No one would argue that food products should be safe, wholesome and nutritious. There’s also universal agreement that every food-chain sector plays a role in meeting that objective.

What’s less certain is the responsibility level of each sector and the routes to get such products produced and delivered day in and day out. Each sector tends to believe that there’s a lack of understanding about its procedures, and that others perhaps could do more.

While food-chain participants will say that food safety is the cost of doing business, and that it’s not to be used as a marketing advantage, consumers have their own ideas. Today’s consumers perceive natural, organic, hormone-free and antibiotic-free food products as being safer, healthier and more wholesome than conventionally produced products.

Consumers also play a significant and final role in terms of ensuring food safety, yet there are no regulatory, auditing or enforcement vehicles to see that they get it right.

Nothing has more long-lasting effects on consumers’ psyches than food-related illnesses and recalls. In a Deloitte Consulting survey, 57 percent of Americans said they’ve stopped eating certain foods temporarily or permanently because of recent recalls. Seventy-three percent said they believe food recalls have increased within the past year. Another 76 percent reported being more concerned about foods today than they were five years ago.

This year’s Responsible Pork Symposium asked three pork-chain representatives (see sidebar) to share their perspectives, ideas and concerns related to food safety. Here’s what they had to say.

Question: What food-safety issues are most important to consumers?

Bailey: Consumers expect that when they go to a supermarket and put a product in their basket it’s safe, wholesome and nutritious. They shouldn’t have to worry, but they do. They worry about what they saw on the evening news.

In mid-December, we did some nationwide polling — 600 respondents. We asked them (on a 0-to-100 scale) what is their confidence of food safety at their local store? They rated it around 54 percent to 60 percent, or about 20 percentage points lower than it was 18 months prior.

In late December, we told all suppliers that we are replacing our food-safety initiatives and asked them to follow the Global Food Safety Initiative Standards. Retailers around the world are embracing these risk-based standards.

Plunkett: Americans do not expect their food to make them sick, and that the government or industry is watching to ensure that’s true. They want to be confident that when they buy a product that it’s wholesome and safe to serve their families.

Burkgren: We’re all consumers, and we’ve likely all had a time when food made us sick. We don’t want that to happen with pork.

Question: How have you seen food-safety responsibilities shift?

Plunkett: From the consumer perspective, we’ve seen industry get on board. The important thing is that there’s not a debate about the need for food safety. There is some discussion over what the terms are, and who will regulate and validate them to ensure that food is safe.

CSPI is a member of a group called Alliance for a Stronger FDA, an industry/consumer group working together to see that FDA has the budget needed to ensure food safety. But really, there are all levels of responders, working on the goal of food safety. So I don’t see it as much of a shift as more that everyone is coming together.

Burkgren: The seriousness of the underlying issue requires trust among food-chain partners. Problems do arise anytime outside forces point to a specific group as being a problem; it sensationalizes the issue.

Within the chain there hasn’t been a shift in responsibility; rather it’s moved more toward partnering, working toward common ground and a constructive endpoint.

Bailey: Food safety is a shared responsibility among all of us. It’s not just private industry’s responsibility, but also the public’s responsibility, the government’s, state regulatory bodies and others. We have to do more to ensure customers have confidence in the food-safety standards that we have in the United States. We have a good USDA and FDA, but more should be done so customers believe that.

Question: What food-safety issues should be top of mind for pork producers?

Burkgren: Physical or chemical hazards within the product. A physical hazard would be something like a needle; chemical would be antibiotic residues. The third hazard is bacteria, specifically antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making it somewhere into the food chain. We’ve worked to address this on the farm — how to use antibiotics prudently and responsibly to avoid that type of hazard. Much of the work on the farm is risk mitigation and avoidance before the pig goes to market.

Plunkett: As an industry, you have to look at how you want to be regulated, how you want to ensure to the public that you are safe. We would say that you need a federal food-safety standard that is enforced, inspected and ensured; that it’s at least a minimum that the consumer can expect. From there you can work out other standards with your retailer.

