Cargill's Angie Siemens perpetuates the company's commitment to making food safety a top priority.
With more than 700 people across North America dedicated to food safety specifically in its meat and poultry business operations, Wichita-based Cargill Protein’s investment in preventing and detecting vulnerabilities throughout its food supply chain is a continuous 24/7 effort every day of the year. One of the company’s leaders in this segment of Cargill’s business is Angie Siemens, Ph.D., vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory.

Because the meat business has an inherently higher risk profile, Siemens says the passion she and her team bring to making food safety a top priority is integral to the company’s culture.

“We have a commitment to our costumers, to their customers and to their business,” she says, “and the processes and procedures we have in place help us deliver what we have promised.”

Orchestrating the ongoing education and fueling the passion of key people throughout Cargill’s hierarchy is essential to ensuring the success of what happens on the floors of the company’s processing plants. “You have to look at the thought processes of food safety professionals who work cooperatively and absolutely work hand-in-hand with operations,” Siemens says. “Because at the end of the day, food safety is done on the plant floor.”
Cargill has used past challenges as learning lessons to better understand and improve food safety.

Learning lessons

Succeeding in food safety means understanding and looking closely at success stories and what it took in terms of dedicating resources and putting the right people in the right places to ensure that performance is maintained every day.

“We work to ensure we have positive public health outcomes and being able to protect our brands and provide a good value at the same time,” Siemens says, but inevitably, mistakes are made and even the most successful companies find themselves issuing product recalls.

Cargill is no exception to the rule when it comes to food-safety challenges and the company is committed to learning from its mistakes and learning from other companies’ challenges. “We have to learn what part of the process needs to be enhanced; what was missed in the process and make that a part of our continuous learning,” Siemens says.

Food safety culture relies on a learning environment and managing behaviors.
Looking at other companies’ recalls, specifically a competitor’s beef primal recall related to E. coli O157:H7 contamination in 2010 can serve as learning lessons. “We took a really deep look at how we were managing our beef processes and the understanding of E. coli in trim and how it impacted us relative to the management of our beef primals,” Siemens says, adding that companies including Cargill now have programs in place to systematically pull primals out of the supply chain based on food safety results of beef trim.

“We learned, and the entire industry learned,” she says.

Cargill’s Salmonella-related recall of about 36 million lbs. of ground turkey in 2011, was another unfortunate but beneficial learning experience. “Looking closer at how Salmonella works its way through the process, from the live side to the plant and the characteristics of that organism,” Siemens explained, is what caused the company to examine the processes and procedures it needed to put into place.

Much of the focus after that recall was on understanding the implications of levels of Salmonella and not just the prevalence of it but how it might exist throughout the production process. “We can continue to decrease overall levels of Salmonella while we are working to get rid of it and have very positive public health outcomes. We’ve put some practices in place and use some metrics to continue understanding how Salmonella is coming through in turkeys,” she says.

To that end, she says Cargill’s food safety culture is reliant on a learning environment with a goal of improving and learning without relying on a mistake or recall being made.

A commitment to food safety must come down from the top with every level believing that leadership supports them.

Ain't misbehaving

A successful food safety culture is dependent on employee behavior. Because of this overlap, Siemens’ food safety team partners with Cargill’s employee safety team to influence behaviors in a positive manner. “Understanding more about what motivates them and about what blind spots they might have and getting supervisors to work with them,” facilitates continuous improvement, she says.

Another critical piece of the food safety culture puzzle involves precise data collection, Siemens says, “and how do we use that data more proactively.” The key is collecting the right data that can be used to help the company’s teams working on the floors of its processing plants make the best decisions and allow them to assess if the processes need to be realigned. “Where can we best mitigate risk, and help our employees be successful?”

From a global standpoint, Siemens says conveying the company’s commitment to food safety and ensuring it permeates throughout the company, from the top-down, is crucial. “We have to have that visibility to make sure that they know that leadership supports them and that they are empowered in the food safety space.”

Cargill’s Food Safety Management System includes food safety verification and validation at its operations worldwide. This is one universal manner of maintaining control that is not always possible when it comes to other aspects of food safety culture.

Scaling up its standard for food safety culture and maintaining it at a high and consistent level at all of its facilities is an ongoing point of emphasis for Siemens and the supervisors and managers of the company’s diverse operations. Achieving success is assessed on a plant-by-plant basis and each facility and operation is treated like a standalone business. Various factors influence the success of each facility’s food safety culture. Variances include the history of each facility and whether they are Cargill legacy plants or one of the company’s acquired properties, where some cultures are already established. “While we have common procedures and common requirements, we do have to look at how those play out at all of those facilities and we’re very cognizant of that,” Siemens says.

Being a food safety professional at Cargill, Siemens says the company’s support allows her team to be empowered to make a difference each day. “We don’t have to answer questions about the ‘why,’” Siemens says. “Everybody knows the direction, so we continue to work on the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’”