What’s in the Best Interest of the Food Industry?
By Huub Lelieveld
Monday, April 23, 2012, was a day worth celebrating. It was the day that the Netherlands’ prime minister had to offer the resignation of the government to the queen. This was good news, because the minority government that was formed just 18 months ago could govern only thanks to the support of the anti-foreigners party (PVV). The two governing parties, VVD (liberals) and CDA (Christians), had compromised to do what they traditionally would strongly oppose, like expelling refugees, in conflict with international agreements and sometimes even national and international laws, just to gain the support of the PVV. Few people liked the coalition, but defended it as being in the interest of the nation, meaning it was good for the Dutch treasury.
There is a parallel in the food industry. It is tempting for chief executive officers (CEOs) to “compromise in the interest of the company,” the interest being the—usually short-term—financial results. If the compromise has to do with the quality, but does not affect the safety, of the product, it might be defensible, but there are cases where food safety is at stake. When discovered, they reach the news and everybody knows. Melamine in milk is not a unique case; other examples are lead oxide in paprika powder, ethylene glycol in wine and recycled transformer cooling oil in pig and poultry feed. On the microbiological side, we have seen spoiled meat reprocessed and put back in the food chain, recanning of moldy applesauce and chickens given rotten feed, leading to outbreaks because the eggs are contaminated with Salmonella. No doubt there will be new cases in the future; greed seems to make some people very innovative. While in some countries, the result may be imprisonment for those responsible, in other countries, the responsible CEO may be urged to resign without serious consequences, and there are cases without any consequences at all. Being dishonest about the safety, the origin or the composition of a product is not acceptable, and when somebody finds out, he or she should report it and those “governing” the company should not only be made to resign but should also be taken to court. In a decent society, there is no room for an “old boys’ network” with the wrong intentions, helping each other survive their wrongdoings. Making a profit is fine, but not if it involves unacceptable compromises—the ends do not always and automatically justify the means.
Huub Lelieveld is president of the Global Harmonization Initiative, member of the executive committee and a past president of EFFoST (the European Federation of Food Science and Technology) and founder and past president of EHEDG (the European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group). He is a fellow of IAFoST (the International Academy of Food Science and Technology), a fellow of IFT (the Institute of Food Technologists) and has been chair of the nonthermal processing and international divisions of IFT. Most recently, he initiated “People, planet, prosperity and the food chain,” in short, P3FC, an organization of which the sole objective is to remind the food industry as frequently as possible that besides caring for shareholders, they also share responsibilities for the planet and society. He is a member of the P3FC editorial team and is on the editorial board of Food Safety Magazine.