business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In many ways, Washington, DC, is the place common sense goes to die. So it’s surprising, even somewhat shocking, when a good idea finds the light of day there.

Yet it happened recently, when business and consumer groups came together for a symposium on food safety. The theme of the day, however shocking this may sound, was to stop the finger pointing on food safety and to start working for some cooperative progress.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say the problem was solved in the day-and-a-half long symposium called Cooperating for Food Safety. In many ways, it’s even hard to measure the success of the meeting other than the simple fact that it happened. Yet, in this case, that’s a first step to be respected.

Getting food safety right and making sure that every element of the food chain gets in line—from the farm all the way to the fork—isn’t a new or easy dream. But action certainly beats inaction. The challenge facing the coalition is turning the rhetoric into activity and the activity into success. Given the multi-faceted nature of food safety that is one enormous task. Luckily, the quality of players in the coalition makes you think it’s possible.

Had I been a significantly better student of science many years ago, I might honestly feel a better sense of the root causes of food safety and the potential solutions to help. That isn’t the case. Yet, having spent much of my career in journalism, there is one element of this problem where I feel more comfortable making a comment and it’s an area that is increasingly problematic: Explaining this complex story in a way the media might actually get it and help consumers do the same.

There was a clear example of this problem that I had the easy job of demonstrating at the food safety meeting. The Washington Post, which almost daily runs a product recall column, listed the recall of an item sold by Kroger on the day of the meeting. There were only two problems with that item. First, Kroger had actually recalled the items days before the small article ran and, secondly, Kroger has no stores in the Washington metropolitan area. In other words, what was the point of the article?

Actually, the point was simple. It was a reminder that food and product safety is a top of mind issue right now. It was a reminder that problems are being found week after week. Most importantly, it was a reminder that food safety is almost always discussed as a “gotcha” issue, and rarely in calm reasoned terms helping readers understand how the system works and how to make sure they are taking the right steps themselves.

And that’s the challenge. Getting food safety right is a big industry issue. It’s about systems and audits and standards that run consistently through the food supply chain. It’s about building protocols about how to eliminate problems and how to react when a problem is located. The importance of that cannot be understated.

But it’s also about how to communicate this important story better than ever before. It’s about how to teach consumers about their responsibility when it comes to food safety so that the home kitchen becomes just as strong a part of this new world as any farm, factory or store. It’s about educating every employee of the food industry on his or her role, so that at every step food safety is Job One.

Danny Wegman, who was the keynote speaker at the symposium, has frequently talked in the past about the need for business to understand that there are places to compete and places to cooperate. On food safety, cooperation and communication are the way.

Let’s see what steps happen next.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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