Bailey: In animal agriculture everyone has to be aware of what’s going on at the federal level and be more involved, because it will have an impact.

Multiple retailers and multiple standards is one reason why Wal-Mart has gone to this global food-safety initiative. It’s not something that we own; it’s not proprietary. It’s really a convergence of standards, and the standards have to be accepted internationally.

Question: As a leading exporter, what should the U.S. pork industry focus on to maintain that role?

Burkgren: Certainly there can be some market differences. The tetracycline issue required to enter Japan is an example. But it does take some time to get such a standard addressed and filtered down to production. That raises the point that the farm feels very removed on an international level, until someone comes and says, you now have to remove a product.

So that’s a big communication issue, and sometimes people elsewhere in the chain don’t understand production-level processes. So, it’s a process of educating up the chain as well as down the chain, whatever the standards involve.

Bailey: Communication throughout the chain is important. But know that we try not to do these things in a vacuum, with a lack of understanding about production issues.

Question: How has the heightened awareness of antibiotic uses and resistance affected the market?

Burkgren: There is a lot of misinformation. On the farm producers and veterinarians take antibiotic use very seriously, with the Pork Quality Assurance program, the Prudent Use program for veterinarians, the Take Care program for producers. Using antibiotics responsibly is a priority. We can do more as far as educating the public; we have not done a good job of talking about antibiotic use and the importance of animal health and well-being on the farm.

Pluckett: The word “responsibility” is key. You need to make consumers aware of how and why you use antibiotics. But equally important, the producer using the antibiotics must actually use them responsibly and you have to verify that.

Bailey: Educating consumers is important, but understand that if there’s a consumer group that wants an antibiotic-free product, the retailer will provide it. Otherwise we become irrelevant to our customers.

What was once a small, niche market — natural and organic products — has grown dramatically. Wal-Mart has made a big foray into this area because our customers wanted it; if we hadn’t, we would have lost them to somebody else.

Question: Is there a relationship between consumers’ food-safety perceptions and how they spend their dollars?

Bailey: Talk about marketing food safety really scares me because food safety is an inherent right. We should not ask customers to pay more for a safer product; they should have full confidence in what they buy. They can pay more for other features if they want a natural product, organic product or cage-free product, but let’s not confuse that with food safety and ask them to pay more for it.

Plunkett: Safety should not be a value-added feature. We don’t want to say to the consumer “would you pay more for food safety, and if you don’t, we won’t give it to you.”

Burkgren: I agree. The other angle then is that the retailers shouldn’t market, say, antibiotic-free or natural products as being safer. There’s the implication that if it’s organic it’s a safer product, when in essence it’s not.

Bailey: There is the perception that organics or hormone-free products are safer. Companies should not make claims that aren’t true, but I’ll go back to consumer education. It’s incumbent on conventional agriculture to educate consumers about what you do and why, and address the claims being made.

Question: What’s your perception of cloned animals and where that issue may go?

Plunkett: FDA is able to make judgments about the science, but it can’t judge the ethics or people’s acceptance. It will need to be disclosed. Consumers have a right to make a judgment about the food they purchase.

Bailey: We would agree that it’s a labeling issue. Consumers don’t know much about cloning yet. Some do have real moral and ethical concerns. At this point, we’ve asked our suppliers to comply with the voluntary moratorium. There is a lot of work to be done from a traceability standpoint.

Burkgren: It’s probably good that there will be quite a time lapse before even the offspring of cloned animals will be available. There will be a huge education need. I’d say in 10 years, consumers won’t care if meat is cloned or not.

It does concern me that retailers take the knee-jerk reaction that they won’t allow products from cloned animals. Again, they have an opportunity to educate consumers. Also, when you start labeling foods you start raising questions in the consumers’ minds. We need to deal with it as a chain.

Question: What do you see as the pros/cons of a single food-safety agency?

