When I conduct food-safety presentations, I refer to the importance of perfection to avoid food-safety recalls or quality failures. When I visit a plant, I hear management elevate concerns about food safety, good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and quality issues to their employees by saying things such as, “If we do not get it right, this could cost your job,” or, “In the event something goes wrong with quality or food safety, the plant will close.” This raises fear in the audience and elevates their attention.

This may appear to be a veiled threat from management to hourly and supervisory employees, but most employees get the message. However, some believe the reference is being made about other employees. It is important that all who work in the food industry look in the mirror to evaluate their activities every day.

The following is a postmortem of a plant that thought it was better than that but later found itself in a major recall. I had visited the plant on numerous occasions through the years and came away feeling it was unloved by management and employees. The programs seemed to be adequate, but the staff appeared to be going through the motions without commitment.

On one of my visits, I saw something concerning that I reacted to immediately. This situation — one I will never forget — was the ultimate in disrespect to the concept of safe food. On the production floor, an idle line was down for the day, and the maintenance team leader was using it as a table to lay out blueprints over a poly barrier. I could accept this, to a degree.

His clothing was dirty because of climbing under and about the line where the new product was running. Later he elevated himself and sat on the production line on a clean belt without any barrier. I no longer could contain my passion for food safety.

I approached the individual and expressed concern about his activities and their impact on GMPs and food safety, as well as his setting a bad example for others. I explained food-contact surfaces need to be respected and his action showed disrespect for his plant, company and food safety, in general. I heard later from the plant manager that I should have used a different approach. Looking back, I think my actions were justified.

When I saw this maintenance leader sitting there on a clean line, I began to question the facility’s commitment to food safety and GMPs. Something was wrong in this plant for this to happen. Maintenance personnel are critical to the success of a food plant, but if not engaged in the philosophy of food safety, they can be contamination vectors crossing zones from raw to ready-to-eat. Did the same attitude prevail in other areas or with other employees? Maybe so, because less than a year later, the plant underwent a massive recall of finished products because of the presence of pathogens.

We need to show respect and reverence when we work in food plants to ensure that we follow the rules and are perfect in what we do. The next time plant leadership talks about the need to protect jobs, the company and consumers, think of this situation. That plant is now closed and lifeless.

Joe Stout was director of global product protection, sanitation and hygenic design at Kraft Foods, where he worked for 28 years. He recently formed a consulting business, Commercial Food Sanitation LLC, to provide sanitation and hygenic design consulting.