“Food safety is not a competitive advantage” is one of the barf-worthy “feel good” messages you hear from food industry executives during speeches and public forums. Last week at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Houston, an audience of more than 1,150 from 54 countries heard this tired mantra repeated during a panel discussion featuring CEOs from Mondelez, Cargill, Tysons and Wegmans. The common theme espoused by the CEOs was that food safety is a given and it’s just the right thing to do. Under their flawed rationale, because food safety is mandated, it cannot be a differentiator. Huh? That’s like saying monogamy in marriage is a given. Sure, most brides and grooms pledge faithfulness, but hey, we all know cheaters gonna cheat.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t buy the food safety kumbaya message the CEOs were peddling. BBC business journalist Adam Shaw was the moderator for the panel and he grilled the CEOs to try to expose the fallacy that food safety is not a competitive advantage as nothing more than high-mindedness with altruistic notions, but the CEOs deflected his pointed questions and stayed on-message. I thought the song from the Lego movie, “Everything is Awesome” might start blaring from the sound system at any moment. What I cannot discern is if the CEOs really believe that food safety is not a competitive advantage, or do they feel compelled to say it to bolster confidence in the food supply.
I think we can all agree that consumers expect their products to be safe. Objectively, I think we must also agree that there are some companies in the food industry that simply do a better job of managing risk in their food safety system. As Warren Buffet once said, “Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” Have you ever read the warning letters issues by the FDA? There are plenty of food operators who either do not know what they are doing or their profits are more important to them than the safety of the products they produce.
Perhaps the real reason these CEOs say food safety is not a competitive advantage is because they are trying to trick us with some twisted reverse psychology technique. More likely they avoid positioning their company as having an extraordinary food safety system because you can never eliminate all risk, and a recall or foodborne illness outbreak could be lurking just around the corner. That logic is a little lost on me, but okay.
What about food safety as a competitive advantage in the business-to-business (B2B) environment? With all the transactions between ingredient suppliers, brokers, distributors, co-packers and manufacturers, there is often friction between vendor and customer over food safety standards and the underlying documentation. Who you do business with matters more than ever before, especially now that there is greater supply chain transparency and process control mandated by FSMA. According to Brian Perry, senior vice president, food safety & quality at TreeHouse Foods, he has had to drop suppliers who are not FSMA-compliant because they pose too much risk. Meanwhile, companies are willing to pay a premium for suppliers who have their food safety documentation in order and routinely deliver on time and within specifications. So at least in the B2B marketplace, we can see that food safety can definitely provide a competitive advantage.
Pesky undeclared allergens and foreign material find a way to sneak into food production. Unsanitary conditions are sometimes permitted and product is adulterated. Mistakes are made, stuff happens, and sometimes food makes people and animals sick or even leads to death. So please don’t tell me that food safety is a given! If you want consumers to have confidence in our food supply, then tell them what your company does to try to prevent stuff from happening. Consumers’ appetite for information and knowledge about the food they consume is at an all time high. If consumers care about GMOs or how ethically-raised, humanely-treated, or sustainably-produced their food is, isn’t it logical to think they care about how companies develop a culture of food safety, the technology they use, and how strictly they monitor their suppliers? In order to make food safety a competitive advantage, food companies need to show supply chain partners and consumers that transparency isn’t just a buzzword. They need to show how they are operationalizing transparency to elevate food safety as a corporate imperative. Share your food safety story and respect your consumers enough to make up their own minds about whether your food safety system sets your brand apart.
Well written and well said- this is exactly the problem even in the food B2B environment where it is used to avoid responsibility for product defects that lead to foodborne disease outbreaks (legal and marketing). A business can only survive if it has profit (any) and growth (to sustain low margins), and food safety IS a competitive advantage even at retail where a “sticky table” in a QSR can ruin a customers experience with food but also lead to a norovirus infection. When this mind set is changed in our industry (food safety = profit), we might see less need for FSMA enforcement, and more drive to use food safety systems already available.
Would love to have you write for our blog someday: https://www.thefoodsafetylab.com
Two points on your well-documented observation. Number #1) Now you understand what career food safety professional have to deal with, across all segments, all levels of business and organizations concerning the role food safety plays and what it means to “Take The Lead”, even if you are not going to get the credit for keeping it safe.
I have no doubt the prestige of speaking at “Events” like this, an opportunity to represent (as CEO) his organization, does not match the dedicated professions that deliver food safety on the operation level, day by day, keeping the food chain safe and profits flowing.
Number #2) You now also see the potential for growth and message for food safety professional to take the message of developing a “Culture of Food Safety”. What “high-mindedness with altruistic” do not realize is policy, process and regulatory conformity only represents, at best 30% of the food safety message. So they are 30% right, but if I was a betting man I would not put my money on what they know or represent of their food safety team.
Kudos for the good work you do with the Food Safety Lab. I look forward to collaborating with you in the future.
Excellent article. Thank you.
My thought is that the CEOs really don’t think safety is a marketing advantage because they are not experts in food, food law or food safety – they are executives of marketing programs that happen to involve food rather than executives of companies that provide food.
Thanks for writing such an honest article. I do not fully agree with some of the points raised. Rather than write a long comment here, I have written a blog post about it as I think it is a broad topic that lots of people are interested in. You can find it here: https://medium.com/@AlexBromage/is-transparency-part-of-food-safety-a-response-to-a-food-safety-tech-article-906341cec7a3#.18t2zg6bz
I would welcome further discussion on this as I think it is so crucially important to understand!
I felt that the CEOs that spoke at that event were speaking what they believed was true, at least from a marketing perspective. In some conversations with a coffee supplier about those statements after that session, their comment to me was “if X brand of coffee has a listeria outbreak, our sales suffer.” I don’t know this to be the case, but, I would imagine that the issues that Chipotle faced reduced the consumer’s confidence in quick service restaurants, so, as an industry, they all swim and sink together.
The competitive advantage comes in the implementation of systems that can identify and quarantine lots that have been maligned. Kind of like an old ERP system, organizations can spend lots of resources gathering and managing financial data, or, they can put in a state of the art ERP (or at least newer) system that enables them to quickly close their books at month/quarter/year end. The competitive (i.e. financial) advantage comes from having systems in place that can manage that efficiently, minimizing their impact in the market. Everyone assumes that food companies want to have safe products. It is how each producers deals with contamination that provides them with their competitive advantage.
I enjoyed reading your article.
I don’t buy into the message that ‘food safety is not or should not be a competitive advantage’ either. I do believe that if a food business is doing all that it can to have more effective controls to prevent poor outcomes, then it should shout about it.
I live in Wales, and here food businesses operate to the Food Hygiene Rating (Wales) Act.
If a business is awarded a food hygiene sticker with a high (e.g. 5 star) rating it can use this to differentiate itself from its competitors. Businesses can feel proud of their achievement and attract more customers, which should ultimately positively affect the bottom line.
The Food Standards Agency are actively encouraging businesses to use the rating as a competitive advantage by displaying the sticker in their marketing material. I’ve provided the link to the document from the FSA for you to read.
Implementation of this new Act has been an experiment in Wales and it appears from the evidence that it is working well and pushing up standards.