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Food safety issues raised at global forum

Companies will have to be more creative in how they source products to meet the growing needs. “Today” food editor Phil Lempert has more.

The fifth annual CIES (International Committee of Food Retail Chains) International Food Safety Conference, held early this month in Paris, France, offered a look at just how far the food industry has come in this critical area, but also pointed to areas in which many questions remain.

Roland Vaxelaire, director of Quality, Responsibility and Risk Management for France's Carrefour Group described how food safety initiatives around the globe are being challenged by "new methods of communication, new methods of buying, and new concerns about nutrition." He noted that better informed consumers increasingly will insist "on quality and safety in the food chain," and that companies will have to be more creative in how they source products to meet the growing needs of an expanding and diversifying population base.

There were two subjects, however, on which we believe our readers need to weigh in.

Jean-Francois Narbonne, a professor of food toxicology at France's Bordeaux University, said part of the problem is that in an economic environment in which "customers are looking for lower prices," often "the result is lower quality." And Robert J. Lawless, of McCormick & Co., drove the same point home when he said that, "tolerable risks are based on what people are able to pay."

Such comments are irresponsible. Customers at the low end of the economic ladder would be surprised to find out that they somehow should have a lesser expectation about food safety than more affluent people who can buy more expensive products. Quality and safety are not synonymous and the food industry should be careful about suggesting to the public at large that they are.

There was another unexpected turn of discussion at the conference.

Alfons Schmid, vice president of food safety and consumer affairs at Dutch retailer Royal Ahold (which owns a number of supermarket chains in the U.S.), suggested that since food safety initiatives are concerned with making sure that the food that people eat won't hurt them, isn't it logical to also make sure that the food they eat isn't served in too-large quantities, and does not have too much fat, salt, etc.? Schmid is pushing a more holistic approach to food safety or, more broadly, should we say human safety?

Schmid holds a lofty expectation which may have the effect of shifting the importance of food safety issues off course and bury these very real concerns in yet more rhetoric about obesity.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at