TORONTO — Mike Venton started working in the produce industry as a young kid, and he's been with Brampton-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd. for almost 30 years.

Since becoming senior vice president of produce for Canada’s largest retailer two years ago, he has overseen many changes in the way produce is bought and sold.

“What we’re trying to do is field to fork to create fresher produce at the store for customers,” he said. “What we learned pretty quickly is that every single thing we do in produce had to be changed because we can’t have a weak link.”

In the transportation department, his goal was to get lag time out of the system and get produce to stores faster.

The solution: open three consolidation centers in California and Arizona, with another planned for Fresno, Calif., to minimize the number of stops each truck makes, minimize the time produce spends in coolers and ensure trucks get in and out at a given time on a given day.

Then there’s Flow, a process initiated by the company’s supply chain group.

“It’s like cross-docking as opposed to slotting,” Venton said. “It basically says this item is going to sit in your warehouse for a minimum time, then it’s going to flow right into a store. The problem with it is that our business is so volatile, with weather and distance.”

Rigorous quality assurance is another Loblaw priority, he said.

Teams are busy conducting audits in stores and will eventually be testing competitors’ produce for brix, pressure and other items.

“We want to see if we’re as good as we think we are,” he said.

Meanwhile, a 19-member So Fresh group based in Fresno has fanned out through the U.S. and up and down the coast, working with shippers and checking product before it’s loaded.

“Eventually, we’re going to get right into the store with quality assurance,” he said. “We’re almost inspecting 100% of what comes through our facilities.”

The retailer is even creating its own specifications for accepting or rejecting product.

“We’re going far beyond the specs set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and forming our own unbiased group to work as a liaison between category managers and our quality assurance team,” he said. “We’re adding a technologist’s position, we’ve hired two people and we’ll hire two more this year.”

Buying better involves partnering with better shippers and growers, he said.

“We’re giving more business to the best growers,” he said. “The majority of our Top 40 club are U.S., but we do have Canadian and Mexican growers and we will have Chilean growers as we discover the really good, sophisticated ones who, we believe, are going to raise the bar.”

These preferred suppliers are given a “look under our hood,” he said. “We say here’s our strategy, here are the commitments we’re making, here’s what we want from you and, later, here’s how we’ve progressed.”

Back in the produce department, Venton has spearheaded Platinum items, 11 so far, that are exclusive to Loblaw.

Each has been voted as the best-tasting item in its category by senior management. Winners include the brown kumato tomato, grown in Mexico or in Canadian greenhouses in season, fingerling potatoes and the Sonya and Lady Alice apples.