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PARIS – The fifth annual CIES International Food Safety Conference convened here this morning, with a heavy emphasis on transparency and the need to bridge the gap between scientific processes on one end and effective communication with consumers on the other.

On a cold and gray Parisian morning, almost 500 delegates from 41 countries gathered at the Sofitel Rive Gauche to listen to a number of speakers address these issues from a variety of angles.

• Chris Anstey, Tesco’s corporate product integrity manager and chairman of the Global Food Safety Initiative, said that the level of commitment to food safety was reflected in the number of people who were attending the conference. “Six years ago,” he said, “the world’s food retailers did not collaborate on food safety. Now they do.” And, he said, “we can start to see food safety issues for what they really are, incidents that affect everyone,” especially in a world of open borders and largely free trade.

• Sean Summers, CEO of South Africa’s Pick ‘N Pay, drew a graphic picture of the specific food safety challenges in his home country, noting that South Africa is both a first and a third world county, a developed economy and an emerging market. He said that his responsibilities in the food safety area became very clear in 2003 when Pick ‘N Pay was hit with an attempt to extort it for money by a criminal using poisoned product as leverage. “This taught me just how fragile our business is,” he said about his experience navigating the company through very tricky waters. “It can take 40 years to build a reputation, 100 years to build a reputation, and just one second and one wrong decision to lose it.” In dealing with the potential scandal, he said, “there was just one simple dictum. Tell the truth. No matter what, and irrespective of what the consequences might be.”

Summers said, “We came out of this as a better company,” but that it made him “painfully and fully aware of our responsibilities to our people – our customers, our employees and our suppliers.”

• Roland Vaxelaire, director of Quality, Responsibility and Risk Management for the Carrefour Group, described how food safety initiatives around the globe are being challenged by “new methods of communication, new methods of buying, and new concerns about nutrition.” He noted that better informed consumers increasingly will insist “on quality and safety in the food chain,” and that companies will have to be more creative in how they source products to meet the growing needs of an expanding and diversifying population base.

• According to Jean-Francois Narbonne, a professor of food toxicology at France’s Bordeaux University, part of the problem is that in an economic environment in which “customers are looking for lower prices,” often “the result is lower quality.”

Narbonne also highlighted the tension that exists between science and politics in the food safety area, and how the results of such tension often are unsatisfactory. “Acceptable risk is not a position taken by scientists,” he said. “It is a position taken by people and politicians. But because politicians often don’t want to take a position, it often is then determined by the courts.” This meant, he suggested, that companies need to be even more forthright in accepting their responsibilities in the food safety arena, especially because “crisis management by politicians is almost never related to consumers.”

• This position seemed to be contradicted a bit by Robert J. Lawless, chairman/president/CEO of McCormick & Co., who said that safety is not so much the avoidance of risk as the managing of risk factors to the point where they had a low probability of occurrence. But, he said, “tolerable risks are based on what people are able to pay.”

• Hans Johr, corporate head of agriculture at Nestle, spoke to the importance of integrating food safety concerns into discussions of supply chain efficiency. “Using new IT tools will both decrease cost and decrease risk,” he said.
KC's View:
It was ironic that so much of the morning was spent focusing on communications issues, especially since Jonathan Grant-Nicholas, group communications director with the Greencore Group in the UK, said in his remarks that he was struck by the detail with which people at such conferences spoke about the science of food safety, but rarely with such detail when it came to discussing communicating with the public about such issues.

(It also is ironic because our presentation to the conference tomorrow focuses largely on communications issues. Go figure…)

We would make two points.

One is that we reject the notion that “tolerable (food safety) risks are based on what people are able to pay.” Perhaps it looks that way from the manufacturer’s point of view, but not from the consumer’s.

Another would be that we are not in synch with some of the comment made by Grant-Nicholas about communications issues. He said at one point that he was surprised that so many companies had a ‘crisis management’ team, since the use of such a team immediately communicated to the outside world that a crisis was underway. He also said that when one of his company’s factories was said to have an explosion that sent some debris onto the playground of a school next door, his immediate reaction – without knowing the details – was to say it was a “blow out” and not an explosion, and that it was “neighboring property” and not a school playground.

We do this for a living, and we can tell you that those kind of semantics don’t play well with reporters. In fact, most of us have a sort of antennae for those efforts to alter perceptions…and love to puncture it in print.

In matters of food safety and communications, it always makes sense to speak the truth. Sean Summers had it absolutely right.