Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel
Food Safety Attorney

Five Things to Look for in a Trading Partner

By Shawn K. Stevens
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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

Don’t let your supplier’s food safety issues become your problem.

Any ready-to-eat food product is only going to be as safe as the ingredients used to manufacture it. Unfortunately, most companies spend most of their money and time focused on broadening their customer base at the expense of properly screening new or existing suppliers. These companies fail to recognize that the single most significant threat to their company is failing to avert a potentially disastrous supplier problem that is lurking just outside of view. Whether your supplier has an inadequate food safety system or a poor food safety culture, such failures can cause your supplier’s products to become contaminated with deadly pathogens. In turn, if you are sourcing any products from that supplier, its food safety problems will inevitably become your own.

So, what should you do to ensure that your supplier’s food safety problems do not become your own?  Over the past two decades, I have witnessed countless food safety failures cause countless more outbreaks and recalls. Most of these outbreaks and recalls could have been avoided by the companies that were affected simply by taking a few extra precautions. Thus, throughout the years, I have developed the following recommendations that all companies who manufacture or sell ready-to-eat products should follow when they are screening new or existing suppliers.

First, visit each of your suppliers’ facilities and make sure that they are producing your products in a clean and sanitary environment. If the facility is old, worn and has significant maintenance issues, consider moving to a different supplier. Poor facility construction, or the failure to maintain a cleanable and sanitary environment in weathered facilities, remains one of the most significant causes of product contamination. Microorganisms can take hold and easily find residence in older facilities that are not being appropriately maintained. In turn, once harmful pathogens become entrenched in environments that are difficult to clean and sanitize, it becomes extremely difficult to root them out.

Second, make certain that each of your suppliers have a robust environmental monitoring program. The only way for your supplier to prove to you that its sanitation program is effectively controlling microorganisms in the environment is to test and to test often. Unfortunately, many suppliers’ testing programs are woefully inadequate because the suppliers test too infrequently or only after cleaning and sanitation. As a result, in addition to requiring that each of your suppliers implement a robust sampling program, you should also require each of your suppliers to sample their food processing environments at least three to four hours into production. This way, they will always have an accurate picture of the sanitary conditions of the processing area during production.

Third, be sure to only partner with suppliers who are willing to test their finished products before selling them to you. If a supplier has confidence in its sanitation and monitoring programs, then that supplier should be willing to test the products it is selling you. If, however, your supplier refuses to test its finished products, it signals that the supplier does not believe it is able to produce a ready-to-eat product that is consistently free from contamination. Thus, if you ask your supplier to test its ready-to-eat products for the presence of harmful pathogens, and it refuses, immediately take your business elsewhere.

Fourth, inquire about your supplier’s suppliers. Remember, a platoon is only as fast as its slowest runner. If any supplier in the distribution chain has a problem, that problem will affect every company located downstream from the failure. Thus, be sure to get a commitment from each one of your suppliers that it will impose the same requirements on each of its own suppliers, and then verify that your supplier is actually doing what is promised.

Fifth, make sure only to do business with those suppliers that can demonstrate they have a strong food safety culture. The best way to judge the strength of a supplier’s food safety culture is by inquiring about the structure and credentials of the supplier’s food safety team. If the person in charge of food safety for the supplier is well credentialed, has deep experience, and is supported by a well-qualified team, that demonstrates that the supplier takes food safety seriously. If, however, the supplier does not have a food safety director, his or her resume is weak, and he or she does not appear to have adequate support, then the company likely lacks any food safety culture whatsoever. In this case, it would be advisable to find an alternative supplier that has invested in the right people and put them in the right positions.

In the end, the best way to protect your products and brand is to only use suppliers that are appropriately vetted and screened. If you commit to only using suppliers that have invested in clean and sanitary facilities, robust environmental and finished product testing programs, and strong food safety cultures, then you will likely be able to virtually eliminate the chances that your products will be associated with an outbreak or recall. If, however, you choose to leave your suppliers’ food safety performance to chance, your suppliers problems (and, they will have problems) will inevitably become your own.

Shawn Stevens will be speaking during a webinar on this topic, Contracting With a New Trading Partner? Here’s Your Risk-Reduction Checklist, May 2, 2017, 1–2pm ET. Register now.

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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

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