One of the hallmarks of protecting the fresh produce supply is a concept known as “buyer-driven” food safety controls. In the absence of regulations, the produce industry has been working under private standards drafted by the major buyers of produce, meaning the large retailers-the major supermarket chains. While the need to satisfy the retailer that foods supplied to them are safe, retailers themselves have been less than effective in ensuring that the people they commission to buy for them, their own “buyers”, only deal with operations with acceptable food safety systems.

This means that many, if not most retailers, will buy produce from firms that have not been verified by competent third parties or by the retailers themselves (second party verification), when it is opportune for them to do so. For a revealing piece on this issue see The Perishable Pundit:

The sad truth is that when buyers can get produce from a vendor at a cheaper price, the requirements for safety take second place.

Even worse, buyers utilize the unapproved firm as a lever to get the operator with a food safety system, and subsequently higher production costs, to lower their price.

Even small operations may invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in satisfying the strict rules of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Often, firms must hire food safety personnel due to the overwhelming amount of self-inspection and paperwork involved. Laboratories and auditors must be paid for. Many times there are requirements for structural improvements and maintenance, chemicals to clean and treat water and many other similar costs to be borne day in and day out by suppliers. Thanks to the attitude of the major retailers, these suppliers cannot typically charge more for their products, and must absorb the costs as best they can while trying to stay competitive.

It is unfair to say the least that buyers for the major retailers would use the lower priced unapproved supplier as leverage to keep down their costs. Instead of rewarding suppliers for diligent efforts that not only protect the retailer, but public health in general, they are causing animosity; many conscientious produce operators are indignant at the current double standard, but the fear of losing customers precludes most of them from expressing their exasperation.

"Food safety culture" is a much used phrase and one preached to the supply chain by many of the world’s largest retailers. Retailers should be reminded that food safety culture begins at home, and such talk becomes a mockery in the eyes of the producer when retailers say one thing and do another.

Not all produce firms have had an opportunity to be qualified by third party accreditation under any private scheme, but the population of certified firms is growing, Part of the reason for the shortfall is that the auditing firms performing such audits are themselves overwhelmed and lack the necessary manpower.

In order to maintain pressure on the supply chain, the buyers for the major retailers have set deadlines for compliance, but then have to announce that another grace period or extension has been granted. Some relatively large producers of fruits and vegetables have just decided that the retail communities demands for conformance with third party food safety standards is a bluff and carry on business as usual; and they find most retailers are willing to buy their products anyway, on the basis of price and quality.

Lawsuits involving the produce industry cost retailers many millions, however, too many are seemingly willing to take a chance as long as the short term economic benefit is there.

I am sure the food safety experts at the nation’s leading retailers cringe when their buyers go outside the approved supplier list, yet the corporate decision makers do not always value a food safety department’s input.

Again, this is not “food safety culture”, when a firm puts short term profits over safety and public health; this is the antithesis-corporate greed.

Such business practices are undermining food safety efforts and causing many a bitter attitude among firms who have invested millions over the years to satisfy the demands of retailers, only to have their competitors flaunt such food safety efforts and prosper.