Ask to talk to someone involved with food safety at Mission Foods and a hundred people could respond. Food safety is not a management initiative or a separate program at this world-renowned tortilla manufacturing company—it’s a way of life.
From the executive team down to the front lines, every employee at every Mission Foods plant actively participates in maintaining and verifying the food safety program, which has earned the company accreditation of its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program and the Ameri-can Baking Institute’s (AIB) “Superior” rating. This teamwork approach to business is fundamental to the company’s corporate philosophy.
“Being a team player is a way of life at Mission Foods, especially when it comes to quality and food safety,” says Lucy Gonzalez, vice president of quality with Mission Foods. “Empowerment is part of our vision for the whole organization. It’s how we behave.”
Aquired in the 1970s by Gruma Corp. and headquartered in Irving, TX, Mission Foods produces almost a quarter of all tortillas sold in the world. The company’s 4,500 employees at its 12 plants nationwide produce a full line of traditional flour and corn tortillas, 98% fat-free and multigrain varieties, tortilla chips, wraps, taco and tostada shells, and novelty tortilla snacks sold in quick service restaurants (QSRs), institutional foodservice operations and at retail throughout the nation.
Throughout the company’s 30-year history, safety and quality have always been the responsibility of every employee, according to Judi Lazaro, head of AIB’s North American Audit Services. She remembers working with Mission Foods many years ago as a corporate inspector, asking a plant manager how many people were involved with the food safety program. “Usually the answer is eight or 10, but he answered 560,” she notes. “At Mission, every employee in the plant is considered a food safety inspector because they believe if you educate everyone, you will always have consistent safety and quality.”
Going for the Gold
Years later, that attitude is even more prevalent as the company strives to achieve the highest AIB rating possible. Two years ago, Gruma Corp., the parent company of Mission Foods, decided to step up its efforts to prioritize food safety programs by launching its AIB Gold Standards program in all of its divisions. “In the past, not all of the Mission Foods plants were at the same high level or operating under the same conditions,” admits Gonzalez. But Mission executives took this program to heart. The company stepped up commitment to working with and learning from its third-party auditor and launched a campaign to spread the word that food safety is a top priority. The result is a culture that makes safety and quality assurance a priority and that enables employees to identify and react to food safety issues.
At Mission’s plants, “Quality Champions” were elected and food safety committees were created, with members representing all levels of the organization. Every plant set goals to achieve HACCP accreditation by April 2004. When a plant passes the HACCP accreditation process, the whole staff celebrates with a cookout, where they serve carne asada, burgers and tacos, and audit scores are prominently displayed so everyone is aware of the accomplishment. “When something as good as this takes place, it’s up to us to celebrate,” says Mike McCarty, plant manager for the Jefferson facility. “It’s the cornerstone of the way we do business.”
The last of the 12 Mission Foods plants was scheduled to get its HACCP status in April of 2004, setting the stage for Mission to begin the Gold Standard certification process, which requires HACCP validation and verification, a GMP audit qualification and a quality systems evaluation. “Achieving the HACCP accreditation has been a huge accomplishment for the entire organization,” McCarty says. “It’s made us a cohesive team.”
In addition, the processing plants have all received the “Superior” rating, which includes evaluation of the company’s food safety programs, pest control, operational methods and personnel practices, maintenance for food safety, and cleaning practices. “A ‘Superior’ rating is a great achievement,” says Lazaro. “It means you are beyond practical improvement.” To win this rating, manufacturers have to pass two consecutive audits with scores of 900 or above on a 1,000-point scale, and even though the audits can be announced, Mission prefers its audits to be unannounced, notes Lazaro. “Day in and day out these plant managers open their doors to inspectors. That’s quite an achievement. Your plants are truly the best of the best when they can consistently pass unannounced audits at different times of the year.”
Mission employees welcome the audits as an opportunity to get an outside perspective on their processes. Good audit scores are proof of their success and opportunities for reward and recognition, McCarty says. Bad audit scores give them a roadmap for improvement. “When we have a bad audit experience, the whole staff gets together to talk about what made the plant fail and we learn from that experience,” he says. “It gives employees the power to see what they could have done differently.”
Controlling Allergens, Chemicals and Foreign Materials
To maintain the consistently high level of quality and safety, the entire staff adheres to rigorous standards for food safety operating procedures. The program followed at each of the plants includes processes for assessing and segregating allergens, a chemical control program and a comprehensive metal detection system, says Carmen Olson, Mission Foods Total Quality Corporate Manager.
The Mission Foods quality team began the allergen program by eliminating all non-essential allergens, such as milk and soy, from the flour tortilla formulas to simplify the allergen segregation process and to reduce any possibility of cross-contamination. Products, such as the jalapeno cheese wrap, were reformulated, replacing milk in the recipe with cheese flavoring. The research team worked closely with vendors and consumers to ensure that the new milk-free formulas were just as good as the original formulas. This approach worked with all of the products, with the exception of the nacho cheese chips that just didn’t taste right without the milk, Olson says.
