Food-safety culture litmus test

by Laura Dunn Nelson
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Advocating for a food-safety culture is not a challenge, but implementing one is. All too often responsibility has been left with quality-assurance and quality-control departments, and on a few ill-fated occasions their efforts have fallen short. The 380 million egg recall following a Salmonella outbreak traced to one plant in 2010 illustrates what happens when a plant-wide, food-safety culture is not all that it should be. Approximately 700 illnesses were attributed to the outbreak.

Every meat and poultry company endeavors to achieve a culture of food safety and yet lapses that result in contamination, illness and subsequent recalls occur far too frequently. Many recent food-recall incidents spurred enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act that was signed into law in 2011. No doubt, employees receive instruction about E. coli, cross-contamination and hand washing among other safety issues. But how do companies and the public know whether everyone gets the message and follows it every day at work?

Changing plant-wide behavior
Frank Yiannas, Wal-Mart’s vice president of food safety, sees the primary obstacle as behavior. In his book, “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System,” Yiannas argues the changing food-safety environment goes “beyond traditional training, testing and inspectional approaches to managing risks.” It’s about making sure that safety and behavior are one and the same in every plant. What’s needed, he says, is “a systems-based approach to managing food safety risk.”

Systems-based evaluations for worker comprehension and practical use have been the exception rather than the rule, despite innovations in training and comprehension technology that have generated positive results. Unfortunately, the training approach of a decade ago is still the standard method of teaching with lengthy PowerPoint presentations and little formal testing for comprehension despite the better options offered by technology. Such out-dated training is no guarantee that behavior has been influenced, which may explain why contamination issues continue despite what a company believes is its best efforts in training its workers.

In short, for entirely too many plants there appears to be no comprehensive approach in developing an updated training program that meets the dynamic needs of the entire organization by influencing individual employee behavior necessary to achieve a true culture of food safety.

This is not to suggest that companies are satisfied with these results. However, during challenging business times when the emphasis is on running lean, budget cuts and keeping costs low, shortcuts can occur more often—a practice that places a company, its customers and end-users at risk. Another issue is time. Good comprehension training to address the current regulatory and best industry practices takes time, and that may run counter to meeting production goals, which is also not a healthy scenario.

Then there is an intangible issue: worker behavior when a supervisor isn’t there. Are hands being thoroughly washed when no one is looking and does everyone understand the ever-present threat of cross contamination? Companies should not have to wait for customer or regulatory audits for their answers.

Any evaluation of food safety starts with ascertaining all the risks inherent in each plant and leveraging measurement tools to track whether these risks have been eliminated through training. A key here is plant-wide involvement. Food safety is too critical to be left solely in the province of QA and QC. Marketing, human resources and operations are all parts of the whole when it comes to delivering efficient operations and safe, wholesome products. The same thinking should apply to food-safety culture. Everyone in the plant needs to be in the mix by sharing key training success metrics and refining the training program to meet those training goals.

A culture emphasizing food-safety awareness and accountability starts at the top. Executives and middle management are out in front—an excellent way to promote visibility, leadership and accountability at all levels. This is such an important component that it should not be underestimated. All food-safety knowledge should be shared from top to bottom and vice versa. Knowledge is not a one-way street and encouragement of employee input will help immeasurably in developing a sustainable food-safety culture.

Success stories
Maple Leaf Foods, Toronto, Ontario, revised its training protocols following a major product recall in 2008 and turned to a technology-based system. Learning and comprehension have been more clearly conveyed throughout its facilities according to Randy Huffman, chief food safety officer. “We use that information to make all employees better at what they do,” Huffman said.

Gillian Kelleher, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Wegmans Food Markets, said her company requires participation by every department in instilling a food-safety culture. “There must be no mixed messages so everyone must work together with clear and frequent communication to all concerned,” Kelleher said.

Kelleher calls “management commitment and follow-through” the most critical components of a food-safety culture. “A company’s senior management must lead by example supporting and encouraging food safety efforts and basically ‘walk the talk,’” she said.

These examples illustrate that achieving a food-safety culture requires more than the historical methods of training, learning and implementation for the hourly worker. The best way to energize this culture is to spur the sense of commitment by getting everyone in the facility involved in the development of a robust training platform that documents training comprehension and is linked to measuring key employee behaviors.

Laura Dunn Nelson is director of industry relations for Austin, Texas-based Alchemy Systems LP, which creates and globally markets interactive training products that use technology and media to educate individuals and groups. For more information, visit www.alchemysystems.com.
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