Western agriculture quakes in its boots each time a food safety breach shakes sturdy foundations built by proactive, farm-to-fork-based industry efforts.

The E. coli outbreak in California-grown spinach in 2006, salmonella in California almonds in 2004, and a suspected salmonella contamination in California pistachios in 2009, generated Food and Drug Administration recalls. Breakdowns in food safety rapidly erode consumer confidence in the food supply which typically causes consumption to plummet.

Achieving food safety requires a “village” of efforts across the food chain, according to speakers at a food safety seminar at the Almond Industry Conference in Modesto, Calif., in December.

Accountability at the grower, processor, handler, and retail levels is necessary to preserve consumer health and confidence, and maintain a “social license” (freedom to operate) for businesses.

“Today whether your role in the almond industry is a grower, processor, or packager you want to protect your freedom to operate,” said Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity, a national non-profit organization in Kansas City, Mo. “Maintaining the social license is very, very important.”

The social license-freedom to operate is granted by the public. Public trust is a belief that the activities of a company or industry are consistent with social expectations, community values, and other stakeholders. Food safety breakdowns breach the trust.

“Food safety is non-negotiable; it is a requirement for everyone in the food system,” Arnot said. “You have to earn and maintain the social license every single day by demonstrating your commitment to shared values and scientific verification. There is significant economic value in doing that.”

When jeopardized, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover a social license, Arnot says. Crossing the tipping point can lead to more social control through increased regulation, legislation, litigation, compliance requirements, and operational costs.

If safety efforts ensure a healthy supply of food, the production process is allowed to operate to achieve maximum profit potential. If a food safety breach occurs, society delivers repercussions. A food safety breakdown can impact a food industry and place a retailer’s branding in jeopardy.

Arnot says the California almond industry has a proactive history of education, best management practices, certifications, and self-policing. The industry is ahead of the curve on sustainability and always tracks emerging issues.

The 2009 California pistachio recall is the latest major food safety scare in the West. Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc., Terra Bella, Calif., voluntarily recalled roasted shelled and in-shell pistachios over possible salmonella contamination. No illness was reported.

Dave Szeflin, vice president of operations for Paramount Farms, Lost Hills, Calif., discussed the recall during the food safety seminar. He highlighted how the pistachio industry quickly united to minimize damage to the overall industry. Paramount Farms is the largest grower of almonds and pistachios in the world and was not involved in the actual recall.

“By sheer size the entire pistachio industry was implicated in the recall,” Szeflin said. “It was devastating for our industry. The FDA Web site basically said do not eat pistachios.”

The pistachio recall was precedent setting, Szeflin says, since the FDA recall took aim at all pistachios, not a single brand or company. To minimize industry damage and work to preserve its social license, the pistachio industry asked the FDA to clarify its message; not all pistachios were involved in the recall.

When the FDA refused, the pistachio industry developed the Web site www.pistachiorecall.org to list those companies and brands not included in the recall. The FDA later provided a link from its Web site to the pistachio industry’s recall site.

The FDA sent a letter to the pistachio industry outlining expected changes to keep the possible pistachio contamination from happening again. The pistachio industry agreed to implement a handful of new procedures addressing sanitation operating procedures and roasting processes, plus raw product tests.

“Processors spent millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities,” Szeflin said. “We probably have a 5 to 10 percent ongoing cost increase to comply with the new sanitation and testing programs.”

Szeflin agrees food safety is a must for every step in the food chain; it is not just the processor’s responsibility. He is critical of how the FDA managed the pistachio recall.

“I think the public debate on the recall when there was no illness linked to pistachios starts to hurt the FDA’s credibility when it comes to large recalls,” Szeflin said. “I believe FDA has the power to have the same affect through dialogue. In the end it would have cost the pistachio industry a lot less (money) to get to the same place.”

Also on the food safety panel was Christine Summers, director of food safety and quality assurance with Costco Wholesale, an international discount chain of membership warehouses.

Summers discussed results from a recent IBM study which measured consumer attitudes on food safety. Among the results were 83 percent of the respondents could name a recalled product in the last two years. Surprisingly 8 percent said they’d never buy the product again.

“That’s concerning to a company like Costco,” Summers said. “We have 28 million households that carry Costco cards; two people per household; that’s 56 million people. Eight percent of 56 million people is a lot of people and we can’t afford to lose sales to that many people. It’s incumbent upon Costco to do something to protect consumer loyalty.”

Food safety is a high priority at Costco to protect its customers and company branding. The company’s goal is to keep its food safety efforts invisible.

“We want mom to come in and shop and not think about whether the items they are buying are safe. It shouldn’t even cross their mind,” Summers said. “If it does then we are not doing our job right. When (recall) occasions happen, how you deal with those situations is how you maintain trust and loyalty.”

Summers says Costco can implement a product recall in its stores literally within minutes.

“If we have a recall or think there may be an issue with a product even before a recall is announced then we immediately block that item from sales,” Summers said.

“No customer can leave the store with the item in their basket.”

Costco, which has members’ phone numbers and addresses on file, can call about 875,000 members per hour if necessary.

“It takes a long time to build trust and to gain customer loyalty,” Summers said, “but it can take a split second to lose it.”

Charlie Arnot summarized the importance of a quick response time by industry if a recall occurs.

“Any time there is a crisis we talk about the golden hour; you have about one hour to begin filling the information vacuum before someone fills it for you,” Arnot said.

“You tell them what you know, what you don’t know, and when more info will be available.”

Providing accurate and timely information places a company in a better position to manage the issue, Arnot says.

email: cblake@farmpress.com