By Christopher Peterson, Ph.D.
Results of a New
While the U.S. food supply is consid- ered generally safe, a steady stream of high-profile food-related illness out-
breaks undermines that idea. Consumer
confidence slides backward with each
new episode of Escherichia coli, Salmo-
has wrestled over the years with the lack
of symmetry in private auditing schemes
and the inability of these programs to
galvanize public confidence.
The combination of too many
schemes and flagging consumer confidence is driving the industry to seek
more harmony and simplification
through standards-based third-party audits. The Global Food Safety Initiative is
a prominent effort at just such unification, and it provides a solid platform for
gaining broad private-public support.
The question becomes “How well do
the stakeholders in food safety really understand third-party certification?”
nella and other health hazards splashed across the national news.
Along with it goes the reputation of the suppliers who may or may
not be responsible, ultimately, but who suffer the bruising reactions of
an alarmed public.
With all of this as a backdrop—and
with the health of our food supply at
stake—we undertook a survey of consumers and food industry professionals
to better understand how people respond to different signals of food safety,
and how they view third-party certification. The study was conducted in 2010
by the Product Center for Agriculture
and Natural Resources at Michigan State
University and was funded by DNV
(Det Norske Veritas USA, Inc.).
We felt the timing was right because
there are few, if any, surveys that simultaneously probe supply chain professionals and consumers on the topic of
Overall, a quick glance over the cur-
rent food safety literature indicates the
existence of a wide range of food safety-
related studies mainly focusing on the
following thematic areas:
• Most studies are product-specific,
and meat and produce appear to be
the leading sectors.
A good number of studies focus on
consumers’ perception, demand and
willingness to pay for products with
some kind of sustainability and/or
food safety-related attributes (e.g.,
traceability/origin, quality and
• There are very limited studies regarding perceptions and attitudes towards
food safety certification.
Perceptions shaping reality? Yes. But the actual data on safety incidents are not
exactly reassuring. It’s not a perception, for example, that the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) website shows recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts
for about 50 products (including animal food products) just in the month of August, 2010.1 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service lists about 14 meat product recalls in the months between June and
August of 2010, 2 illustrating that food safety has become an increasing concern not
only for the end consumer but also for other stakeholders within the food industry.
Not surprisingly, the FDA, USDA and other government agencies are intensifying efforts to improve food surveillance, reporting and traceability within the supply chain and to reach consumers with timely food safety information. A number
of food establishments within the food industry including retailers, distributors and
foodservice providers are also now requesting that their suppliers meet specific
food safety and quality standards in order to buy products from them. This has led
to the development of stricter food safety standards, benchmarks and specifications. In turn, the field of third-party certification (i.e., product or process certification) is being recognized as one of the tools that can be applied to make the food
supply safer in perception and in reality.
While not new, third-party certifications are gaining increasing favor as perhaps
the best way to audit supplier practices and communicate the value of that process
up and down the supply chain and, potentially, to consumers directly. The industry