Safety First – ESM Chats To Mondelēz International's Roy Kirby

By Steve Wynne-Jones
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Safety First – ESM Chats To Mondelēz International's Roy Kirby

The Consumer Goods Forum's recent GFSI Conference highlighted the level to which food safety remains at the forefront of business decision making within the retail and consumer goods trade, highlighting the levels to which firms have maintained high standards during what has been a tumultuous year.

ESM caught up with the co-chair of the GFSI Steering Committee and director of global food safety at Mondelēz International, Roy Kirby, to discuss how businesses should use the learnings generated during this period of flux to further the food safety agenda going forward.

ESM: Hi Roy, thanks for talking to us. One of the core takeaways from the GFSI Conference was how food safety should be a prerequisite when it comes to food product development and distribution. That even despite the COVID crisis, it isn't any less important?

Roy Kirby: It's got to be the number one agenda. The reason it should be the only agenda is that when something goes wrong in food safety, we all suffer. And likewise, when something goes right, we all benefit.

When there's a yoghurt crisis, when, say, a small manufacturer produces a yoghurt that has botulism in it, it's not just that manufacturer's sales that crumble, it's the entire yoghurt category – if not the whole food industry.


I know everyone in the food industry knows this, but it’s worth repeating, consumers put their trust in us to make sure their food is safe. If it’s not safe it’s not food. Protecting consumers is the responsibility of everyone in the food industry, that includes everyone, right across the board, and every employee of every company – we all have a role to play in protecting consumers.

Do you think that as a result of the pandemic, the spotlight is being shone on food processing like never before – that we're more understanding of where our foods come from due to the potential health issues that can occur along the supply chain?

I'm not sure that COVID has highlighted an increased awareness about food safety, I think it's important to keep COVID and food safety issues separate.

What I think it has done is it has clearly highlighted in the public's mind, the increasing complexity of the supply chain and the importance of world trade on the supply chain.


But as I said, it's important to maintain some separation, because I don't want the public to start thinking that COVID can be transmitted through food, because it can't.

One of the more positive things to emerge out of the crisis has been the level to which companies have collaborated and worked together. This has accelerated by a huge amount in the past year – do you think that there are potentially now more areas in which firms can collaborate on food safety initiatives?

I think that COVID certainly meant that we did collaborate in a non-compete way much better. There are a number of examples of that. Sharing good practice on how to control safety in our plants, sharing good practice upon how we protect our employees, and also sharing scientific opinion on the impact of COVID on things like food safety.

There were a number of joint efforts where the industry got together to learn and share science and benefit from it. Looking at it from a positive point of view, there are things that we can gain from that going forward.


One of the important roles that the GFSI plays is ensuring that all companies can achieve high standards when it comes to food safety – it's not just the big firms like Mondelēz International or Nestlé. How can you ensure that the positive momentum when it comes to food safety trickles down the chain to smaller companies?

This is a big debate that has been going on for years in the food industry, right the way back to the general food hygiene regulation in Europe.

The way I look at it, if you buy a car, you have to take your driving test to be allowed to drive it. The driving test is there for a reason – it's to protect other road users and yourself. It doesn't matter whether you're a rich multi-millionaire or just an everyday individual, whether you're the owner of a thousand cars or one car, there is still a minimum requirement that has to be in place before you should be allowed on the road.

Similarly, I don't believe that we should have a dual standard for food safety. I think that there's a price to pay for entering the market. If you're going to sell somebody food, no matter how big you are or small you are, there's a responsibility on you to make that food safe.


What there is, however, is a requirement or moral societal obligation on the big companies that have the resources to help small companies understand what safe looks like and how they can get there. I think that the GFSI plays a role in helping with that process.

The whole area of supply chain visibility is growing in importance, and one of the things that comes up time and time again at the Consumer Goods Forum Sustainable Retail Summit is that if you're a massive organisation, to have complete visibility on what all smallholder farmers are doing is next to impossible. This underlines what you are saying about the importance of a minimum standard being in place. It's like with football, you could be playing in the Premier League or the Burkina Faso First Division, but the rules of the game are the same.

The rules are exactly the same. And they're there for exactly the same reasons as well. Otherwise, you end up in a punch up and a brawl and nobody gets to watch a great game of football. The standards of skill might be different; the training might be different; the sophistication that goes into the game planning might be different – yeah, all of that – but the rules are the same.

It's the same as the driving licence analogy. You know, there aren't that many countries in the world now that don't have a driving test. And I'm sure that if you pass a driving test in in the UK, you probably could pass a driving test in Greenland or Canada.

One of the things that comes up time and time again with regard to food safety is giving firms a goal to attain to. We always hear about red tape, and how there's too much administrative burden, particularly on smaller companies. But would you advocate more for an approach that encourages businesses to get to where they need to get to, other than focus on the short term?

I do believe that the carrot is more effective them the stick. Give everybody the aspiration that they need to be producing safe food. That's got to be your number one reason for being if you're in the food industry – keeping consumers safe and well fed.

Now, I think if you can get everybody on that mindset, you stand a much better chance of moving the whole industry in the right direction. The difficulty is that the very small number of people that really don't want to put the consumer first are not going to be constrained by more red tape. They are just better at finding a way around it.

With that in mind, is enough being done to remove the bad actors from the marketplace?

It's incredibly difficult. I think that's where we end up defaulting to the position of introducing more red tape, because we could get better at taking the really strong action of removing this very small number of businesses from the marketplace. There have been examples where it has been done, but for sure we could get better.

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© 2021 European Supermarket Magazine – discover more A-Brands stories by clicking here. Article by Stephen Wynne-Jones. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: European Supermarket Magazine.

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