For many years beginning in 1982, I worked at The Kroger Co. as corporate director of public relations. One of my top priorities was handling crisis communications during food recalls — those involving Kroger’s own manufactured items or national brand products sold in Kroger food stores. Each incident was vastly different, yet there were enough similarities that when I left Kroger to start my own business, in 1998, I took with me a treasure trove of experience in the always topical subject of food safety.
My expertise lay fallow for some time as I worked in other areas. Earlier this year, I was contacted by an old Kroger colleague with whom I worked closely on many of those recalls. Gale Prince is widely known in the food industry and government circles as a leading expert on the causes of food contamination. He’s been honored many times over the years for his dedication to promoting safe food handling techniques, food safety training, and manufacturing standards.
What he didn’t have time for was letting the world know about his work. That’s where I come in. Gale and I have created a joint venture to work together on food safety issues. His company, SAGE Food Safety Consultants, and my agency, Bernish Communications, LLC, now offer clients our combined talents in the food safety arena.
The timing of our collaboration couldn’t be better. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is implementing new regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (better known as FSMA, pronounced “fizz-ma”). The legislation, once fully in place, has the capability of transforming food safety by placing more responsibility on food manufacturers and processors to prevent recalls from happening in the first place. The FDA, along with the Justice Department, is holding the industry’s feet to the fire; recently (as you may have read) the government meted out 29 and 20 year prison sentences to two brothers, Stewart and Michael Parnell, who knowingly shipped peanut butter contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Nine people died and dozens more were made very ill from eating the peanut butter. In years past, the government was more likely to issue fines for such gross violations of the law. This time, it appears the FDA and DOJ are not turning a bureaucratic blind eye to blatant misdeeds.
As I said, food safety is a perennial issue — it never really goes away. Our nation’s food supply is very safe, but it could be safer. Ditto for the rest of the world, whose products are increasingly available on U.S. supermarket shelves. FSMA, hopefully, will enhance food safety even more, but accidents and willful lawbreaking are inevitable in such a vast and varied industry.
When that happens, chances are Gale and I will be on the scene.