The failures at Peanut Corporation of America are tragedy in every way. This supplier failed to meet both regulatory and customer requirements. Its customers failed either to uncover or report the failures, and people died as a result. Now a healthy, everyday product is suspect, and faith in the U.S. food processing industry has been shaken by tainted product. Food contamination isn’t just a Chinese problem any more. According to Lora Cecere, an analyst at AMR Research and a food supply chain expert, food safety has ranked low in the U.S. as a supply risk concern (12th out of 15 in AMR surveys). However, in China it is ranked second. The peanut scare has been a wakeup call and confidence buster about U.S. food safety.
This situation illustrates an order-of-magnitude regulatory failure, compounded by lack of state inspection resources and lack of oversight. It also illustrates a worst-case scenario of supplier risk and abdication of responsibilities.
Why did this failure occur? In quality terms, the food industry relies more on inspection than prevention (and even inspections don’t always occur or are poorly done). And it is well known that quality inspection is far more expensive and far less reliable an approach than problem prevention. Preventive versus reactive is basic when it comes to quality.
While inspection is important in the food industry, preventive actions need to be institutionalized and enforced to avoid food contamination in the first place. Inspection, in fact, should focus on assessing preventive measures in the area of quality and safety. Do we want to know how many contaminated batches of food are found? Or worse, do we want the food industry to leave quality control in the hands (or stomachs) of the customer? Or would do we want verification that that all food safety rules and cleanliness standards are in fact followed to prevent contamination?
And when supplier evaluations and inspections are outsourced to third parties, how do customer firms assess those third parties and ensure that they are not, in fact, just the foxes guarding the chickens? The complexities of the supply chain no longer allow a reliance on good intentions or lackadaisical supply chain management practices downsized in the name of cost. Since second and third-tier suppliers, often invisible or barely visible to the customer, can adversely impact our food supply, understanding their operations and performance becomes essential. Food contamination falls into the category of supply risks that can be prevented (preferably) or mitigated. They are not an unavoidable natural disaster. Not only should companies consider these risks in their sourcing strategies, but they should also have robust supplier assessment systems, including regular site visits to higher risk suppliers, to prevent the occurrence of such failures. The costs of food contamination in illnesses and deaths, lawsuits, brand damage, consumer confidence – and even company bankruptcies and job loss – are far higher than the basic sourcing and supplier management activities needed to prevent them.