Recalls prompted by food-borne illness have put companies out of business and left decades-long negative impressions among consumers. The deadly salmonella outbreak linked to Peanut Corporation of America is the most recent example of the long-range impact that one company’s alleged failure to train and uphold food safety standards can have on consumers. Nine people died and millions of products were pulled from shelves, causing shoppers to be skittish about any product containing peanuts or peanut butter.
In food manufacturing, training for food safety is not something that is nice to have. It’s a life-and-death requirement of doing business. Having a lax attitude about food safety is where problems arise, says John Butts, vice president of research for Land O’Frost, one of the largest manufacturers of lunchmeat products in the U.S.
"The companies that do an excellent job of food safety are the ones that create a culture of accountability from top to bottom," he says. "The way to create that culture is through education, training and carrying out by living it every day, with no exceptions allowed."
Butts points to the principles set forth in the 2008 book Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System, by Frank Yiannas, as an example of the right way to produce a culture of food safety.
He notes that without food safety training and a commitment on the part of the staff and management to adhere to the food safety regulations in a plant, standards cannot be achieved. "I can’t be in every plant all the time," he says. "I have to rely on a culture in which employees know and do the right things all the time."
The best way to achieve that culture is making sure employees know not just what they are expected to do, but why, says Will Daniels, vice president of quality food safety and organic integrity at Earthbound Farm, an organic produce company in Salinas, California. "It’s critical in adult education that people understand why you are asking them to do something, otherwise they will find ways to justify working around it."
He points to the use of hairnets as a common rule employees like to ignore. "The average person may not understand why wearing a hairnet on the factory floor is so important, but when they are educated about the risks of hair falling into the food and how unpleasant that would be for consumers, they get it," he says.
Along with understanding why they need to follow food safety protocols, employees need to be trained on what to do when problems occur, adds Kathleen Gilbert, president of Food Safety Specialists, a food safety consultancy in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. If a batch of product is tested for pH balance and falls below minimum requirements, for example, the worker doing the testing needs to know what to do with that failed batch.
"When you are only trained to do the test, and you don’t know what to do with the product to prevent it from getting out of your control, that’s when failures occur," she says.
It’s everyone’s job
At Earthbound Farm, Daniels’ goals for his employees and his facilities is to be "inspector ready" every day, which means that at any given time, an auditor could walk through the operation and find no food safety violations or hazards. "The challenge for any facility is going from ‘getting ready for inspections’ to being inspection ready," he says.
Achieving that kind of environment isn’t easy. It takes formal training, regular educational updates, and a culture of peer-to-peer support where employees help one another avoid mistakes and hold one another accountable when they make them.
The Earthbound Farm food safety training program centers on a seasonal food safety course that covers the food safety strategies expected of every employee, why they company does food safety audits, and the impact food-borne pathogens can have if an outbreak occurs.
Daniels’ team follows up the seasonal course with weekly "tailgate" training sessions at team meetings where the group covers a single topic or addresses a frequently occurring violation. He also attends monthly department meetings to discuss broader food safety training topics, such as preventive maintenance strategies or new equipment issues.
"It’s all about reinforcement," he says. "It’s the consistent delivery of a message that says why these rules are in place, and that we going to enforce them."
Enforcement is the most important part of driving home the culture of accountability.
"If you deliver training on hairnets, then you see someone on the floor not wearing one, you need to say something, otherwise you are not holding people accountable," Daniels says, noting that this failure to follow up is one of the biggest mistakes facility managers can make. "In the end, you get what you tolerate."
On the other hand, when people do perform their jobs and follow food safety standards, it’s just as important to acknowledge and reward that behavior. At Earthbound Farm, employee bonuses are tied in part to successful food safety inspections, and Daniels throws barbecues for the staff to recognize their hard work and adherence to these rules.
Rewards can also be as simple as public praise for making a good decision, notes Butts. He recalls a time when the Land O’Frost owner was visiting his plant in Arkansas.
"He saw some product on the slicer and he wanted to make an adjustment to the slicer," Butts says. But when he touched the meat, the slicer operator realized he was compromising food safety protocols. "She stopped him and made him throw the product away."
Instead of getting angry, the owner congratulated her on preventing him from making a mistake.
"She stood her ground and he was proud of her," Butts says, noting that this is an excellent example of a culture of food safety that is supported across the organization. "When you teach people the right thing to do and recognize them for that behavior, they will do the right thing all the time, whether you are there or not."
The price of ignorance
Butts also notes that for the food safety program to work, the frontline workers aren’t the only ones who will who need training. The executive team and middle management should also attend food safety courses to ensure that they understand why food safety is a priority and how to enforce it on the job.
"You can’t let the executive team get isolated from what you are doing, because when they get in front of people, they have to know what to say and how to represent the values of the company," Butts says. "It’s important that they not only understand why we have food safety strategies in place, but what the threats and consequences are of not following them."
Communicating the consequences of a breach in food safety is the best way to win stakeholder support for food safety training. It helps the higher-ups make the connection between training and the bottom line, adds Sandra Perryman, strategic food safety training specialist for the National Environmental Health Association in Denver.
"The business case for food safety training is that if you don’t do it, you’ll be out of business," she says.
That doesn’t mean that the executive team needs to go through the same courses as frontline workers, Gilbert says. Rather, the content should be customized for their position and role in the business.
"Executives need a good understanding of what the food safety practices are, the managers need a better understanding because they are managing frontline employees, and the workers who handle the product need to understand the basics of food safety for the plant, plus receive specific training on their roles," Gilbert says.
Even if a major outbreak never happens, food safety training can cut costs from everyday production processes by reducing product waste due to mistakes. And the training can prevent the need to destroy batches that don’t meet quality standards, Perryman adds.
"It also improves morale," she says. "When you take the time to invest in an employee’s education, it shows you value them and makes them feel better about their job."