Food Makers Say They Won’t Overreact to Safety Scares

A string of high-profile food safety scares has heightened government and consumer concerns about the U.S. food supply, but top food companies say they have felt little need to react dramatically to those events because their quality standards are already so rigorous.

In the last two years, food safety debacles involving peanut butter, spinach and other products have intensified pressure on lawmakers to protect the nation’s food supply.

Most recently, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co in California conducted the largest meat recall in U.S. history last month after videos showed fallen cattle being forced into the plant for processing, a violation of federal regulations. No illnesses were linked to the recalled beef, but the concern is that there is a greater risk of E.coli contamination in beef from disabled, or downer, cattle.

At the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago this week, Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, warned that the nation’s food safety system “could be just one incident away from some catastrophic event … If there was an additional crisis, it might be at the breaking point.”

Companies attending the summit, however, argued that the U.S. food supply is extremely safe and that they have spared no expense to make sure their products do not make people sick. After all, safety scares are not only disastrous for sales, they can also create situations where recovery is impossible.

“We don’t have the option of not doing everything we can to supply safe food to the marketplace,” said Joe Sanderson, chief executive of chicken company Sanderson Farms Inc.

The Bush administration is weighing proposals that would toughen government standards on food safety, including giving the FDA the power to order a mandatory recall of food. The Agriculture Department’s Richard Raymond, the undersecretary who oversees its Food Safety and Inspection Service, said at the summit that his department is also toughening its standards, in part by testing more pieces of meat before they go off to become ground beef.

Retailers are also becoming choosier. Wal-Mart Stores Inc , for instance, said last month that suppliers of its store brand and perishable foods must comply with Global Food Safety Initiative standards, which go beyond the current audit process required by the USDA.


Still, companies attending the summit said they aren’t worried about toughening standards due to their already high expectations of themselves.

“The obsession to deliver high-quality products has always been there since this group began,” said Juan Carlos Dalto, chief executive of Dannon Co, a unit of French yogurt maker Groupe Danone. “We are not reacting in any particular mode to anything new.”

Some also said the recent recalls, while high profile, should not be used to gauge the safety of the country’s overall food supply.

Pizza delivery chain Papa John’s International Inc said recent incidents have, if anything, served to reinforce existing standards rather than create new rules.

“We haven’t changed it, we just apply it very consistently,” Papa John’s Chief Executive Nigel Travis said when asked if the company had altered its practices.

Nut processor Diamond Foods Inc said it has even benefited from the increased attention its retail customers are now paying to food safety because it is an area that sets it apart from lower-priced competitors.

“We believe that in a time when there is pressure from low-cost vendors, food safety is a security that a vendor of our caliber can provide to our retail partners that perhaps other vendors can’t,” said Diamond Foods CEO Michael Mendes.

Many food makers, even ones that have faced product recalls, said their food safety rules already go above and beyond what the government requires of them.

“With very very little exception, the food industry is extremely responsible when it comes to food safety,” said Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods Inc, adding that the company’s safety standards are “greater than any regulators would demand of us.”

ConAgra spent about $30 million to upgrade its Peter Pan peanut butter facility after a recall last year related to salmonella contamination.

Rodkin said he is against the FDA having mandatory recall authority because most companies comply when asked to recall tainted products voluntarily. As far as feeling the heat from regulators and others, however, Rodkin said the most pressure ConAgra feels, even in the wake of a big recall, is internal.

“There is certainly much more visibility to the issue,” he said when asked if ConAgra was feeling pressure from consumer groups and others to raise its standards. “I’d say the pressure on us is more self-imposed.”

(For summit blog: (For more on the Reuters Food Summit see [ID:nN14376471])

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by John Wallace)