Our series on food safety culture along the food supply chain now focuses on the food processing plant. We’ve previously examined the creation of a culture of food safety in the primary production and distribution sectors of the global food supply chain.

We’ve invited industry leaders in food processing to help elucidate the challenges around creating a culture of food safety. Our panelists are Jeff M. Taylor, regulatory compliance senior scientist at Bush Brothers & Company; Gordon Hayburn, M.Sc., LL.M., vice president, food safety & quality assurance at Trophy Foods; and John Butts, Ph.D., vice president of research and adviser to the CEO at Land O’Frost.

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

Taylor: I see myself as the one who has the conversations in our organization that move the needle for food safety culture. We have had a number of organizational changes that have resulted in the message getting diluted.

Hayburn: I believe as a vice president of food safety, my role is to encourage, inspire and educate at all levels of our business in order to ensure staff show correct food safety behaviors. I do not see any value in trying to dictate behaviors.

Butts: My personal role has been first and foremost to live the Land O’Frost [LOF] values. As the leader of food safety & quality [FSQ], I created high expectations of performance. Our food safety vision was clear. We created and executed a strategic plan that addressed the most significant needs of the organization. Technical and operations staff is expected to understand our products and processes in depth. Standing cross-functional teams were used to define and implement best practices. This included Listeria intervention and control, foreign material control and GFSI [Global Food Safety Initiative] certification, to name a few. FSQ’s role is to acquire and disseminate the technology, develop the measurement systems and audit the process. As the FSQ leader, I led the education efforts for the technical portion of our business. I was also responsible for the technical activities outside the company.  

Sharing of food safety best practices enabled LOF to learn as much or more that we shared. Within our company, FSQ led the effort for adapting new technology. Our scope of activity includes management of product SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures], development and management of Manufacturing Operating Procedures, job work instructions, HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points], SSOPs [Sanitation SOPs] and prerequisite process control programs. Combining these defined our expectations for the manufacture of our products. Root-cause determination is the goal for addressing product and process issues. Facility and equipment issues are addressed with data. Data are used to drive product quality expectations. We continually challenged ourselves from a Listeria control perspective by doing things that we had never done before. We took risks with equipment and facilities to eliminate and control the pathogen. We learned from our mistakes.

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?

Taylor: We do not have an organizational definition for food safety culture. We have created a vision statement:

Bush Brothers & Company is committed to being a powerful food safety culture. Together, we are educated and engaged to consistently create the safest consumer experience possible.

I do believe we would have everyone agreeing that food safety is important; however, I do not believe all organizational disciplines understand the impact of food safety or, more specifically, their impact on food safety.

Hayburn: We believe all companies have a “culture.” At Trophy Foods, we define food safety culture [as] “behaviors that make you proud to see our products on the shelf and to know we are caring about the families who buy our products.” We feel valued that consumers trust us to keep them and their families safe, and we do not want to ever lose this.

It doesn’t really differ at the varying levels of our business. We encourage all our staff to always identify as a food safety professional regardless of their specific task in our business.

Butts: “The Brand Your Family Can Trust for Generations” is the LOF vision. LOF values include “Trust & Respect.” Employee behaviors that build brand trust and exhibit integrity, which includes honesty, are actions that define food safety culture. Our value of “Passion for New Ideas” means we must take risks like developing a heat pasteurization process for equipment. The LOF value of “Excellence” means we strive to be world class in our food safety practices and culture. Continuous improvement is required. Our various operating procedures define behavior expectations. Actions that violate the procedures or intent of the procedures take away from our food safety culture. Above-the-line behaviors include following our procedures and peer-level holding one another accountable to those behaviors. We expect employees to create and maintain an environment of building trust through personal accountability. Other above-the-line behaviors include:

•    Take responsibility for it

•    Do something constructive about it

•    Don’t take it personally

•    See it from the other person’s point of view

Below-the-line behaviors include:

•    Complain about it. Deny it. Avoid it. Ignore it.

•    Keep quiet about it

•    Blame it on someone else

•    It’s not my fault. He made me do it.

My goal is to have the food safety behaviors performed without thinking. They are habits.

Food safety behaviors appear to have some stratification within our management workforce. This means that there is a tendency to use words without consistently taking action. In analyzing this difference, we can see a tendency for employees who are new, between 5 and 9, and 20 and above years in [their] current position to have the biggest gap, while employees between 2 and 4, and 10 and 19 years have the lowest gap. There is also an observable difference between sites. Two plants have higher gaps of “walking the talk” than a third plant.

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

Taylor: I believe we are between stages 2 and 3. I think the industry is at stage 2. I think as a company and the industry, we are reactive to food safety problems as they arise. In my company, we have had a thermal process to rely upon for a major element of our food safety. As a result, our food safety muscle is strong in areas that involve thermal process and food safety aspects that are not mediated by the thermal process (i.e., foreign material).

