparency is important. If you don’t talk to your customers they can become afraid because they aren’t sure what’s going on.”
Lonergan’s message of transparency was repeated by presenters during various seminars at the summit.
During a session on social media, speakers said platforms such as Twitter and Facebook provide a direct line to consumers that can’t be ignored.
Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer for the Center for Food Integrity, said during the social media seminar that Theodore Roosevelt understood that concept well before the Internet was born when he said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”