Plunkett: That’s probably CSPI’s major issue. We support the Safe Food Act, which creates a single food agency. If you were given the power to create a U.S. food-safety system, would you recreate it with 15 different agencies and 35 different laws? It’s an odd-ball system. For example, if it’s a meat pizza, USDA’s responsible; for cheese pizza, it’s FDA. It’s a 1906 law, and I suspect that you’re not running the same business they were back then.

Burkgren: There are many questions as to whether we’d be better off with one agency or revising what we have. Before we turn Congress loose to create a new agency, we need to understand FDA’s shortfalls and what we can do to correct them.

Plunkett: We have a lot of reviews on FDA, and shortfalls have a lot to do with lack of funding and resources. We need to double FDA’s funding over the next two years, just to get it up to the standard it should be at now, then add a 5 percent to 8 percent annual increase.

Bailey: No question, FDA is under-funded. Some concern about developing a single food agency is that Washington doesn’t have a good track-record of unifying agencies.

Question: How can each pork-chain sector help educate consumers?

Burkgren: The National Pork Board is doing a good job, but if we look at it from the chain perspective, we can do a lot more partnering. Probably the best time to educate consumers is in the grocery store. From a production standpoint, we don’t have a lot of contact with consumers. But retailers could do a lot more, and partner with us to bridge that gap.

Plunkett: CSPI does consumer education. We have a Nutrition Action Health newsletter with 900,000 subscribers. That’s one way we’re trying to do some education.

Producers tend to demonize the press and feel that they have to protect their interests and themselves. The industry has to get producers more comfortable with the press and get your message out. Don’t deal with crisis as something to avoid, but rather that it’s an opportunity to explain what happened and what you’re doing to address it. So the consumer can see that you care about food safety.

Bailey: Every day we struggle with “how do we connect with consumers?” There is more that can be done in partnerships with industry and producers. But when you get more direct about specific industries, your opportunity gets limited. It’s not the retailer’s responsibility to educate the consumer about your industry and practices. Retailers try to make an impression in a few seconds to get a consumer to put a product in his basket.

Plunkett: You’ve got to put information in consumers’ hands. There are a lot of Web sites, but they are a pretty passive way to get information out. So you might consider basic handling and preparation instructions on the label. Your role is to give the consumer a product that’s safe to begin with.

Question: In terms of food safety, what does a responsible pork system look like?

Plunkett: If you’re designing the system from the ground up, it needs to have clear lines of responsibility for each supply-chain sector. Standards need to be universal and have some sort of oversight to allow a third-party reviewer  ensure that processes are met. At the farm level, having a written plan, like  Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, outlining what steps are taken to ensure that animals delivered to the processor are as safe as possible. Processors need to do the same thing, and the retailer needs to have a food-safety and product-handling plan. It also lets you look back across the chain to see where a problem occurred and make corrections. But that does require traceback capability. You have to know all the places and actions along the way. That gets into animal ID.

Burkgren: We need to have clear communication up and down the chain. We need to have transparency; on the farm we shouldn’t be doing anything that we’re afraid to show consumers. We also need transparency, accountability, responsibility between chain partners and to build trust, including with the consumer. 

Bailey: The status quo is not the answer or something that we should be satisfied with, and that applies to retailers, too. We have to be open to better handling techniques, cold storage and food supply-chain mechanisms. That’s for all food products, not just pork. Everyone in the supply chain needs to be open to changes.

Presenting the Panel

  • Tom Burkgren, director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which has 900 members. Among AASV’s tasks, it is responsible for educating swine veterinarians in swine health, welfare and food-safety issues.
  • David Plunkett, senior attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Food Safety Project. CSPI is a consumer advocacy organization, largely dealing with food-safety issues; his main duty is to lobby Congress on those issues. 
  • Tres Bailey, senior manager of agriculture and food, Wal-Mart Stores. Based in Washington, D.C., he focuses on public policy and food-related issues for Wal-Mart, which has 7,000 stores in 14 international markets, serving 200 million customers weekly.