The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst chatted on March 30 with Howard Popoola, member of the USDA fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee and vice president of quality assurance with Topco Associates LLC, Slokie, Ill. You can read the entire chat on the Fresh Talk blog.

11:30 a.m. Tom Karst: What is your typical week like? What kind of responsibilities do you have?

Q&A | Howard Popoola, Topco Associates LLC


11:31 a.m. Howard Popoola: My responsibility starts out with the members, which is the Topco Associates philosophy. Topco Associates is a cooperative of retailers. Some of our bigger members are the Hy-Vee supermarket chain, Giant Eagle Inc., Meijer — we call them our member owners. Our responsibility starts with them, making sure they are satisfied with what we are giving them. We are a procurement organization and they have to be happy with the level of service that they are getting from my group, which is the quality assurance group.

11:34 a.m. Tom: So they can trust the product you are giving them?

11:34 a.m. Howard: Absolutely. If they can trust their quality assurance and food safety efforts to us, then we owe it to them that all the products that go on their shelves are the best, and meet specifications all the time. That’s where my responsibilities start. And then we have to move on to the suppliers those products as well, because if suppliers don’t do their jobs well, then there will be issues with the members. So part of my responsibility is approving suppliers that will pack product for Topco Associates and our members and making sure there are not special situations, such as recalls, and, if there is a recall, to make sure we are executing very very fast and getting information to consumers quickly.

11:37 a.m. Tom: Do retailer members buy all their produce from Topco?

11:37 a.m. Howard: There are 10 programs that Topco runs, and members are free to participate in any program that they want to participate in. You will see members participate heavily in the center store grocery, others in produce — it all depends on what makes financial sense to them. When it comes to produce, we source directly from the packer and organize product to be delivered to the warehouses of our members who participate in the program.

11:41 a.m. Tom: Where did you work before you came to Topco?

11:41 a.m. Howard: One step back was U.S. Foodservice for me. At U.S. Foodservice, I was responsible for food safety and quality for all of our exclusive branded suppliers. I always had a special place for produce, fruits and vegetables, fresh and processed. I worked a lot with the AMS of USDA stuff, for inspections and good agricultural practices.

11:42 a.m. Tom: What’s the answer to regulating food safety on smaller farms? Is it exempting smaller farmers, or a variation in regulation?

11:42 a.m. Howard: Unfortunately, when it comes to food safety, you can’t put a size to it. That’s my take. There is an old saying that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, because you don’t where the product might going or if it might be co-mingled. One small-sized farm could cause a lot of bad press and damage to an entire industry. To me, food safety should not be a competitive edge. The same standard should be applied across the board.