Hayburn: Our scores are as follows: Perceived Value: company, 4.1 and industry, 3.2; People System: company, 3.5 and industry, 2.5; Process Thinking: company, 3.5 and industry, 3.4; Technology Enabler: company, 2.8 and industry, 2.5; and Tools & Infrastructure: company, 3.5 and industry, 3.5. I believe as a company, we are well ahead of the industry in Perceived Value and People System. I am of this opinion because we have introduced many of our improvements because we believe it is the right thing to do for our business. It has not been driven by regulators or customers. We set ourselves a target of unannounced BRC [British Retail Consortium] audits 3 years ago and achieved it within the first year. Our sites are rated AA+ and A+. We feel that always being audit-ready would ensure that we constantly exhibited the correct behaviors as required by our food safety plan. For the other capability areas, I believe we are very slightly above the industry but still have a long way to go. The industry as a whole is still very reactive and is primarily driven by customer expectations and demands. It is a reactive approach, and the fear of losing business is more important than the drive to just do the right thing. I believe this is shortsighted but understandable. This is how the industry has behaved for a generation, and this will take time to change.

Butts: I refer to the LOF survey for this answer. In general, our average scores are as follows: Perceived Value: company, 4.1 and industry, 3.1; People System: company, 3.5 and industry, 2.8; Process Thinking: company, 3.6 and industry, 2.8; Technology Enabler: company, 3.6 and industry, 3.0; and Tools & Infrastructure: company, 3.8 and industry, 2.8. I do believe we have made progress since the survey. As an industry (meat processing), I see significant maturity in pathogen control. This spans Listeria, Escherichia coli and Salmonella. Foreign material control is lagging behind pathogen control. Inspection equipment is in place. Preventive controls at the root cause are not understood for many potential contaminants. Labeling (allergen and label control) is still in a manual inspect-and-control mode. Automation is coming, but preventive controls are still largely manual. Food safety culture in total lags behind the three leading issues (pathogen, foreign materials and labeling). The industry is still in effect management as opposed to having food safety leaders continually drive for root cause. Organizational leaders often expect food safety and quality to be managed.

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?

Taylor: I think for the products we are producing, we do a great job. We are also committed to growing our food safety programs. We maintain the level of commitment by challenging our employees as well as having a rigorous hiring process. We also have a strong overriding culture that provides a halo to food safety.

Hayburn: Our company may be where it “needs” to be in this regard simply because we are a little ahead of the rest of the trade; however, we are nowhere near where we want to be in meeting the targets we have set ourselves. We took a decision a couple of years ago to no longer have “Food Safety Objectives” (despite this being a perceived requirement of the BRC Standard). We believe objectives are variable and will change in importance to our business. In this regard, we have identified food safety as a core value of our company, and the message has been given from the top down that “food safety trumps everything else that we do.” The president reminds all of the business on this at every town hall meeting, which are typically done about four times a year.

I also disagree with a great deal of the industry that “food safety is a noncompetitive issue.” We use our higher standards than our competitors when we present to new customers and have no issue with this. Food safety does not come for free, and we are quite correctly appreciating any return on investment that we make.

Butts: Senior leadership prioritizes food safety appropriately. Plant leadership has been very dynamic and is fitting into the desired LOF food safety culture. Middle and lower management need more education. Active initiatives include communication of expectations and activities during hourly line huddles. Participation and engagement by food safety and quality are defined and measured. Food safety education is occurring within the department with the intent of that information being communicated to plant management and the entire workforce on a regular basis.  

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

Taylor: One of our largest challenges to maintain a solid food safety culture is complacency. If you go by the adage that breakdowns lead to breakthroughs, within the realm of thermal processing, we have not had many breakdowns. Believing that urgency is most uniformly provided throughout a company from its officers leads me to ask, how can company/industry officers be enrolled in creating a breakdown to initiate a breakthrough in food safety? More specifically, how do we create urgency for food safety without having a breakdown that impacts our consumers’ health? These are the challenges I see.

Hayburn: All of the points suggested (resources, regulatory constraints, competency of employees, visible C-suite commitment) are contributory factors. One of my own worries is complacency within the business, as we have achieved quite a lot for a small company and people do not always recognize the efforts it takes. At the last town hall, I took the opportunity [to say] that we succeeded by design and not by accident.  

Butts: Leadership creating expectations and organizational follow-through in a continuous-improvement fashion (constancy of purpose). We must maintain a high level of education and training as we grow and undergo turnover. Each employee must know why certain procedures are expected. Measurement of the preventive and predictive activities must continue. Food safety culture must be measured as well as those critical behavior factors that create and maintain a food-safe production environment and culture.  

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

1. www.food-safety.com/magazine-archive1/aprilmay-2017/the-supply-chain-and-food-safety-culture-primary-production/.