Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt Visits Schnucks

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Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt visited the Bridgeton Schnucks this morning, part of a fact-finding tour for the panel on food safety commissioned last month by President Bush. As promised, Gut Check was on the scene.

click to enlarge photo: Ian Froeb
photo: Ian Froeb

photo: Ian Froeb

Leavitt arrived shortly after 9 a.m. and was greeted by Schnucks Chairman and CEO Scott Schnuck. (Pictured to the right, with Leavitt facing the camera.) After a brief chat, Schnuck led Leavitt on a tour meant to highlight the store's role and responsibilities in the food-supply chain.

They stopped first at a display of apples in the produce section. Next, they went to the store's receiving area, where a Schnucks employee offloaded a pallet of produce from a delivery truck. Leavitt examined the labeling on a few of the boxes.

Nation-of-origin labeling was a key issue on the tour, as demonstrated by the next stop -- sure to be no surprise to regular readers of Gut Check -- seafood. Leavitt stepped behind the seafood counter and watched a Schnucks employee preparing a few pieces of fish. (I think -- it was hard to see from where I was standing.) Leavitt and Schnuck then went around to the front of the case and talked for a few minutes.

(Much of their discussion during the tour was pitched just low enough to be inaudible to us media types; in general, Schnuck was explaining the store's policies. As an aside, this was by far the cleanest supermarket I have ever seen. Because the Secretary of Health and Human Services was visiting? Well, yeah. But a Schnucks employee I asked later told me that they had actually had a regularly scheduled stem-to-stern cleaning the previous week and this was what the store looked like every day.)

Next, Leavitt turned his attention to a freestanding freezer case directly across from the seafood counter. Here Schnucks Director of Food Safety Dianna Pasley showed Leavitt the electronic thermometer employees use to monitor the temperature of individual packages of seafood.

photo: Ian Froeb
photo: Ian Froeb

photo: Ian Froeb

In the picture to the right, Leavitt is taking the temperature of a package of Sea Best-brand orange roughy fillets imported from -- where else? -- China. The verdict: 20 degrees.

The tour ended here. Leavitt then made a few general statements about what he had seen so far on his fact-finding tour. "What strikes you [about the food-supply chain] is not just the size and scale, but the complexity," he said.

A common theme Leavitt has found in talking to food producers? The key to improving food safety is to build quality and safety into the production process. As he noted, "You can't inspect everything." In terms of inspections, Leavitt made the obvious comparison to finding a needle in a haystack. The key, he said, is to use technology to shrink the size of that haystack.

I asked Leavitt about yesterday's AP report that a million pounds of banned Chinese seafood had reached the market. Leavitt said that, as of now, all indications suggest that the seafood made it through the inspection before the ban was issued.

As you might expect, most questions centered on the quality standards of food imports. Leavitt admitted that while not every country has the same standards as we do, many countries do have standards. A good question here might have been, "How can we possibly bridge the gap between us and so many different countries?" But no one -- including yours truly -- asked that.

To his credit -- and despite the photo-op feel of the tour itself -- Leavitt never tried to play down the complexity of the food-supply chain. In truth, I'd say it was the dominant theme of his remarks. He mentioned how impressed he had been, during his time in the military, to see the mess hall turn out meals for hundreds of soldiers every single day. On this tour, he is seeing how the food-supply chain must reset itself every day to feed 300 million Americans.

In general, though, Leavitt's tone was upbeat. "We have the safest food in the world," he said. "It's not perfect, but it's the safest in the world."

-Ian Froeb

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