The food retail industry, by nature, is a competitive beast, but if there is one area that unites all sectors and companies, it's the issue of food safety. Ensuring that the products on a retailer's shelves are not going to make their customers ill is vital for any business and the whole industry agrees that consumers need to have total confidence in product safety. As the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, David Byrne, puts it: "A safe food chain, from farm to fork, correctly regulated and effectively controlled, is the road to building confidence in European food supply." As a response to this, the Global Food Safety Initiative, a retailer-led scheme dedicated to the improvement of food safety worldwide, was spawned just over a year ago. Its objectives are: to enhance food safety; ensure consumer protection; and enhance consumer confidence while harmonising the requirements of food safety systems and improving cost efficiency. No small task. Food safety itself is a complex issue. According to Dr Jørgen Schlundt, of the World Health Organisation, big outbreaks are not the real problem: "Outbreaks are a visible thing, they are not such a problem. It's the sporadic cases that cannot be linked to each other that prove more difficult." And with the increasing complexity of the supply chain, food hazards can have a far greater impact on the modern world. Professor Larry Busch, director of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards, says: "The food-borne outbreak that remained confined to a village a century ago is now spread over thousands of kilometres by virtue of a vast global food distribution system." Therefore, ensuring overall food safety excellence is vital in the modern food chain. There are almost 150 standards and schemes for ensuring food safety around the world, and many suppliers have to deal with more than one system to satisfy retailer requirements. The Global Food Safety Initiative has drawn up a cri-teria with which to benchmark standards from around the world. Richard Fedigan, CEO of the international food business forum, CIES, says this isn't about adding to that confusion. "This is not about introducing yet another standard, there are more than enough out there already," he explains. "We don't feel there's any advantage in introducing a new standard. We want to bring about co-ordination and benchmarking. At the moment if someone waves a bit of paper at a retailer which says that particular supplier is safe, how do they know if that is really the truth?" He says any standard matching the criteria or key elements of the GFSI's system will, basically, be certified as a good standard that retailers will then accept. The WHO's Dr Schlundt hopes it will lead to more transparency when it comes to food safety in the food chain. "There is a lot of unnecessary testing in the retail sector at the moment. People are finding out how much bacteria there is in a particular product, but that means nothing," he says. "We need to carry out tests which tell us how much salmonella there is in the food chain, and this can be done with a small amount of testing. I hope the GFSI will lead us in that direction." Tesco's trading law and technical director, John Longworth, says the initiative sends out a clear message to policymakers around the world that the whole of the food industry is united in its determination to tackle the issue of food safety. He adds that it will also mean a reduction in costs for suppliers. "With the proliferation of different standards out there, bringing clarity to the situation would make life a lot easier for the suppliers as well as saving money." And Safeway's Gavin Bailey, head of technical policy and strategy, says the initiative will give suppliers and retailers more time to concentrate on other issues. "It will allow us to put resources back into areas that have a competitive advantage, rather than concentrate so much time on one issue. It will free up buyers and others to focus on the quality of product, and that's what makes money. It will release them to work on product development." The CIES has produced a draft guide document, which was unveiled to the rest of the industry at the GFSI conference in Geneva recently. It identifies a number of key elements, including quality management systems, good practices in agriculture, manufacturing and distribution, and HACCP, an industry standard for assessing and controlling areas of risk. For an existing standard to be certified or endorsed by the GFSI, it would have to meet those key elements. However, some manufacturers at the conference felt they were presented with a fait accompli. Raymond Destin, director general of the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU, or CIAA, says he was not consulted before the draft document was drawn up. "We represent 22,000 companies around the world, yet we have not been consulted about it. This cannot be done in isolation from other players in the food chain," he points out. "Before they go to the final stage, we need to talk together about the technical aspects. If they go too far, we will be faced with something we've had no say about. "We are the suppliers, and we're saying please let's talk about it before you finish it. We need to discuss the areas where we might have question marks. We are open and looking to have a dialogue over this, so we're saying here we are, now