Once the allergens were identified, the Mission quality team created a segregation and color-coding system for preventing cross-contamination. Wheat flour is stored in separate silos and confined to specific areas of the warehouse. When the flour is moved into the processing plant, it is given a distinctive blue label that indicates that it is an allergen. Blue buckets, spoons, paperwork and other tools are used when working with the wheat products to further remove the risk of cross-contamination on the plant floor. Products containing allergens are also run at the end of the week whenever possible, and are followed by a complete line wash down. Before the lines are changed back, rapid allergen tests are conducted to make sure no allergen residue remains and to eliminate any potential for cross-contamination.
Mission also runs a metal detector program that requires every product to run through one of its metal detectors before shipping. The machines are set to identify contaminants as small as 1.5 millimeters, depending on the product’s characteristics. The machines are monitored hourly by the plant production lead or quality assurance technician. They also are checked and recalibrated when product lines are changed over and at the end of the shift.
The chemical control program at Mission includes a series of rules dictating which chemicals can be used, by whom and at which times. All chemicals are segregated in a locked storage room and no pest control chemicals are stored with in the facility. Mission outsources pest control services for all of its plants.
To accommodate all of these programs, the quality team offers extensive training to all employees. Those directly involved in performing food safety procedures complete detailed training courses and get regular updates through committee members and trainers. The rest of the staff receive awareness training on all of the food safety programs when they are hired, and get updates at the monthly plant meeting where 15 minutes are always dedicated to discussing a specific food safety training topic.
A large part of the food safety training is making employees aware of how the little things they do impact food safety, says Jose Manuel Ramos, total quality manager at Mission Foods’ Rancho Cucamonga, CA, plant. “It’s about helping them identify and deal with food safety hazards, whether it’s a problem in a batch of ingredients or safe hand washing procedures,” he says. “The more employees know, the safer the products are.”
Stop the Line!
Once they complete their training, employees are heavily involved in day-to-day plant food safety operations. Representatives from every level of the operation are members of each plant’s HACCP team, and often it is front-line employees who work directly with auditors, says Olson. At the Ranco Cucamonga plant, for example, a line operator who has been with the company for less than a year is on the HACCP team and will take over audits in his area, working with the auditor to provide records and participate in the review.
“Usually you see management doing that, but we want employees to see that they are a respected part of the food safety and quality assurance process,” she says. “It sends the message that food safety program isn’t a ‘management’ program, it’s part of everything we do.”
Food safety committee members also advocate for the program, spreading the word about the importance of food safety to their colleagues, says Kathy Trout, Fresno, CA, plant manager, which is why it is so important to gain participation from all areas of the plant. “After committee meetings, team members go back to their coworkers and let them know what’s going on, what management is focusing on, and the opportunities they all have to be a part of the program.”
Employees aren’t just admonished to keep food safety in mind. Empowerment at Mission means employees are decision makers. They are expected to identify and deal with problems as part of their job. “We make sure everyone understands that we want to do the right thing for the right reasons,” says McCarty. “If that means shutting down a line because someone sees a food safety hazard, then they can actually make that decision without fear.”
In several instances, this empowerment has saved the company thousands of dollars in lost productivity and avoidance of recalls. At the Fresno plant, for example, a city water issue recently adversely affected the quality of a batch of tortillas. One of the front-line employees noticed that the color of the dough didn’t look right, Trout says. Instead of running it anyway, the employee stopped the line and pointed out the problem to management. The line was down for an hour until they found the source of the problem and fixed it. “If that employee hadn’t pointed out the problem when he did it would have cost us a lot more time and money to fix,” Trout says.
At another Mission plant, an employee found a piece of plastic during packaging that had broken off from a machine and fallen into a batch of tortillas. The metal detection program didn’t catch it but the employee’s attention to detail prevented the foreign adulterant from contaminating the product. He immediately stopped the line and the plant was able to dispose of the defect product before it was shipped.
When an employee points out a problem or makes the bold decision to shut down a line due to a food safety concern, the plant’s Quality Champion publicly rewards them. Such employees are given free product or taken out to lunch and their heroic behavior is written up in the weekly company newsletter so that everyone sees how important food safety is to the company. “Whatever gets rewarded gets repeated,” says German Chavez, the Dallas, TX plant manager.
And it’s not just front-line employees who get rewarded for their individual actions. Annual bonuses and performance reports also are tied to food safety at Mission Foods. Whether or not a team passes planned and unannounced audits determines whether managers get their full increases, and participation in the food safety program is rated as part of the employee and management evaluations.
Since implementing the new program, Mission plant managers also have experienced reduced costs and improved efficiencies, which further impacts their bonus structure. And even though most major expenses are questioned by management, capital investment in food safety is always approved, says Gonzalez. “That sends a strong message that we will never jeopardize food safety.”
It also reinforces sound business practice, adds Trout. “When you have a quality food safety program, everything else just falls into place. It’s that simple.”
Now that’s really thinking outside the tortilla.
Sarah Fister Gale is Contributing Editor to Food Safety Magazine and it's sister publicaiton Organic Processing Magazine. An experienced writer and editor, Gale has written for Crain Business Publications and for Inc. Magazine.