Human Rights Due Diligence vs Food Safety Due Diligence : What Food Companies Should Know
I’m frequently asked by food companies managers how they can leverage their experience in managing food safety in complex supply chains, in order to address human rights issues.
It’s true that “due diligence” is a well known process in the food industry and some similarities but also differences have to be taken into account when addressing human rights instead of food safety.
Actually , few adjustments can help food companies to perfectly understand what are the best things to do in order to tackle human rights issues in their supply chain .
1 - A polymorphic risk :
allergens, GMO, microbiology, chemical residues, consequences of voluntary adulteration…. are well known by food safety managers. They trigger automatic alerts in buyer’s mind each time they consider a new raw material or packaging component. Everyone knows when or where a given type of danger could occur from primary production to finish product storage.
Human rights abuses are equally polymorph .Companies need to act differently to fight worst forms of child labor in an African plantation or a risk of human trafficking of temporary workers in their own factories. Risks are different according to countries, type of processes (level of automation …), product categories… .
To create the same expertise and automatic alerts when considering a new supplier, raw material or packaging component , food companies need to learn and understand the different human rights abuses risks. Their deep knowledge of agricultural supply chains structure will be really helpful.
2- When should we interrupt a business relationship with suppliers ? :
A due diligence process always aims at protecting company reputation, but it also has to take into account people who are really threatened by the specific type of danger.
In case of food safety, companies have to protect consumers. Companies need traceability, and everyone has recall procedures in place in case of emergency. They know who to call in customers organizations to prevent a product from harming consumer.
When the origin of a problem occurs in the upstream supply chain, first thing they do is to stop using this specific raw material in order to protect both consumer and company reputation.
Consumer is not the victim of Human rights abuses, workers are.
A knee-jerk interruption of business relationship can trigger an events chain which can really worsen the situation of the victims.
What can company do then ? Are they expected to rent a helicopter, put on their rambo gear and leave as a commando rescue the victims?
Of course not! Companies must work with local partners ( NGO’s , official services, unions ..) But few companies have the proper local contact lists to manage those issues.
3- Can we optimize several tools we already use to manage suppliers ? Should we use the same tools ? :
Of course yes, code of conducts, self-assessment questionnaires and audits are perfectly relevant tools. Many models exist on the market , proposed by expert NGO’s or collective initiatives.
Social audits have been criticized as unable to identify forced labor issues but honestly are food safety audits perfect ? Do we expect to unveil criminal activities with simple food safety audits ?
Social audits identify a number of gaps that can lead to serious harm or which are linked to a lack of knowledge or stupidity and usual search for small savings .
Do you sometimes remember the level of food safety in our western Europe factories thirty years ago ?What if we had stop auditing our suppliers just by thinking , they are all criminals and there are too much not compliant products on the market so it’s useless?
On the other hand some food safety tools don’t exist for human rights. No laboratory to check the final quality of the product and validate the due diligence process, no consumer complains…
Companies have to replace those two tools with :
- Discussion and collaboration with local organizations : unions, NGO’s which are acting as the local social laboratory
- Grievance mechanisms : the victim must have access to a complaints system, it’s the same thing , victims are just not the same.
A notable difference will be the public reporting requirements which is mandatory for human rights, in several countries according to the size and type of companies.
This can be a tricky exercise as we can see from the many criticisms that have been formulated following the release of first reports in UK or in California. Companies must prepare themselves.
4- Which results can expect small companies ? :
It’s true that lack of supply chain transparency, small level of influence of medium sized companies facing giant suppliers or big commodities traders, incredible number of levels in supply chain, … are decreasing the efficiency of human rights due diligence processes managed by many food companies .
Yes it’s true that some failures occurred in existing certifications supposed to protect workers from human rights abuses …
But is it different from what happens in food safety management ? Do we ignore some risks because we are small and we can’t act directly at the source of the problem ?
Can’t we expect that if hundreds of small companies are asking for the same thing a clever giant supplier will understand that transparency is the right thing to do ?
This is what due diligence means : to do what is reasonable in order to identify, prevent, remediate and account.
This is to be able to answer to anyone who may ask : I’ve done my best effort.
So let’s be reasonable .