In our series examining food safety culture along the food supply chain, our next stop is distribution. We’ve previously touched on aspects of creating a culture of food safety and summarized the perspectives of industry leaders in the primary production sector of the global food supply chain.

We invited industry leaders with experience in distribution to help elucidate the challenges around creating a culture of food safety. Our panelists are Jorge A. Hernandez, chief food safety officer at Wholesome International, Larry Keener, International Product Safety Consultants LLC, and Veny Gapud, M.Sc., CFS, independent consultant with EAS Consulting Group.

FSM: How do you see your personal role in creating a culture of food safety?

Hernandez: While I am currently the chief food safety officer at Wholesome International, for the last 11 years, I was the senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance at US Foods, the second-largest broad-line food distributor in the U.S. My role in both organizations is, and was, to help create and maintain a positive food safety culture: a culture that is always learning and improving and that is completely supported by the company’s operations and business.

Keener: For more than 35 years, I have advocated for the inclusion of food safety in the strategic plans of my clients, with the view, then, that giving food safety visibility at that level of governance and planning would begin to incorporate this important business activity into the corporate culture.

Gapud: As a former quality and food safety officer of food companies, I have had extensive experience providing leadership, guidance and strategies on food safety and developing and implementing comprehensive quality and food safety programs. An integral part of my responsibilities was the approval of reputable suppliers, processors and distributors. Effective partnerships among processors, distributors and foodservice establishments are important drivers of improved food safety practices. For a processor, having manufactured products according to the best food safety protocols does little good if end-customer foodservice and retail establishments receive temperature-abused or damaged products. Additionally, a distributor’s customers also have a responsibility to ensure that the integrity of a given product is maintained at the point of delivery. When it comes to transportation and distribution, it is imperative to work with distributors who are dedicated to consistently applying food safety best practices throughout their operations all the way from truck to warehouse to delivery of products to consumers.

The design and maintenance of vehicles are critically important in the distribution and transportation aspects of the food company business. Vehicles should be properly cleaned and maintained, and transportation equipment must be capable of maintaining proper temperatures to ensure safety and integrity of foods.

Distribution warehouses as well as vehicles used for transporting foods must be audited, and personnel involved in receiving and shipping products must be trained, educated and updated in best practices.

FSM: How do you define food safety culture in your (or any) organization, and do you think these definitions differ between management and line workers?

Hernandez: We define food safety as the things we do every day, as part of our jobs, to make sure we meet our commitment to our customers: safest, quality food with every delivery or with every order.

Keener: Food safety is our business, so that’s what we do day in and day out. So yes, it is the key pillar of our strategic plan. No, I don’t think these definitions should matter to line workers or management, but in truth they do unless upper management demonstrates, at all times, that achieving food safety is fundamental to doing business. And unfortunately, that is not the way food manufacturing companies tend to operate.

Gapud: For me, food safety culture is a moral commitment by an organization exemplified by leadership patterns of behaviors, attitudes and values aimed at ensuring that products processed and served to customers are safe and wholesome.

Top management who are truly committed to changing the food safety culture of a company should invest time and financial resources, and provide support, proper training and education to their employees on best operational practices that would ensure food safety. Holding everyone accountable regardless of rank or role and promoting effective communication to and with employees are keys to a strong and healthy partnership between management and their employees. This kind of enlightened approach reflects an understanding of the risks and rewards that motivate the implementation of effective food safety practices and is far less costly for a company [than] facing a catastrophic event of product recall and foodborne illness outbreak.

FSM: Using the maturity model,[1] where do you think your company is on the scale? Your industry? And why?

Hernandez: Wholesome International, the only organization I can rate on the scale, is relatively new and entrepreneurial. Not all the systems are finalized, and the data collection and analysis are not well cemented. However, we are already building food safety into every job, every function and at every level of the organization. Further, we are attempting to collect data in all jobs to ensure 100 percent compliance with the food safety standards 100 percent of the time. As such, I rate it at a relatively high-level stage 3.8.

