There is a popular belief that the food industry is motivated entirely by profit, often at the expense of public health. Clearly, it would be foolish to argue that food manufacturers and retailers do not care about profit – no business that doesn’t make money is sustainable – but it is equally foolish to suggest that they do not care about their customers. If you want to make a living selling food you need people to come back and buy it again and again. They don’t do that if they get sick every time they eat your product, or they read stories about your cavalier attitude to food safety.
This is why the food industry has been consistently ahead of the legislators in terms of regulating food safety risks. Take HACCP for example – now the accepted standard system for managing food safety risks, but largely developed by industry and widely adopted by food businesses years before it became a legal requirement. A good illustration of this proactive approach is a new ‘position paper’ drawn up by the Global Food Safety Initiative, or GFSI. The paper recommends that the food industry needs to tackle the problem of food fraud, which it sees as a potential food safety issue, not just an economic problem. When criminals set out to make money from adulteration, substitution or counterfeiting of food, they often have little idea of the possible effects on public health. Horsemeat in burgers wasn’t dangerous, but melamine in powdered milk certainly was. So the GFSI thinks that manufacturers need to take action to protect consumers, specifically by assessing their vulnerability to food fraud and then by setting up a control plan.
This is significant because of its source. The GFSI was set up by a group of major retailers and manufacturers in 2000 to help tackle a lack of consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply. It has done this partly by working to improve the standard of food safety audits and moving towards harmonising the various food safety certification schemes that have sprung up over the last 20 years. Certification by schemes like the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety and the IFS Food Standard is now the preferred way for food businesses to demonstrate to their customers that they operate safely. But it’s important to pick the right certification scheme, and that effectively means one recognised by the GFSI. That is why any statement from the Initiative has important implications for the industry, especially when it is included in the guidance that advises the certification schemes what is expected of them if they want to keep their GFSI recognition.
As far as I know, there have been no concrete proposals so far to change the law so that food businesses have to address their vulnerability to food fraud. Yet an industry body is taking action that will effectively compel many businesses to do exactly that if they want to keep their food safety certification and continue to supply their biggest customers. Self-regulation may be a bit of a joke in some sectors, notably banking, but in the food industry there is plenty of evidence that it has improved food safety and will continue to do so. The reason is simple – protecting the consumer protects the business too.