True World Group investing in “next level” of food safety
The stakes of food safety management don’t get any higher than the sushi market, according to True World Group President Robert Bleu.
Rockleigh, New Jersey-based True World Group is a supplier of seafood and other products to Asian markets and sushi restaurants. Bleu said the company is the biggest exporter of tuna from the Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan, and sources fish from around the globe. True World Group’s primary business, True World Foods, distributes sushi-grade fish to 8,200 restaurants from 23 distribution centers in the U.S., Canada, London, and Madrid, and has more than USD 500 million (EUR 472 million) in sales annually.
“We sell fish raw and ready-to-eat. We can’t screw up on food safety – there’s no kill-step that’s going to save us if we’ve had temperature problems or any other messed-up situation,” Bleu told SeafoodSource at the Global Seafood Market Conference in Orlando, Florida last week. “So we’re very serious about food safety, and we’re committed to being even better.”
To lead its food safety initiative, True World Group hired Neil Checketts as vice president of food safety and compliance in September 2019. The appointment is part of a broader campaign by the company to encourage the seafood industry to enhance food safety standards, particularly for fish consumed raw, Bleu said.
“In a sense, where we’re positioned now, we’re worried about the whole sushi market,” he said. “We’re a big part of the overall sushi market. Even if it’s not connected to us, if there’s a bad health-related issue related to sushi, it depresses sales across the market and hurts us. As a result, I’ve become an evangelist for the whole industry to improve its practices.”
True World Group is “putting significant energy into going to the next level in food safety,” Bleu said, including the introduction of clearer specifications for suppliers on proper fish-handling techniques, all developed or approved by Checketts, who Bleu called a “world-level food safety guy.”
“At one point, he was responsible for all international food products imported by Walmart, then worked for Sobeys. We made the commitment to hire a guy like that because we’re on a mission to be at a higher level a year from now,” Bleu said. “We’re a big, global organization and so we’re operating in a lot of places. What we want to do is drive best sanitation practices through our whole network.”
A major focus of the company’s efforts is on reducing the threat of listeria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food safety in the U.S. seafood industry, has upgraded its efforts to catalog different strains of the bacteria, so that it can quickly track outbreaks to their source and see how the bacteria spread, Bleu said, and an FDA spokesperson confirmed to SeafoodSource.
“It’s such a tough one to deal with, because it’s just ubiquitous,” Bleu said. “Listeria will grow in refrigerated areas and is able to survive temperatures much colder than a lot of other bacteria.”
True World Group will push for improved practices both internally with its suppliers, Bleu said. And that wouldn’t just entail reliance on third-party food-safety certifications, he added, warning that the Peanut Corporation of America-owned facility that was the source of a salmonella contamination issue in 2008 and 2009 that led to the deaths of nine people and the sickening of hundreds more was certified by the Global Food Safety Initiative. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
“You have to be so careful,” Bleu said. “Definitely the sushi industry does not need anybody bringing about any event that would suppress sales. One bad vendor can put a dent on the whole industry, so we don’t want to be there.”
Besides food safety, Bleu said his top priorities are ensuring the quality the sustainability of his company’s products.
“The trend is towards higher quality in America,” Bleu said. “We don’t really sell to the very economy end of the sushi market, and besides, they’re often buying stuff I don’t want to sell. I think you don’t want to be producing a lot of product that’s turning people off to the category.”
True World Group sells to many high-end sushi chefs in the United States and globally, who depend on the quality of the fish they serve to uphold and burnish their reputations, Bleu said.
“They send it back if it’s not right. For sushi chefs, that’s their livelihood, and we’re trusted to do a good job for them,” he said. “In terms of the simplicity of its ingredients, sushi is amazing. With traditional sushi, there are not a lot of flavors to cover up where the fish is at, meaning it requires having really high-quality ingredients. We treasure our customers and we have a lot of sushi professionals on staff who have been on the restaurant side to help guide us to be the best we can be for them.”
In fact, True World Group has moved even further into the study of its market through the opening of several of its own restaurants, including in Chicago, Detroit, and New Jersey, in addition to a range of Asian food markets. Bleu said at this point, the company doesn’t plan on making restaurants a significant part of its business, despite finding success in its limited engagement in the sector.
“The goal with the few business-to-consumer units we run is to feed people and keep track of what’s going on in the preferences of our customers,” he said. “We’re very respectful and appreciate our existing customer base of sushi restaurants and we don’t want to compete with them, though we might grow in the B2C space in a couple of venues, as we do quite well there.”
On the sustainability front, True World Group achieved Marine Stewardship Council chain of custody certification in September 2019 for its albacore, sockeye salmon, and Atlantic surf clam products. The certification guarantees True World products are traceable throughout the supply chain to an MSC-certified source.
“True World Foods is demonstrating leadership in sustainability with this achievement,” MSC Americas Regional Director Brian Perkins said in a press release announcing the certification. “Chain of custody certification is important for supply chain sustainability as well as for consumers, because it assures that standards are met throughout the supply chain, and that the products are traceable back to a sustainable fishery. This is a notable accomplishment and we’re proud of True World Food’s dedication to sustainable seafood.”
Bleu told SeafoodSource he is “constantly trying to think about how the company can be responsible” in regard to environmental and sustainability issues.
“We are worried about sustainability,” he said. “We have a huge book of products that we will sell to our customers – we have 32,000 items in our product database. I’m wrestling with how we move all that into a more sustainable direction. I have our guys rooting through our database now, just doing discovery still.”
Besides working with MSC, True World Group is also working with Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to urge regional fisheries management organizations to improve the sustainability of their fisheries, Bleu said.
“We want improvement. At the same time, we don’t want to put a lot of workers out of work in developing countries,” he said. “We are working with the broader industry to improve processes, and for sushi, a big priority is to cut down on the cheating. We are hawks on illegally caught fish and don’t tolerate that in our organization.”
Bleu said the company’s vision is guided by the principles inspired by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, though the organization is not affiliated or controlled by the Unification Church.
“We entered the fish business with high ideals of feeding humanity,” he said. “We are dedicated to feeding humanity and our goals with our business are intertwined with our background and who we are. We’re polite but vigorous – we want people to come through on what we expect them to do. We feel challenged to do meaningful things – it’s not just a business for us, it’s an internal quest to live our core values and work for the greater good.”
While the overall sushi market in the United States and worldwide is growing, Bleu said True World Group’s success has much to do with an organization-wide commitment to teamwork and dedication to the nonprofit that manages the company as an owner, Bleu said.
“Overall, we’re growing the business and doing well. We don’t know what the limit to the demand there is. But we always want to have a long-term view in the business. Someone asked me how long we want to be in this segment, and I replied that we want to be the dominant seafood supplier in 100 years. So that’s our time horizon,” he said. “We all own the vision and the commitment to dream big. We’re serious about it. We’re intense guys, but we also try to find the fun in it.”
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource