Exclusive Interview Part 2: Dan Vache VP United Fresh Produce Association on Food Safety, Standards and Supply
In this part 2 exclusive interview Dan Vache, Vice President of Supply Chain Management for the United Fresh Produce Association speaks to Andrea Charles from Cold Chain IQ, about taking steps to increase food safety across the entire supply chain and implement the latest standards and procedures. Vache also shares his advice on how to implement a comprehensive plan for food safety and produce traceability initiative (PTI)
Cold Chain IQ: In your opinion, what steps can we take to increase food safety across the entire supply chain and implement or seek to implement the latest standards and procedures?
D Vache: I think that's another great question because right now food safety is the top of everyone's mind, specifically in the fresh sector. Because many times there are no kill steps when you're consuming fresh produce, and it does move around the globe, whether you're just national or you're importing or exporting. But I do believe that to understand food safety is a key ingredient for all fresh foods. It's no longer an option to really have a focus on food safety. In my opinion, organisations need to invest in food safety up front, and truly look at their business and food safety as an investment in their future, because a food safety issue in the marketplace can be very expensive. So one needs to look at it as an investment in your business and really get serious about food safety.
And this includes everyone in the supply chain. We need to understand the critical control points where can food safety be compromised throughout the entire supply chain. Everyone must establish procedures and measure effectiveness of their procedures continually. Just because you set procedures does not mean that they are long-lasting. There always is continual improvement in the processes that need to be explored.
Another thing that does help is to automate record keeping as much as possible. Take it out of the human hands. There's so much technology now that will dictate when certain parts of the food safety programme must be reviewed, recorded, and again measured. There should be no shortcuts in any of the processes when you're dealing with food safety. So management, and when we talk management, we're talking about top management must be involved, all the way down to those that are actually working and handling the products themselves. So this includes the production, the harvesting, the distribution. Everyone in the supply chain. And each of those portions and responsible parties in supply chain should continue to seek ways to enhance the established programmes, looking at new research, because food safety is not a competitive situation.
We need to share information among trading partners and your peers so that we can all make sure that consumers are provided the best products in the safest condition. Really business is changing. The world is changing. We must remain committed 100% to food safety. It's not a static situation, that it's extremely dynamic. Mother nature is unpredictable with the weather, the way products are handled. There's always a certain amount of risk when we're dealing with fresh produce which is something we all want to continue to increase the consumption. But there is a certain amount of risk and we must minimise that risk at every point in the supply chain.
So again, exceeding the ultimate in food safety can sometimes be in conflict with your present day reality of the business. Many times we're working on very small margins but we can't supplement anything in place of food safety and the procedures that are effective.
Cold Chain IQ: Could you summarise your top tips on implementing a comprehensive plan for food safety?
D Vache: Yes. I would say you need to have a team. You need to have a various team-oriented operation, which includes some sort of food safety specialist or scientist on your staff. You must always have at your disposal, a legal expert to make sure that everyone understands the legality of what we're dealing with with food safety. You need to have a very critical thing is a crisis communication expert, because in a comprehensive plan, you've got to put all of these things together in advance, because you can't do it ad hoc if you all of a sudden have a food safety issue. So you need to be prepared.
You need to have a mock recall process, and these should be surprise processes where you come in and no one knows you're going to do a mock recall, but you can certainly simulate a true recall and test it when it's least expected, because there's nothing worse than a company getting a call from the FDA or a knock on the door and not being prepared totally for what they're going to come at you, whether it's the media, whether it's the FDA themselves, whether it's consumers. And certainly you want to go through all of that in a very serious manner on a continual basis.
So it's really the top tips are understanding your operations, where your critical control points are for food safety. Putting a good, solid team together. And this team really needs to have top management priority, that food safety is important, and it's a team effort, and it's also a team effort for who you hand your product off to, whether it's the distribution chain itself, or your trading partner on the buy side, to making sure they understand that they're a critical link in your supply chain, and food safety is imperative throughout that supply chain.
So really the top tips are get organised, in advance. Be very serious about it. Test and retest your procedures. And again, these can shift over time, so it shouldn't be something that's just put in a book and put in a bookcase in case you need that, but really live and breathe food safety every day and have that comprehensive plan reviewed on a continual basis.
Cold Chain IQ: You have been involved in the produce traceability initiative. Could you give us a quick update and share some lessons learned for successful PTI implementation?
D Vache: I've been quite involved in the produce traceability initiative, and we're really seeing some traction now. When we started the PTI back in 2007, the whole industry agreed that this is a voluntary initiative, and the supply side, of course, was the first ones that had to put their toes in the water, so to speak, and start placing labels on each case of produce.
Now when you have field pack, or you have facility packing, they're different animals. So it's not quite as easy as one would think. And it's been tremendously successful in looking at how the industry has risen to the occasion to figure out how to attain whole chain traceability. And of course, with the grower/shippers, they've got to put that label with the GS1128 bar code on every case, and again, there's challenges when you're dealing with mother nature in the field and you're field harvesting. So there's challenges there. But I must say, our solution providers, the technology companies, have really stepped up and helped our industry figure out how to do this.