The foodservice industry in the U.S. is very large and fragmented, from a single unit to very large multinational operations. Therefore, it is difficult to have a single rating for the entire industry. To that point, in my experience, the large majority of the foodservice industry ranges between a rating of stage 1 (low) to stage 3. [There are a] few exceptions where a couple of companies are moving into stage 4.

The food distribution industry in the U.S. is also fragmented, from small “specialty” distributors to a couple of large national broad-line distributors. However, in my experience, the industry as a whole is more homogenous in their approach to food safety as the majority of the industry’s food safety culture would range around stage 1 or stage 2. A couple of notable exceptions would rate at stage 4.

The reasons for these ratings are as follows. For the most part, smaller foodservice operations rely completely on their local health department for food safety and therefore perceive it either as a regulatory burden or a business necessity. As the foodservice operations grow and the brand across units becomes more important than a single location, the organization begins a maturity process to “protect” the brand.

On the distribution side, many distributors see themselves as movers of food with little/no regard for the safety of the products. Profits from these low-margin businesses are made by moving as much food as possible; therefore, food safety practices and requirements can become perceived barriers to profit. Only a couple of outbreaks have identified the distribution segment of the food chain as a possible cause. Regulatory oversight is currently almost nonexistent ([with a] few exceptions, e.g., dairy industry).

Keener: We are scientific, regulatory and technical consultants to the global food processing industry, and as such, the “maturity model” does not apply to our business.

Gapud: Since I am not currently actively affiliated with any food companies, I do not think I am in a position to comment on the maturity model. However, I do believe that with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rule on Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food being finalized, companies are working on how they would comply when the implementation phase begins as a function of their company size. The FSMA Sanitary Transportation Rule would prevent adulteration of food during transportation by requiring the following: Vehicles used to transport food must be maintained and cleaned between loads to prevent possible contamination from previous shipment; foods must be stored and kept at proper temperature during shipment; and products (e.g., fresh produce) must be protected from outside exposure during transportation. Additionally, training of carrier personnel in sanitary transportation practices, as well as documentation of their training, is also required.

FSM: Is your company where it needs to be in terms of prioritizing food safety? If so, how do you maintain that level of commitment? If not, how do you think you should go about getting there?

Hernandez: Yes, food safety is part of our offering to our customers.

The keys to keeping the commitment to food safety are the following:

1.    Ownership: Ensuring that food safety is part of the offering/business and, as such, built into every function, every job and every level of the organization and communicated to the customers.

2.    Accountability: Ensuring that every job and function have clear performance indicators for food safety performance and that those are part of the compensation (even if minimal).

Gapud: Food safety can never be an area of compromise. Food establishments know that cutting corners in food safety can result in devastating economic consequences and irreparable harm to their business.  

Distributors must deliver to their customers safe and quality products to grow and maintain their businesses. Steering a steady course to a successful partnership and coordination among processors, distributors and foodservice/retail sector partners are keys to upholding an effective commitment to food safety. 

FSM: What are your major challenges in maintaining a solid food safety culture among distributors?

Hernandez: Good, valid and reliable data that maintain a strong connection between food safety key performance indicators and the customers and/or value. This is especially true during times of economic hardship. This will not only ensure the continuous focus and budget for the program (resources, systems, tools, training, etc.) but will [also] help maintain a commitment to continuous improvement.

Keener: Having the resources, regulatory constraints, competency of employees and visible C-suite commitment is the only way to achieve and sustain food safety culture.  

Gapud: Changing the food safety culture of a company is one of the most challenging tasks that a food safety professional can experience. Food companies need to be willing to invest and provide resources when changing and maintaining a sound food safety culture. Working with reputable suppliers/processors and distributors, providing employees training and education on proper receiving and shipping of products, continuously investing in new technologies, updating operational practices and hiring competent food safety personnel and putting these individuals in charge of food safety are some important ways to mitigate safety risks and maintain a solid food safety culture.   

Food Safety Magazine thanks all the panelists for sharing their expertise. A special thank-you goes to Lone Jespersen, Cultivate, and Gillian Kelleher, Wegmans, for helping coordinate the participants and formulate the questions for this article series.