There are over 50 restaurant chains that have over $1 billion in annual sales each. Some of these companies are quick to claim they have world-class food safety. But do they, really? What exactly makes a foodservice company best-in-class or world-class in food safety? Why would a company care to achieve those levels? This article will outline the processes and approaches that result in an elite food safety program.

Maturity Modeling
One such approach for outstanding food safety is maturity modeling, which is the application of simple principles to measure continuous improvement. The value of process improvement is understated. Organizations have experienced increased safety, productivity and quality, as well as decreased labor, waste and unproductivity. There is absolutely no doubt that process optimization leads to cost savings in food safety management in foodservice operations.

Figure 1 shows the suggested progression for a foodservice food safety management system. This progression is based on a process maturity model. A minimal system starts from the lower left corner and proceeds counterclockwise to emerge at the top left, with food safety embedded into its corporate DNA.

The Incomplete Food Safety Program
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) model food code and its state- or local-level iterations define the minimum regulations (criteria) for operating a foodservice facility safely. The benefit of the food code is that it was created using a stakeholder process and definitively addresses the main hazards to food safety. FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have spent decades studying the impacts of this code on foodservice food safety. Typically, regulators perform twice-annual inspections reviewing and uncovering food safety risks.

Despite being an excellent foundational set of rules, food safety management by food code alone is insufficient. The main drawback is that management at this level is purely reactive. Problems are discovered once or twice per year and hopefully corrected in short order. The “fires” are put out, yet errors and mistakes smolder without notice or regard the remainder of the year.

Performance Assurance (Active Management)
This first level of food safety management maturity seeks to fill the gap between twice-annual inspections. At this level, foodservice operations are expected to have elements of active management. FDA supports active managerial control as a method to begin to be proactive in foodservice food safety rather than totally reactive. Company policies emerge, people have specific job tasks and resources are provided.

Active management includes educating and certifying food safety managers and encourages operators to have written Standard Operating Procedures. The use of food safety posters and forms for recordkeeping is encouraged. Standardized recipes should be used and purchase specifications should exist to outline approved food sources. Attention must be paid to equipment, facility design and maintenance, as well as employee health. Some form of worker training is required. Even with all of these features, operators at this level are usually policy heavy and enforcement light.

Managed Food Safety
This is the second level of food safety management maturity. The elements of active management are formalized and aligned across all units. At its core, this level seeks to add some of the verification procedures lacking in the previous level. Records are kept, reviewed and acted upon. As management maturity grows, a company will establish solid food safety management programs such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and prerequisite programs.   

The top of this level would include full implementation of HACCP and employ comprehensive prerequisite programs, such as those found in ISO 22000. This includes robust sanitation, temperature control, personnel hygiene, maintenance, safe sources of food and water and many other specific good retail practices. All of these programs will proactively help manage food safety.

Defined Food Safety Management
The defined food safety level is achieved when an organization has fully implemented and aligned HACCP and prerequisite programs across all of its units or properties. The HACCP and prerequisite programs have been refined at the corporate level and tailored to the organization. Adjustments are made for regulatory differences in jurisdictions with an eye toward minimizing their impact. Rapid incident resolution includes root cause analyses and evaluations. Integrated systems are in place to focus on prevention to minimize or prevent deviations before they occur.

This is also the stage where foodservice corporations begin to look at external food safety issues, such as their supply chain. With the exception of consumers, the entire food chain occurs before the foodservice operations get their hands on food. At this level, food safety becomes a key message to all employees. Training and education are internal, integrated and not the sole function of external certification programs. This is also the level where business management techniques are employed for resources (personnel and tools), organizational alignment, decision making, line-of-business integration and risk management.

Quantified Food Safety Management
You can’t manage something you can’t measure. Today’s electronic data capture environment permits the collection of thousands of data points daily. Take a 40-item checklist for food safety inspection. The twice-annual regulatory inspection produces 80 data points. A company that self-inspects twice daily would generate 80 data points daily or almost 30,000 data points annually. A chain of 1,000 restaurants would generate 30 million data points annually. What can be done with those numbers?

Compliance data points are indicators of food safety. Trending is used to look at the direction of indicators over time. Benchmarking measures performance compared with another data set. Naturally, metrics and data can be compared in nearly infinite ways. Measured variables can be tested for their impact on food safety. Is there a region of the country that does better? Do certain managers result in better performance? Which food safety concepts need more training, resources or attention?

The last maturity metric comprises key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs combine several indicators to yield objective performance facts. These become the indicators that answer the main objective of a food safety program: Are we producing safe foods? Luckily for us, CDC and FDA have been examining KPIs for more than 20 years related to foodservice operations. They have indicated that there are five major risk factors that could lead to foodborne illness:

•    Safe food source

•    Personnel hygiene

•    Safe cooking and hot holding

•    Safe cooling and cold holding

•    Cross-contamination

Therefore, measuring the safety level of these KPIs gauges whether the company achieved its food safety goals. The key to metrics is to choose those that lead to actionable data. Lagging indicators are those of past performance. These are certainly important, but to help minimize food safety risks, leading indicators are needed. Leading indicators point to trends of actionable items that can be improved before they can result in foodborne illness.

Optimized Food Safety Management
The final level of management maturity is the optimized level or the continuous improvement level. The previous level provided all of the metrics to evaluate food safety. Now the metrics and performance data are used to improve. Process improvement, resource improvement and people improvement are continuously made at this level. It’s an infinite loop that seeks to evaluate past performance and predict, plan, apply, measure and evaluate new improvements. As continuous improvements are made, a keen eye is used to find cost-saving opportunities (reducing food waste, power consumption, staffing hours, sanitation chemicals and increasing quality and efficiency). Improvements in the process, tools and people become integrated into the corporate DNA. It becomes second nature to strive to makes things better.

What exactly makes a foodservice company best-in-class or world-class in food safety? Reaching a managed food safety level makes for a competent, and perhaps certified, food safety system. A corporation must mature into the defined maturity level to be best-in-class. “World class” would then be reserved for food safety management systems that have matured into and past the quantified and optimized maturity levels. World-class food safety management programs that exist in this continuous improvement state for several years and beyond, where food safety becomes part of the corporate DNA, would be the platinum standard. Why would a company desire to be world-class in food safety? All of the leading national and global foodservice companies have an overwhelmingly strong reputation. Reputation is the single most important driver in value creation or value destruction. In some cases, the highest-reputation companies outperform their competitors by 100 percent. Food safety increases reputation. Reputation leads to greater profits.  

Brian A. Nummer, Ph.D., is a food microbiology and food safety specialist for cooperative extension at Utah State University.