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Topco Associates on Global Food Safety and Quality

Marc Simony
April 15, 2015

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Traveling around the world has given Howard Popoola an appreciation for the food supply chain’s quality and safety in the United States. Popoola, vice president of quality Assurance at Skokie, Ill.-based Topco Associates, the nation’s largest private-label cooperative, gained his global perspective early in his career working in food safety for the United Nations.

After earning his master’s degree in food and industrial microbiology from the University of Lagos in his native Nigeria, Popoola became the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Program Manager for the U.N. Food Program, responsible for establishing HACCP systems in food donor processing facilities in more than 80 countries.

He gained further experience in quality assurance and food safety positions with major food brands, including WestFarm Foods (now Darigold), Kraft Foods, and Nestle before joining distribution company U.S. Foodservice, and then Topco in 2009. Along the way, he’s worked in several national and international organizations, including the Safe Quality Food Institute. In 2010, he was named to a two-year term on the Fruits and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee of the USDA.

At Topco, Popoola and his staff of 24 oversee regulatory compliance, nutrition, quality, and safety for more than 60,000 product SKUs, and monitor the 1,700 supplier facilities that produce them. To do this efficiently, Popoola has implemented a risk-based evaluation system for quality assurance and food safety, which leverages automation to allow quality assurance personnel to use their time effectively by focusing on the suppliers and products most likely to encounter problems.

He relies on an automated system for record-keeping in place with the help of TraceGains to coordinate safety and quality documentation and product specifications for all of those facilities.

SmartBrief spoke with Popoola about his crucial role at Topco, a $14 billion, retailer-owned company.

Topco has 62 member retailers who cooperatively own the company. What are the keys to working in an environment with so many different constituents?

Popoola: We understand our members have their businesses to run, and the key is communication. Our members want to know what’s going on and what’s coming down the pipeline. We have a quality advisory council with 16 of the top members, and we talk about issues of mutual concern about quality and food safety.

What attracts you to work in food safety and quality assurance?

Popoola: Most people, especially in developing countries, buy food at their local markets, and when you look at the conditions in those markets, you have to wonder about food safety. I think that affected me early in my career — I love the fact that we’re able to impact people’s health, that people can walk into the food store and buy products without falling sick.

It’s a feeling of accomplishment every time I see our products in consumers’ carts. I know they’re going to have a good experience, not only from a food safety perspective but also from a quality standpoint.

How has technology changed the role of the people who work in quality assurance and food safety?

Popoola: We used to maintain an audit team that went out and inspected facilities, but now business has grown, and there are more suppliers. My staff today aren’t auditors — we’re quality assurance professionals. We’ve been able to take advantage of automation to help manage that supply base. If there’s an issue, we’ll visit those facilities and understand what’s going on.

Today, if we take on a new supplier, there’s a risk assessment questionnaire the supplier has to complete, and that gives us a 5,000-foot view of the supplier’s facility. We’re able to translate that into a “yes” or a “no” for the supplier.

Whether they’re certified to the GFSI benchmarking plan or not comes into the decision-making process.

Automation has changed the way we police suppliers. It makes all the difference between us being auditors and focusing on the job of quality assurance. 

What are the qualities you look for in QA staff?

Popoola: Topco has many great people, and I have people in my group who’ve been with the company for 20 years. I have the benefit of those long-tenured employees.

The development of people is vital to me. We’re taking people who’ve been out in the field being de facto auditors, and we’re turning them into people who can use automation in the decision-making process. Now I have people who’re able to dive into data on supplier performance, look at how a product has performed over time and use those data points to make decisions about the products and whether we continue to do business with that supplier.

With technology today, we can reject products before suppliers ship them out of the facility. We can tell if the temperature has been breached on a supply truck coming from California to Texas and call the driver in Phoenix and ask him to turn around because we’ll reject his load.

What do you consider your most significant accomplishments?

Popoola: When I joined U.S. Foods, it was just fresh off of that accounting scandal. They had a food safety and quality group with fewer than 10 people, and we grew that to almost 25 people when I was the brand director of food safety and quality assurance. We made food safety a household term in the foodservice world. 

Coming over to Topco, from foodservice to retail, it was different for me and quite challenging. Within the first month at Topco, we dropped two suppliers who weren’t performing up to quality standards. I quickly laid down the law. In my five-plus years at Topco Associates, I’d say we’ve accomplished a lot. We went from monitoring products for quality to a risk-based quality program, a program that takes into account the risk associated with a particular product and the supplier’s overall compliance.

On the x-axis, we have the supplier performance. On the y-axis, we have the risk performance of the actual product itself — we classify the product as low, medium or high risk, and put that in the matrix and the supplier’s performance, to help us determine what we should be focusing on. We implemented that successfully.

Another thing we accomplished at Topco was the ability to automate the information systems we use in determining which suppliers to look at and which products to look at. Topco has more than 1,700 supplier facilities that provide us with products. While we make it mandatory for suppliers to achieve high benchmarks, we also understand that it would be challenging to keep up with 1,700 supplier facilities. So that’s where automation comes into play, and that is where we implemented technology here at Topco Associates, and we’ve had some help from TraceGains.

Today, we don’t have to get on the phone to a supplier to ask for a certificate from an audit they just performed. All they do is go into the system, post the audit, see it, approve it, and we know the supplier is good for the next year or so.

Another area where we’ve taken advantage of automation is product information – specifications, so we’re able to link suppliers to the product specifications. Everything is connected and automated, and it saves us a lot of time and helps us focus more on other things.

Download the Topco case study to learn more regarding automation in quality.

SmartBrief first published a shorter version of this interview.