Thinking Inside the Box

Horses for Courses

March 14, 2013
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It is 10 years since I started writing these columns. Never has the title “Thinking Inside the Box” been more apt than it is this month.

As I write, Europe is exploding with new stories about horsemeat appearing mixed with and replacing beef in a variety of popular frozen products. The term “value added” has taken on a terrible connotation for those of us who have never eaten, or wanted to eat “equine protein cuisine.”

I have eaten horse, as a 14-year-old on a trip through Belgium and Luxembourg. Thoroughly enjoyed the meal, but then found out its provenance afterwards and to this day have never knowingly ordered or eaten the flesh of these noble animals. The joker in me might make comments about hors d’oeuvre, but I won’t!

So what are we all thinking about as a result of this which someone referred to in the UK press as either gross incompetence or pure criminality? Either way, the situation should be making us all review our control of specifications.

Do we have a PLM or similar system in place? Can we track every ingredient in every product? Can we trace (with our manufacturing partners) batch and lot numbers for every shipment of every product we buy?

Chances are, most of us cannot, which really is a terrible admission for anyone to make. If the government (no matter what country) makes any of us sit in front of the various food safety committees tasked with securing the safety of our food supply chain, and demands answers, many of us will be hopelessly “high and dry.”

Everyone will be playing the blame game up and down the supply chain. Which, incredibly, never can replace having a robust system in place to manage every minute detail of what’s in each package that we sell under our name.

Seeing the private label manufacturers in the spotlight means nothing to the average consumer. Seeing the specific retailer(s) is what evokes a lasting impression of safety, or lack thereof. No matter where the blame.

Of course, we can all be exposed to criminality. Which no computer tracing system can control to the very ultimate degree. But we do need to be sure that we can move at warp speed to remove offending products once discovered and then be able to get to the root cause of the problem.

So, CEOs and COOs and upper levels of management, think in your bed tonight. Think of the great scene from “The Godfather” when Jack Woltz wakes up and finds a horse’s head in his bed. Think about what you are doing to protect the good name of your business through proper management of product specs and product ingredients and their sources.

 It might make you think about being more robust about product quality management. You might think you are safe. But like the 3:30 p.m. at Churchill Downs tomorrow, I wouldn’t bet on it! 

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