Chain of Thought

Going to Walgreens for some sushi

There's a unique set of words for you. But according to the latest trend in the food and grocery industry, this combination may not sound so funny in the near future. I just read an article in my local Plain Dealer that drug and retail chains are adding groceries to their offerings to bring in more business. Walgreens is said to be devoting up to 40 percent of the space in its redesigned stores to fresh and frozen foods.

One thing this article didn't mention is how capable the staffs of these stores will be in safely handling perishable products. Could this be the cause of the next botulism scare in the food chain?

Jeff Heinen, the co-president of Heinen's Fine Foods, a well-known and respected Cleveland-based grocery chain, was quoted as saying that the food industry may look simple on the surface, but it is pretty complex. “Stores who dabble in it or whose primary focus is selling clothes or nonfood items most likely do not care much about where their food comes from or handling perishable products properly.”

If that's the case, the food supply chain could be endangered by some weak links. To get another read on this, I asked Timothy Pyne, vice president of the retail, consumer and food business at Tompkins Associates

for his perspective. I actually feel better that I did, because it sounds like retailers are being pretty careful about this move.

“Initially as they test the concept they'll partner with a wholesale grocery operator to service the stores,” Pyne told me. “As the concept expands geographically and in volume they'll start to bring on the internal expertise and develop their own network.”

So, by using a wholesaler in the initial stages of this trend, these purveyors of suits and soap will gradually become experts at sushi and salad. They'll develop an internal perishable network with proper controls and they'll train their material handlers on the safe handling of perishables.

In fact they'll be required to be safe by law. They'll have to live up to the Produce Traceability Initiative, in keeping with the Food and Safety Modernization Act. That means being able to trace every case of produce back to the grower if required to. (The pharma chain is dealing with its own set of safety issues, as the latest J&J Tylenol recall indicates.)

Ironically, rather than making the food chain more dangerous, Pyne believes these new links in the food chain might make it even stronger. Retailers can't afford to narrow their profit margins any further by making dumb mistakes—especially where life and death are concerned.

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