It is a question many are hesitant to pose because it runs counter to one of today’s most defining business trends – outsourcing. Well, Aleda Roth, Burlington Industries Professor of Supply Chain Management, is not one to hold back when it comes to her research. And, she passionately believes that sourcing of food products and ingredients from other countries where oversight is lax (if it even exists) – and especially, in emerging markets where water and air pollution are rampant – can be a huge negative. She says, in her direct style, “The typical American just assumes food safety – and yet, this notion may be misguided. For most processed foods you buy in the supermarket, the country of origin for all their ingredients is unknown. Unfortunately, many companies are unwilling to disclose this information to consumers, even when queried. It can be scary.”
No, she is not anti-business – quite the contrary. “My point is that for businesses to be successful in the long run they must improve – not undermine – quality of life in society,” she explains. There is a heightened role for corporate social responsibility and full transparency when it comes to the food we eat. In other words, what’s healthy for the customer is healthy for the company.
Ironically perhaps, it was not a person but a pet that initially got her on the bandwagon.
Dr. Roth’s beloved Chinese Crested Powderpuff, Lady, got sick. To streamline the story: Lady had elevated kidney enzymes from melamine, a vegetable protein imported from China for use in pet food. The solution was to find food without the contaminant, which proved practically impossible. “This toxic stuff was in almost every brand I checked,” she says. “I thought, is this problem with pet food the proverbial canary in the coal mine? What about people food? What about the impact of minute amounts of toxins accruing in our bodies on our health? Establishing cause and effect is exceedingly complex and difficult to determine, but the potential health consequences cannot be ignored.
That was how this expert in “moving things around the world” turned her focus – and her research – to moving the direction of corporate America. She and her team are compiling exhaustive data – and publishing their analysis of it – to support the hypothesis that the longer, more convoluted and more international the supply chain for food, the greater the risks. There is a woeful lack of knowledge on the quality of imported ingredients. Farming and sanitation practices are below standard in emerging market countries, like China. Moreover, unparalleled pollution levels are adversely affecting food supplies. For example, acid rain due to the burning of fossil fuels contributes to the accumulation of mercury (a know neurotoxin) in the environment; untreated industrial and human waste is dumped into waterways that may be used to irrigate crops. It is impossible to do 100 percent testing of imported food. Even if U.S. companies check for known biologic contaminants, they may abdicate their ability (and willingness) to check for other toxins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only inspects about 1 to 2 percent of imported food and does not routinely check for heavy metals. All of which is especially alarming when you consider about 15 to 20 percent of the food Americans eat is imported.
“I am not trying to create hysteria or come across as a total radical. I simply want to establish the facts and get them out there. I was surprised to find that even some U.S. food manufacturing executives did not know the country of origin of all their ingredients, even though they were purchased through U.S. distributors. My research aims to connect the dots, if you will – of the potential dangers posed by food products sourced from countries without our standards. I want people – and companies – to just think about it. I believe if we can explain the science in a way the average person understands, we will begin to see action. It may be grassroots at first, but it is going to happen.”
To end on a happy note, Lady is doing fine.
Aleda Roth received her Ph.D. and B.S. from The Ohio State University and her Master's in Public Health from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Ranked among the top 1 percent of scholars in supply chain management and service operations strategies, she was the first woman to be named a Distinguished Fellow of the Manufacturing and Service Operations Management Society and the Production and Operations Management Society. She has also been honored as a Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study Fellow; with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Production and Operations Management Society’s College of Service Organizations; and with the prestigious Emerald Citations of Excellence Award for her article “Unraveling the food supply chain: strategic insights from China and the 2007 recalls.” She has more than 200 publications to her credit.
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