it's really time to do it. "If you don't control the whole food chain, then you don't control food safety." The director of food safety for CIES, Hugo Byrnes, admits that some mistakes may have been made in communication, but insists that the draft document is still up for consultation and is not there to be forced onto suppliers by the retailers. "The conference was the chance to invite the manufacturers to join the initiative. If you don't have a paper to present, people say where is it? "No doubt we've made some mistakes, but I'm convinced we would have had difficulties whatever we did. But it's a learning experience and I hope we have sorted a few of those problems. The next challenge is to get support of the manufacturers." Byrnes adds that he was pleased with the way the conference went, although he says it is still a little too early to gauge reactions, he thinks people are receptive to the initiative. "I know from experience that it's easier to produce a document than to implement it, so there are still quite a few challenges along the way," he says. However, there is confusion over the scope of the initiative, and whether it is aimed solely at retailer own brands and fresh foods, or if it can include branded manufacturers as well. Byrnes says the GFSI concept was originally drawn up to focus on own brand products, but he claims it has moved beyond that. "The starting point was certainly retailer own brands and non-branded fresh foods, but we are now looking at what other food products this can be extended to, particularly branded goods. The starting point was own brand, but it's up to the retailer to apply the mechanics of this in other areas, like branded goods." This appears to be something of a grey area, though. Paula Mee, food and nutrition manager at Superquinn, thinks that the initiative will work for own label only. She says: "I don't think it can go as far as branded goods. We spend so much time dealing with our own brands, we can't go to the likes of Heinz. We don't have the right to tell them what to do." But Brian Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association, says the scheme has to include branded manufacturers for it to work. He says he had believed it would include the whole of the industry, right from the very start. "There was no discrimination when the issue was presented. Food safety is important for all products that appear on the shelves for consumers; the safety standards need to be the same for branded as they are for private label goods. Anyone who thinks branded manufacturers are not required to prove food safety is in for a rude awakening. It's ludicrous to think that branded products are safer than private label just because of the brand name." Sharoff adds: "I'm positive that this will take in the branded manufacturers because anything less would mean the initiative is incomplete." However, the CIES's Byrnes acknowledges that although the initiative can be applied to smaller branded manufacturers, retailers would find it difficult with the bigger companies. Sharoff echoes this: "The companies that will get squeezed most by this will be the smaller and medium branded manufacturers. They're not big enough on their own and don't have the long term relationship with the retailers to help them through it." Another point of contention is the auditing of retailers to ensure their safety standards are up to scratch. Byrnes says this will be looked at, but some retailers are reluctant to commit themselves. Safeway's Bailey admits that although it is behind the initiative when it comes to suppliers, it is not convinced it needs extending to retailers. "It all depends on whether it adds value or not. We already have third-party auditing, and introducing a new system will add costs, which in the end will affect the consumer when it comes to price. We have to be convinced that it would be worthwhile. Everything we do has costs, and essentially we are spending the consumers' money and we've got to make sure we're spending it right." But again opinion remains divided. As Mee points out: "Some retailers might not want this extending to the shops, but there's no point having food safety at the manufacturing stage if it falls down in the shop." Professor Busch also warns retailers to be careful about driving smaller suppliers out of business. He says they will have to work closely with suppliers in developing nations. If those suppliers are pushed out by the new regulations, not only will those areas suffer, but so too will the retailers. "If the effect of the GFSI pushes small suppliers out of business, then development of poorer countries will be adversely affected," says Busch. "Retailers will then be limiting their potential for growth in those areas, and the developing nations are where most of their growth is going to be ­ after all, they are the supermarket shoppers of the future." So despite all the wranglings and difficulties, GFSI rumbles on. It may be some time before the initiative is fully implemented, although a time scale is expected to be drawn up at the next CIES meeting in November. But as Dr Patrick Wall, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, points out, whatever happens, the industry has to ensure food is safe. "People have to take responsibility for food ­ if you kill someone with your car you don't blame the police for not catching you." n {{COVER FEATURE }}