Continuing on our journey to bring you the successes, best practices, challenges and accomplishments from the very best in this industry, this month I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Robach, vice president, corporate food safety, quality & regulatory for Cargill. Mike joined Cargill in January 2004 to lead the company’s corporate food safety and regulatory affairs programs. In this role, he helps partners innovate and manage risk so they can feel empowered to nourish the world
Mike has also worked closely with the USDA and FDA regarding food safety policy, HACCP, and regulatory reform based on science. He serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists and the International Association of Food Protection, among many other organizations dedicated to ensuring safe food and bringing innovative technology into the agricultural industry. He has worked with the World Organization of Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on harmonized animal health and food safety standards.
Mahni Ghorashi: What are the biggest risks to our food safety infrastructure in 2018? What’s keeping you up at night?
Mike Robach: The biggest risks I see have to do with supply chain integrity and how companies implement their systems. Too often we do not have line-of-sight to the origin of the commodities and ingredients that make up our products. With global supply networks it’s important to understand where and from whom you are getting your inputs. There is also a need for food safety capacity building throughout the global food system. Many small and medium companies, along with some large companies, do not have the proper training for their employees to manage a food safety program. We also have an issue with constantly changing regulations that are not uniform from country to country, adding risk to our business.
Ghorashi: What are you most excited about? What’s changing in a good way in the food safety sector?
Robach: I am very excited about the application of new technology to our food safety programs. In-line, real-time testing gives an opportunity to manage our processes and make immediate adjustments to assure process control. This allows us to prevent product that is out of control from reaching the marketplace. Blockchain technology gives us the chance to drive greater transparency throughout the supply chain.
Ghorashi: Let’s talk about regulation. How is the implementation of FSMA going? Do you foresee any challenges with the next phase of implementation?
Check out last month’s Q&A with Frank Yiannas of WalmartRobach: I think FSMA implementation is going okay right now. There’s still a long way to go, and I am always concerned about making sure investigators are applying the rules and regulations in a consistent manner. I see the intentional adulteration rule as an upcoming challenge. It is one thing to conduct a vulnerability assessment and adjust your programs based on the results. It’s another to develop and implement a program that will prevent intentional adulteration as you would to reduce or prevent microbiological contamination.
Ghorashi: If you take a look at the homepage of Food Safety News, all you see is recall after recall. Are transparency and technological advancement bringing more risks to light and are things generally trending towards improvement?
Robach: I believe that food safety management programs are constantly improving and that our food is as safe as it has ever been. However, we still have a lot of work to do. At GFSI, we are continually improving our benchmarking requirements and increasing transparency in the process. We have better public health reporting and our ever-improving analytical technology allows us to detect contaminants at lower and lower levels. The industry is working collaboratively to share best practices and promote harmonized food safety management systems throughout the supply chain.
Ghorashi: What is the number one challenge of securing global supply chains for 2018?
Robach: Knowing and understanding the integrated supply chain. Having knowledge and control of the process from origination to consumption would be ideal. We need the implementation of risk-based, harmonized food safety management systems based on the principles of Codex. Assuring the application of these systems along with properly trained employees to implement these programs would be the first step towards a secure, safe global food system.
Ghorashi: How do international trade deals and the stance of the current administration affect the future of food safety policy?
Robach: International trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and NAFTA can do a lot for the assurance of safe food around the world and within regions. Making sure that food safety provisions are included in these trade deals can drive the implementation of food safety management systems that will ensure safe food for consumers everywhere. These types of deals should allow us to remove technical barriers to trade by basing the requirements on Codex principles and adhering to the WTO SPS agreement.
Ghorashi: What role is blockchain technology playing in food safety? What are the prospects for the future?
Robach: Blockchain has a role to play in driving more transparency across the integrated supply chain. It can allow companies to show consumers where their food comes from. It can also be used to quickly trace back product in the event of a food safety problem. Still, it’s an enabling technology, not a solution.
Ghorashi: What about CRISPR? How is the food industry starting to respond to this technology from both a policy and GMO screening?
Robach: Gene editing holds great promise and many companies are looking at its potential benefits. However, there is always the policy question on whether or not the use of this type of technology should be labeled. I think the food industry has not done enough to promote the use of technology and how food production has improved over the years. We should let consumers know how we apply science to making food safer, more nutritious and more sustainable. At Cargill we have the vision of being the leader in nourishing the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.
Ghorashi: What trends are you seeing in food safety processes within food companies? Are they becoming more decentralized? Less? How are they balancing innovation with decades-old food safety practices?
Robach: Through the Global Food Safety Initiative, we have promoted harmonized, risk-based food safety management systems. The GFSI-benchmarked certification programs provide an opportunity for companies to implement consistent food safety programs regardless of where they are in the world. Through the GFSI Global Market Program there’s a tool kit that less sophisticated companies can use as a pathway towards full certification. We are constantly updating the benchmarking requirements to assure they are keeping up with changing science and technology.