Canadian retailers make food safety key priority

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By Cynthia David

(Nov. 5, 4:23 p.m.) Since no company wants to see their name in the media associated with a foodborne illness, the race is on to safeguard all aspects of the food chain, from the field to the consumer.

“Today’s educated consumers don’t just want to know what they’re buying,” said Christian Chouinard, Loblaws director of product development for Canada, “they want to know where it comes from and every ingredient in it.”

As a result, he said, grocery chains must become specialists, researching how each producer grows the product they buy and how to take the extra care required to keep it safe.

“At Loblaws, I’m the guy in Florida in winter looking at the fields,” said Chouinard, who’s based in Montreal. “In summer, I’m based here to check out all the Quebec growers in terms of food safety, quality and quantity. In the future, I’ll be involved in Ontario as well, checking every facet of every grower’s operation.”

At Stellarton, Nova Scotia- based Sobeys Inc., whose IGA banner is the province’s largest, traceability has become a watchword for all produce managers.

“We work with our national team and our HACCP department,” said Pat Calabretta, senior director of merchandising and purchasing for Sobeys Quebec. “You’re liable for what you sell, and we’re liable if something happens in our stores. Though most of us grew up eating fruits and vegetables and nobody died, today we’ve got to take it seriously.”

At Essex Continental in Montreal’s Marche Central, food safety has been the No. 1 priority for the past three years, said general manager Frank Ferrarelli.

“We test everything before it goes out,” he said, “and each cup contains the julienne date, farm and room number so we can trace every mushroom.”

Sliced mushrooms are particularly susceptible to listeria, said Ferrarelli. The outer skin of a whole mushroom protects against the bacteria, he said, but once a mushroom is sliced that protection disappears. To be sure its equipment is pristine, the company soaks its slicer in boiling water for 30 minutes daily.

If any traces of listeria are found during testing, he said, the line is stopped immediately.

“If it happens to us it might affect 300 to 400 cases from one day’s production,” he said. “We wouldn’t wait for a second test, which could take six days, to tell us how many parts per million are present.”

While food safety hasn’t changed the way Montreal’s biggest wholesaler, Canadawide Fruit Wholesalers Inc., does business, president George Pitsikoulis said the company is in the process of upgrading its computer system to enable it to track every lot of produce it handles. “We’ll be ready to offer full traceability by November,” he predicted.

Montreal’s foodservice distributors also are tackling the issue of food safety, said Benoit Lecavalier, sales manager for Hector Larivee. The company imports much of its U.S. produce through Pro-Act, a co-operative of North American produce specialists.

The group has devised its own recall system, Lecavalier said, and members share ideas regularly on ongoing issues concerning bacteria and traceability.

Lecavalier added that Larivee’s sister company, Tomapure in Laval, Quebec, offers facilities designed with food safety in mind. It washes and packs vegetables for foodservice, including tomatoes for the Subway sandwich chain.

“We need to be able to give our customers full assurance that we deal only with approved suppliers and that we can trace back any product,” Lecavalier said.



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