Food-safety concerns cut across cultures By John F.T. Scott
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with two of Canada’s most prolific independent grocery retailers as I drove them to a retreat. I felt like a fly on the wall as they shared store processes and concepts, both successes and failures. Since they weren’t competitors, their open conversation was refreshing and insightful. At a break in their discussion, I asked, “what keeps you up at night?” The answer was immediate and identical – the possibility of a customer suffering food poisoning, particularly from the extensive and unique in-store prepared meals that are signatures in both instances. Neither had ever had an incident, but it was clear that they were going to extraordinary lengths to ensure it would never happen. Earlier this year, while on a business trip to Saudi Arabia, I had the opportunity to visit a vibrant independent grocery retailer in Al Majma’ah, a medium-sized community that was reasonably modern and culturally very traditional. One of the interesting things about Saudi business is that you must close your premises 10 minutes before prayer time and remain closed for 30 minutes during and after prayer (five times each day). If, as a non-Muslim customer, you find yourself in a store or restaurant at the time the call to prayer sounds, you can stay, but you cannot be served or perform a transaction of any kind. My group happened to be visiting the store at that time. Our interpreter described my background and interest to the owner, who agreed to give me the run of the premises during the period of closure.
September | October 2017
I took full advantage of this opportunity to observe, unimpeded by a formal tour, the operation of an independent grocer from a much different culture. What stood out for me was that the produce was exceptional – fresh and well presented. The meat cuts were notably different from Canada’s and the fish section featured unfamiliar species. There was a wide variety of packaged goods, both familiar and culturally specific. Saudis love their sweets, so the baked-goods department shone in every respect. The prepared-foods selection was limited but outstanding. However, the most impressive aspect of this well-merchandised store was its cleanliness: the floors, shelves, cases, front end and ancillary services were spotless. When the shop reopened, I complimented the owner on various aspects of his store, concluding with its cleanliness. Then I asked the same question that I had of those two amazing Canadian independents: “What keeps you up at night?” His response was immediate – food safety. If there was any incident of food poisoning in his store, he would be out of business very quickly; word would spread immediately. Three terrific independents from very different countries and cultures with the same fundamental response: diligence in food safety is a consumer expectation with huge consequences for failure. These retailers never take it for granted – do you?
John F.T. Scott speaks, writes and consults on the food distribution sector. The author of “Perspectives on the Retail Food Industry,” he is also Chair of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and Niagara College.
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