So there's been some tremendous strides made with using technology, driving the cost down, because again, a lot of companies look at this as a cost, but they also look at it as an investment in the future of their business, to have traceability. So it's gone quite well on supply side. And now when we get to the final hurdles, and that is the trading partner on the buy side, and their distribution systems, have got to be set to record and store this information.
Some of the challenges they've had, a lot of it is due to consolidation and as they consolidated companies, they did not, necessarily, consolidate their IT systems. So they're running different systems. And now they've realised that they need to bring these systems together so that they can record and store this information because those last miles are also very important, once product gets into the distribution chain and knowing where it is. What we're trying to do is give visibility to that product. So if there is a challenge with the product or a suspected product needs to be removed from the marketplace, we can do it surgically. And it's so very important.
Now that enough time has gone by and our buy side trading partners are adjusting their systems and making very large investments, because they do look at it as an investment because they're going to have to track and trace all of their food products. It's not just produce. So again, they've brought in dairy, deli, seafood, meat, all of these parts of the supply chain are going to use the same type of systems. And so now we're starting to see the traction where the buy side is saying great, we now can use the information so make sure that you are labelling each case. And we do have retailers now here in the states that have put our deadlines that their suppliers must be PTI compliant. If not, they need to communicate on when they can be compliant. And if they're not making the proper strides, they literally may no longer use that supplier unless they're PTI compliant.
So we've seen some great strides. We've seen great results. The visibility that the produce traceability initiative is able to provide is tremendous. The label on the case itself is quite important. As I mentioned earlier, when there are claims or disputes, one can now take a digital picture of that label which includes all of the pertinent information down to the lot number, so that when you're exchanging that information there's clear documentation that we're all dealing with the same product, the same lot. So there's a lot of what I guess I would say unintended positive consequences when dealing with produce traceability. So we're quite excited as we finish out 2013 with some announcement from retailers that in 2014 they anticipate to be 100% PTI compliant. And we're very excited to see this happen for the good of the industry.
Cold Chain IQ: Does traceability or the need for traceability differ between smaller and large scale distribution?
D Vache: That's a great question and one that has often surfaced. What we like to say is that pathogens do not decide that they're going to pick on one size of operation. They also don't pick on whether it's going to be conventional product, whether it's organic, everyone that produces fresh produce must be involved in food safety and traceability. As we found out back in 2006 when we had the spinach issue here in the States, and the whole spinach industry collapsed within a matter of days because, number one, we couldn't trace the source. Number two, it was spinach, and so whether you were in California or the state of Pennsylvania as a spinach grower, immediately you lost all of your market. So you had to dig under very good crops from coast to coast that were in prime condition, but we always have to keep the consumer in mind. That they were wary of anything spinach.
And so, unfortunately, that collapsed, and whether it was a small grower or large grower, it doesn't matter. When the media tends to find something and they put it on the front page that we have a food safety issue, it may not have all the facts up front, because we don't have whole chain traceability at this time. So there can just be portions, as we found out. At one time, they thought it was tomatoes were the culprit in the food recall. But quite honestly, the culprit was peppers that were put into a salsa with tomatoes, and so it wasn't tomatoes after all. So again, we have to make sure that we're very accurate and traceability is going to give us that visibility to make sure that when there is an outbreak, and unfortunately there is always risk with produce, so if you ask any food safety expert they'll say yes, you've never had a problem with this commodity specifically yet, because there is always an opportunity due to the nature of the freshness of the product that it can be compromised at some point in the supply chain and cause us issues.
So all in all, we're very thrilled with the way the PTI has moved. It's been moving, as I like to say at times, at a glacial speed, but we are making progress and once the trading partners on the buy side have their systems in place, we will see it move fairly rapidly because the supply side has done a tremendous amount of work to be prepared for the request to label each case of produce.
Cold Chain IQ: What are your predictions for the future of food traceability?
D Vache: We are at the case level only with the produce traceability initiative. I see more and more packaged produce here in the States. We're seeing more and more of that, which makes it easier, rather than bulk produce, to have traceability. There certainly are new bar coding systems now that you can obviously literally put on a piece of fruit, whether it's an apple, a pear, packaged goods, to get down closer to the consumer level. That will take some time to get established, but we know that the capabilities, technology wise are out there. So eventually you may see that we can trace whether it's an apple, whether it's a cantaloupe, piece of citrus, a head of lettuce. That we may be able to track that down to the item level. Right now, we're just at the case level, through distribution, but we do see a lot of new technology coming along that will enhance the traceability of product.
And what that does, the ultimate here is the consumer. We must make sure the consumer always has confidence whether they go into a store or a restaurant, when they're consuming our fresh product, that they have confidence that we've done everything imaginable to date that we can to protect their best interest as far as health goes. So we really see that there's going to be some changes as we establish the taste level traceability in getting down to the package or bulk eventually getting there with the new technologies that are really surprisingly wonderful. Right now they're a little expensive, but as we all know, it's the first ones that are the most expensive. As we move towards this path, we'll see the new technology take over, and I think we'll be very surprised at what we can do for traceability in the future.
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