No matter how large or small the organization, a food processing facility should regard food safety and concern for public health as its number one priority. Initiating recalls can be costly and time-consuming, reducing yields and productivity. On average it takes several years for a company to recover from a foodborne illness outbreak that has been traced back to its facility. Some never do. It takes years to develop a successful brand and gain consumer loyalty, while it can take only seconds to destroy it. Effectively training employees helps to prevent these adverse effects and achieve the company’s food safety and quality goals.

In fact, without training, individuals and companies are likely to form bad habits that can be costly and difficult to correct. It may be difficult for some employees to comprehend terms like Listeria monocytogenes, zero tolerance, defect action levels or spore-forming bacteria. Although most facilities have qualified management educated in food safety, it is sometimes a challenge to convey the concepts they know and understand so well to actual manufacturing employees: those who actually touch, handle and process foods. It becomes important, then, for the food company to determine which concepts will be included in training and the exact approach as to how to convey these topics. This undertaking must be tailored to each individual company because the diversity and educational levels of employees differ among companies and within companies.

All food processors should have a well-designed food safety training program that includes a diverse curriculum and answers the whos, whats and whys associated with food safety activities. A well-organized training matrix helps ensure good quality, a consistent product and a sanitary environment under which foods are produced. If carried out effectively, food safety, quality and sanitation training help to assure a safe product for the end user and ultimately protects your brand.

Who Trains?
Management plays the most significant role in the effective training of employees. Not only is it the responsibility of management to ensure that all employees are educated about the company’s food safety policies and best practices, but managers must also be alert to personnel training needs. It is a good idea to have built-in procedures in place to determine when a need for training exists. Look for trends. For example, if verification monitoring or test results show that a process or product is abnormal or outside of specifications, this may indicate that there is a need to conduct food safety training. Perhaps a new employee working in the problem area has not had adequate training for working in said area.

Managers must be good role models and know the rules themselves. Production managers should be available to oversee aspects of the operations and make certain that employees are performing job functions as trained. Management holds the task of helping to create a culture built around food safety within the organization. Without this foundation, training will not be effective.

In-house food safety training should be conducted by trained, qualified personnel. Every food production or handling facility should have a person or persons in charge (PIC) of training. These individuals should be qualified, and have above average knowledge of food safety. They should stay current with industry standards and new regulations and be supported in these endeavors by corporate management. In addition, it is good to assign different trainers to different areas. The sanitation supervisor may be more effective in training on sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs), while the warehouse manager would serve better to teach teammates about the food safety aspects of an incoming goods inspection or shipping program. All training material should be submitted to the quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) supervisor for review prior to training.

The food production and handling facility can also utilize the expertise of its outside contractors, such as pest control operators and chemical suppliers, to assist in training. Most service providers offer some level of application and maintenance training as a service to their clients, which can serve to validate what the food company has already taught its employees. Similarly, outside auditing firms, consultants and other food safety training providers will generate information about the company’s processes and practices that can be incorporated into the training program. Depending on the size of the firm, employees may respond to non-company employees more positively. They often view these supplier technicians as “new” adjunct members of the department team and will regard what they have to say as expert opinion.

Train the Whats and Whys
Every employee (including managers) should receive initial food safety protocol training, and receive refresher training on a regular basis thereafter. Initial training is by far the most imperative. Companies should require that employees undergo some sort of initial training before beginning to work. Many times new employees have had no prior exposure to working in a food processing environment, and even less knowledge of food safety and safe food handling practices. Training from the onset prevents teammates from having the opportunity to form bad or incorrect habits.

It’s not safe to assume that employees already know something without having been trained. It is imperative that employees understand the risks associated with producing unsafe foods and where they fit into the whole scheme. Terms like food safety, cross-contamination, (the transfer of a potentially hazardous substance to another surface or food) and bacteria should become part of the facility’s vocabulary. Employees should have a general understanding of what bacteria is, that some bacteria are potentially dangerous if present in food, where microbiological hazards are typically found, the means by which these are transferred, and the measures used to prevent or eliminate them from contaminating foods. Similarly, employees should be educated about allergen control practices, physical hazard prevention and chemical cross-contamination, and the role they play in ensuring these hazards do not end up in final product.

The emphasis during training is to urge employees to follow safe habits and educate them as to why this is important. Initial training should convey to employees the importance of food safety by emphasizing the risk associated with producing unsafe foods, including the number of consumers that can be affected, the severity of a foodborne illness (including death) and how the company image and job security could be affected. It is good to show employees “why.” This may require, for example, demonstrating exactly how a hair restraint should be worn, followed by an explanation about how it could prevent bacteria found in hair from falling into or contaminating food and prevents employees from touching or playing with hair and later preparing food. If an employee has to perform a temperature check and record it, explain why this procedure is required and what employees stand to gain or prevent by taking this step. When employees see these practices demonstrated, it is easier to continue training with more advanced, detailed food safety concepts, and they are provided an important foundation that keeps them committed to using food safety best practices consistently and routinely.

Food safety training should start with the basics. This means basing the training program on Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) guidelines. GMP training should be conducted at least annually and include training for employees and management personnel. GMP training should cover all aspects of current GMPs listed in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21. It is good to place special emphasis on the employee hygiene aspects of this guideline in any food safety training program, such as:

• Good personal hygiene begins upon reporting to work. Wearing clean uniforms helps to prevent the induction of bacteria. By requiring that items such as clean smocks and aprons are provided at the facility, the employer can help to prevent the transfer of harmful bacteria.

