Special Report | February 2012 | By Sam Oches

The Foreign Exchange

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Imported foods pose a threat to consumers unless their safety is secured.
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“Based on the sheer volume, you can’t go in and physically look at everything,” Cianci says. “But 100 percent of the product that comes into the country is screened electronically, so we know what’s coming in. Of course, there is a finite amount of resources, there always is. And there is a lot of product.”

Many of the programs in FSMA also haven’t been implemented yet, and there may be funding issues to boot, says Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign for the Pew Health Group.

“We’re talking about at least three to five years until we see how this system works,” Eskin says. “We really need to see, No. 1, how the FDA implements it, and as importantly, No. 2, whether or not the agency gets enough funding to do the job it needs to do to enforce it.”

With holes remaining in the inspection process, and with the potential of situations like Taco Bell’s looming over quick serves, experts say restaurants should go an extra mile in ensuring the safety of their imports.

“If you’re in the restaurant industry and you are using an imported food product, I think you have so much at stake that [you] are doing a lot of what the government should be doing or could be doing,” says Melanie Grand, an assistant professor at Missouri State University who specializes in food safety.

“Unless the government wants to pay more, then unfortunately [the responsibility] is going to be placed on those restaurants. It is their reputation on the line.”

For several quick-serve companies, abandoning imported ingredients altogether is not a viable alternative. Take, for example, Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen. The concepts were developed by Anthony Russo, a native Italian who says he sources several ingredients from his home country to make his concept more authentic.

“A lot of distributors don’t carry what I’m looking for,” Russo says. “They don’t have the good stuff I grew up with. So every time I go back to Italy, I visit dairy farms, I visit meat markets. We get a lot of good stuff from there.”

Russo says he builds relationships with his foreign suppliers and makes sure all of the labeling on his imports is accurate. He then works with a distributor to bring the food back to the U.S., a process that he says takes about 45 days.

Like Russo, Edible Arrangements’ Porter visits foreign suppliers personally to ensure the quality and safety of the company’s ingredients. She says Edible Arrangements then watches over the safety of the foods from the time it’s picked to the time it arrives in the stores.

“This just goes to help support what we’re doing in ensuring food safety,” Porter says. “We require testing of the product in the fields, at packaging time, at shipment time, and when it arrives back in the states if in fact it’s an import.”

Distributors make good partners for operators in the food safety process, says Maryanne Rose. Rose is president and CEO of SpenDifference, a supply chain management firm for mid-sized companies including Smashburger, Pizza Ranch, and Taco John’s. She says her company works with foreign manufacturers on behalf of her clients to import foods, which range from oils to proteins.

“The government is not going to come back in and protect your brand if there’s a problem,” she says. “Ultimately … whether I work directly for my [quick-serve] client or in a contract we have with them, our job is to elevate and protect their brand from a supply chain perspective. So you have to do your own homework.”

Rose says whether a restaurant is working through a distributor to import foods or not, representatives should still personally visit their foreign suppliers to know where their food is coming from.

“You have to get on a plane, you have to go down there, and you have to really see it,” she says. “If you’re going to be [importing] directly, you better validate and verify everything [suppliers] say they’re doing. Typically what you would do is you would go in to see where their raw materials are coming from, see how they’re controlling the safety of those raw materials. Don’t just look at paperwork, but have them show you, and check and validate and verify every step of the way.”

Grand says the food safety system for imported foods in the U.S. is far from where it needs to be, explaining that government programs don’t go far enough to protect foods and that the agencies are too underfunded to roll out better programs. At the heart of the issue is that most consumers want more safety precautions for their food but are unwilling to pay extra for it.

But restaurateurs must be prepared to take responsibility for their food until a better system presents itself, she says.

“It’s going to take a serious outbreak [to change the system again] or it’s going to take something where the food that comes in causes a lot of people to get sick,” she says. “I think we’re very much a reactive group.”

photo: flickr.com / European Parliament

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