Leaders of supply chain businesses are playing Russian roulette with consumer health and their brand reputations by failing to make food safety an urgent, top priority.

That was the stark warning from Patrick Wall, professor of public health at University College, Dublin, speaking to more than 2,000 global supply chain chiefs at the recent Alltech Symposium in Kentucky, USA.

Prof Wall called for the boards of major producers, retailers, manufacturers and processors to start talking about food safety daily and embedding it in the culture of their organisations.

“It is much cheaper to prevent a crisis than to try to recover from one. It takes millions (of pounds) to build a brand, but a single incident can do irreparable damage,” he said. “You need a plan and must be proactive. Safety is not something to gamble. If you don’t manage the risk, you are playing Russian roulette with your business.”

The former chairman of the European Food Safety Authority, who is also an adviser to Moy Park and Dawn Farms, told delegates that the horsemeat scandal in Europe had broken trust with consumers, cost the food industry dearly and hurt respected companies that were implicated, such as Tesco, Birdseye, Nestle, Ikea and Findus.

“We thought we had a good model, but behind our backs truckloads of horsemeat was masquerading as beef. Tesco had £300m wiped off their share value overnight,” he added.

Prof Wall believes these companies in Europe have “naively convinced the consumer that the food chain is a simple straight line, when really it is a complete tangle”.

The new reality, he argued, is that suppliers, processors, retailers and manufacturers are spectators looking on at the supply chain when they should be high-performing players on the pitch.

He raised concerns about the pressure created by the media searching for quick answers, from regulators to overlegislate and from the markets where “commodity traders sell more food in five minutes than a farmer would in a lifetime”.

Regulators were not in a position to do more, because they simply did not have the resource, he said.

Two solutions he offered were for food safety controls to be harmonised across jurisdictions and for day-to-day practices to be improved within the chain. This included stringent testing, auditing and use of forensic microbiology on products, as well as training and development of staff.

In conclusion, Prof Wall reminded delegates that their brand was only as secure as the standards of their weakest supplier.

“Ask yourself,” he said, “Would you trust your suppliers to pack your parachute when you jump out of a plane?”

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