• Providing clean and well-maintained changing rooms significantly reduces the risks of cross contamination within the plant. The company should provide a place for workers to store personal belongings.

• Training should focus on keeping common areas extremely sanitary. During the course of a day, many employees will enter and exit common areas, including the changing room, bathrooms, chemical storage rooms, food-contact and nonfood-contact areas, increasing the potential for cross-contamination. The more people who come into contact with potential contaminants, the greater the risk of transferring these to food or food contact surfaces.

• A strict policy on hand washing should be in place, and all employees should be given training in proper hand washing techniques.

Other general GMP training concepts include; eating, drinking and smoking only in designated areas, the proper use of hair restraints, the removal of all exposed jewelry, and prohibiting employees from bringing personal items into processing areas. It is not recommended that employees be allowed to wear work boot/shoes to their homes after the end of a shift and employees should be apprised of this in the initial training session.

Since a large percentage of foodborne illness outbreaks are the result of employees working while they are sick or infected, it is very important to educate employees about sick day policies, which means that ill employees are not permitted to work and that the policy is strictly enforced. Employees should know that if they are diagnosed with Salmonella typhi, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Shigella spp., norovirus or Hepatitis A virus, they will need to be released by a physician before being allowed to return to work. (Additional risks associated with Hepatitis A are that some individuals can be carriers of the disease in that they do not exhibit any symptoms themselves although the disease is still prevalent and transferable. As such, it is a good idea to have employees who prepare and come into contact with foods be vaccinated for Hepatitis A. Since Hepatitis A is widely transmitted through cross contamination and the fecal oral route, it is good to enforce strict hand washing policy and to focus some training on operational ways to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

A diverse training matrix encompasses every aspect of the operation from purchasing, receiving, storage, processing, shipping, distribution and sanitation. Training will include general food safety topics; however, it must be specific to your operation and procedures. Although there are many concepts that should be communicated to all employees, it is important that training is specific to an individual’s job function. It might not be as significant for a process line cook to be trained in the proper chemical concentrations for sanitizing, for example. This employee’s primary concern might be the CCPs (i.e., cooking to minimum internal temperature) as specified in the HACCP plan.

Regardless of the area employees should be trained with specific regard to procedures and corrective actions. By doing this, employees will not have to try to create a way to fix a problem should one occur. If by observation a part of the process renders results outside of a specific, predetermined range, employees should have already been trained on what exactly is to be done in this situation. There can be many different employees who perform the same tasks on the same products. Effective training helps to ensure product consistency among batches and between production runs.

Of course, if your company is practicing HACCP, it is required that a member of management is trained in HACCP. This could be accomplished by completing a HACCP course the covers the principles of the plan in detail. This management employee receives a certification upon completing this course. Also, all employees monitoring critical control points (CCPs) must undergo specific HACCP training. As always, this training must be documented and include training records.

Train With a Purpose
Whatever the circumstance, there should be some type of assessment after training to verify that employees have understood the concepts presented. Not being able to prove that training has taken place can sometimes be viewed as equally as bad as having never performed it. This is why it is particularly important to officially document training. This can be an outline of the topics covered and an employee sign-off sheet. This helps to hold employees accountable and validates training during audit procedures. Keep a set of records with the Human Resource department, and another with the QA/QC manager. Each employee should have a file that lists all of the company’s training programs and those applicable to each employee. Each category can be checked off to indicate that an employee has successfully completed training in any given area. This makes it very easy to see if a particular employee shows a deficiency in knowledge. Encourage employees by posting accomplishments or issuing achievement certificates, or add incentives or award programs for having successfully completed training.

The food company should make training a normal event within the company. Have employees give input and interject their questions or concerns during the training. Employees need to know that management places a strong emphasis on training. The act of training employees helps employees realize their importance and value to operations, and productivity. Some general approaches to communicating food safety information to employees will help make training programs effective:

• Explain the purpose, goals and objective of the training. The purpose may be for some corrective reason (i.e., something wasn’t done exactly right and you want to prevent a second occurrence).

• Regardless of how often, keep sessions brief and to the point.

• Maintain focus on food safety—not other business matters.

• Utilize activities to keep the training concepts interesting. Have employees wash hands, apply some Glo-Germ, and turn off the lights. They will remember the importance of washing better after seeing the green glow of bacterial residue.

• Accompany and follow up training by posting or making available materials that remind employees about what they’ve learned, such as posters.

Companies with detailed, effective food safety training programs experience less turnover rate than companies who do not have the same. Ultimately, a good training program helps to retain employees, and in turn, the company spends less time training new employees and more time producing safe good quality foods.

Johnnie Deon Green began working in the food industry in 1999, and was named the Quality Assurance Manager for SWH Custom Foods in Fullerton, CA in 2004. He has served in the areas of production, quality assurance and sanitation in meat processing plants and cook chill food production facilities. During his years of service, he has increased plant output and production capacity by effectively managing and streamlining the production process. Fluent in French, Spanish, and English, Green has used his aptitude for languages to serve the diverse and ever-growing clientele and employment pool of the high-end foodservice industry. In the training arena, he has overseen training programs that range from development, translation, communication of training materials to employee development and bilingual training.