business news in context, analysis with attitude

We had a story earlier this week about how Wegmans seems to be meeting some resistance from pro-union organizers as it expands in Maryland, and one MNB user yesterday wrote in that has the retailer has grown from being a small family-owned independent to a significant regional presence, it was just going to have to get used to it.

To which another MNB user replied:

Although I don't have first-hand experience with them, Wegmans sounds like a fine company that treats their people well. I agree with the MNB user that says they will become a union target as they gain notoriety. What reveals this person's strong pro-union sentiment though is the sentence "Just because they win a lot of awards and are very respected, doesn't mean that they shouldn't be held accountable for the decisions they make." What? The union is needed for them to be held accountable? For selling products from China, among apparently other things? The problem here isn't the concept of a union, but the bullying tactics of the union that will occur at a corporate level and a personal level with employees. If their people wanted a union, they sure know where to find one. Unfortunately for all involved, the union will try to force their way in any way possible - generally with lies and deceit. The union bosses would rather try to employ organizing techniques that draw out those anti-union employees rather than make an honest intellectual argument to convince them to join.

I agree.

MNB referenced a story yesterday from the Washington Post about how the “growing debate” about food safety has begun to focus on the fact that “companies increasingly are paying others to make the foods we eat - or the ingredients in them - and then selling it under multiple brand names.” Critics, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), say that this trend leads to less oversight and grater difficulty in tracing where products come from and how, in some cases, they became unsafe to consume. Industry defenders say, however, that this is just a coincidence.

I commented:

I would agree with industry defenders that there is no reason for manufacturers – no matter where they may be in the supply chain – to skimp on food safety measures. But just a coincidence that longer supply chains and more food safety problems have taken place at the same time? I think not.

It simply is logical to work under the premise that the more links there are in a chain, the greater the likelihood that one of those links might be flawed. And, quite clearly, there are flaws – or there wouldn’t be so many recalls in the news these days.

I’m not suggesting that the problems taking place in the supply chain are deliberate. I think some probably are a matter of laziness, some are simply human error, some are technological. But I also think that the same economic issues that motivate companies to outsource – the desire to drive costs and prices down, down, down – can lead to safety-related missteps as people try to push efficiency too far.

The challenge to the industry is to compensate for the lengthening supply chain. Making sure all the links are strong will be a responsibility that must be shared by retailers and manufacturers. Nothing less than consumer trust is at stake here.

MNB user Dale Tillotson responded:

Great comments on food safety.

An example. A cantaloupe is picked, packed and shipped from somewhere to a processing plant, in lets say, somewhere. It’s prepared into a container, packed, shipped on a truck and unloaded at a warehouse somewhere. From the warehouse it’s shipped to and unloaded at a store somewhere. After arriving at the store in somewhere it’s loaded onto a merchandising cart and finally rolled out to be displayed, somewhere on the sales floor.

I cannot count all of the opportunities for time and temperature problems that I just listed.

The best way to defeat all of these time and temperature problems, is to buy fresh and prepare yourself.

Oh, when preparing at home don't forget to wash your hands, and utensils, wear disposable gloves, use a clean cutting board ,and chill that melon down to 38 Fahrenheit.

This is an important point – the weakest link in the food safety chain traditionally has been after the consumer takes a product home. And yet, even if that’s where the problem is, the retailer gets the blame. Which means that retailers have to do a much, much better job of educating and training not just their employees, but their customers as well.

Another MNB user wrote:

I think that perception is affecting reality here. First, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has an agenda and jumps on any opportunity to support their extreme viewpoint (ALL companies are worried about is $$ and not the safety of their customers - government regulation is the answer, but the government is never doing enough). Unfortunately, a small portion of companies do stupid things to validate their viewpoint and give this organization a leg to stand on. Although this consolidation does drive down costs for all involved, it allows for the sharing of best practices and pooling of money for R&D, food safety, packaging, etc. I would argue that it makes those components even stronger. Don't forget that many times it is a company's name (brand identity) that is on the label. Does CSPI really think retailers want to mess with that?

Second, I think that the recalls look so much worse, since there may be 15 or 20 different names on the same product. Before generics and store brands, a recall of product from company A only involved company A. Now the same amount of food could be recalled under many different names. I agree that the number of recalls is disturbing, but money isn't the root cause of most. Although people think food safety is a well-established science, we are learning new information/techniques all the time. In the case of the spinach, there was some testing going on. Unfortunately, it was not being done in a way that caught the problem. As food processing/packaging techniques change, it may allow a new window of opportunity for specific pathogens. That is the future challenge.
KC's View: