I had the chance to chat (n person) 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.

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

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 form my group, which is the quality assurance group. Because essentially what we are telling them is, look, in addition to procuring your products for you, we will also offer the quality assurance function that along with that, so I have to be sure members are happy.

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 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 ten 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 our members who participate in the program. Some members might have supplemental programs. There are all kinds of dynamics; there are no restrictions.

11:39 a.m. Tom:  How did you get your start in quality assurance?

11:40 a.m. Howard: Prior to coming to Topco Associations, I never dreamed that at one time I would have responsibilities for quality of general merchandise like plastic plates,  spoons and forks to  health and beauty care products, I never thought of those. But my responsibility extends over all those at Topco Associates

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

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 staff, for inspections and Good Agricultural Practices.  It’s like homecoming for me; I’ve worked with those guys before.

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.

Now, when it comes to auditing, I’m willing to look at a situation a bunch of farmers can get together and have an auditor look at their fields together. The cost could be contained compared to small 10 acre farms that would have the same expense as a 150-acre farm.

11:45: a.m. Tom: What about the harmonization of food safety audits? Is that something that could happen?

11:46 a.m. Howard: I tell you what, I believe in miracles. I would like to see that happen someday, but there are certain things still up in the air when it comes to that. God bless my good friend Dave Gombas, who has done such a marvelous job in trying to bring everyone together. What we talked about in the meeting room a moment ago was just the leafy greens agreement and the FDA guidance document. How do you think it will look like when Dave comes up and says well,  here is the harmonization standard we have come up that is different from the leafy greens and different from the FDA guidance document;  then do we have to take all those three and harmonize them again? And so, I think harmonization is a good thing to do, but the question becomes who owns the standard.

I certainly hope the day will come when we will have more uniform standards, but it will take a lot of effort a whole lot of leadership from the entire major players.

11: 50 a.m. Tom Will traceability work in the way (PTI) has designed it?

11:51 a.m. Howard: It is going to work. No new rules are without pain. It is going to be painful, especially when you get to the processors.  When you get into that packinghouse where a 50-count box has been packed into 10-count box, that’s where the pain is really really going to be felt. With the proper technology, I think we can get there. But how much will the technology cost for smaller processors? They will be strained. But we needed it. I think five years down the road, when we finally pull the switch on it, we will be happy we did it. You can’t live in this world without knowing where your food comes from.