Culture-enabled food safety performance was a much-discussed and acted-upon topic in 2019. As outlined in the Global Food Safety Initiative position paper, fostering a culture of food safety is essential across the entire food supply chain. Building an integrated plan that takes all five of the dimensions outlined in the position paper into consideration is paramount to creating lasting improvements. Clearly, the focus on building food safety management systems has created improvements in consumer safety; it is equally clear that only through the combined efforts of systems and culture can we continue the positive trajectory toward better protecting our food. This requires lasting improvements in the control and mitigation of all hazards (physical, chemical, and biological) that may pose a risk to consumers.
This article focuses on minimizing physical hazards through the elimination of foreign material (FM). Physical hazards have been defined as any potentially harmful extraneous matter not normally found in food. They are the most commonly reported consumer complaints because the injury occurs immediately or soon after eating, and the source of the hazard is often easy to identify. “Severity” by this definition ranges from an unpleasant taste or gastrointestinal discomfort to life-threatening choking or cutting. It is the less-researched hazard of the three Codex hazards, specifically biological, chemical, and physical. In a search of the relevant literature, we identified a short list of papers and articles focused on physical hazards, FM, or extraneous matter associated with food or drink products (see Resources at the end of the article). The research concentrates largely on detection methods. However, none of the papers address the impact of organizational culture.
Facts, like most organizations, are highly fragmented, and food safety expectations are often lost between silo walls and hierarchies. Fortunately, we found two leading meat companies that have learned how to eliminate FM from their consumers’ plates. Based on these learnings, we were able to identify five unusual ways to use your corporate culture to minimize the existence of FM in your products.
Cultural Characteristics That Impact FM Elimination
Any culture of food safety consists of several characteristics. We will focus on five qualities that we believe specifically impact how well your company controls food safety hazards, including FM:
1. Promoting trust and courage, not blame
2. Integrating food safety into management principles, reliability, and operations
3. Setting and revising internal expectations and consequences
4. Focusing on competent employees at all levels/functions in risk analysis
5. Adhering to the belief that winning organizations are built on cross-functional teams
Details for each follow.
Promoting trust and courage, not blame: Placing an emphasis on finding someone to blame when something goes wrong fosters paranoia and distrust. It may also drive employees into isolation rather than communication and cooperation. It is far more effective to champion a culture of trust that promotes the courage to identify hazardous issues and, when necessary, take appropriate actions to correct them. Look for ways to express appreciation for courageous acts, including showcasing them through work team discussions, physical displays such as videos and bulletin boards, and other public acknowledgements. Consider setting up friendly competitions between different departments to promote acts of trust and courage.
Integrating food safety into management principles, reliability, and operations: Integrating quality food safety practices into everyday business tasks should be considered a principle of management, not merely a compliance tool. Track the costs of maintaining food safety internally in relation to FM findings. Include this information in leadership reports and post it on plant performance bulletin boards. Such actions will help your organization avoid inconsistencies in processes and behaviors during times of high staff turnover.
Setting and revising internal expectations and consequences: Each organization is a living, evolving entity. Ever-new technologies continue to drive change, as do an aging workforce and countless other business issues. Management must be prepared to change with the times through a constant review of its internal processes, expectations, and consequences related to both.
Focusing on competent employees at all levels/functions in risk analysis: It is important to recognize what and where competencies exist throughout an organization. Employee aptitude can be measured using a number of methodologies. Effective root-cause analysis can be used to identify such qualities as visual literacy, an analytical mindset, and an understanding of the “big picture” across the enterprise.
Winning organizations are built on cross-functional teams: Problem-solving coalitions such as so-called seek-and-destroy teams should include not only internal groups but suppliers as well. By creating a forum to share experiences and best practices with suppliers, it is possible to learn from each other and forge relationships between those responsible for FM prevention at both ends of the supply chain. This will improve communication and problem solving should an FM incident occur that involves more than one company.
What Can Be Done to Eradicate Foreign Contaminants in Products?
Eliminating FM in finished products requires prevention strategies focused on both internal and external sources of contamination. External strategies demand engagement with ingredient vendors to ensure that FM control programs are deployed and consistently monitored. The timely sharing of FM findings with suppliers is critical, along with documentation of corrective and preventive actions. Strategies to prevent FM originating from internal sources require identification and interventions at appropriate points in the process that include metal detection, X-rays, magnets, screens, and/or visual inspection where appropriate. When using product contact materials with the potential for shedding into the product stream, these materials should be capable of identification by the FM intervention. If the material is plastic and incapable of exposure by metal detector or X-ray, the material should be brightly colored to assist with visual detection.
Additionally, look for commonalities in root cause and determine why preventive measures either were unsuccessful or successful if no repetitive findings are evident in the time period chosen. Use continuous improvement (CI) tools to dig deeper into the root causes identified. Then, as a cross-functional team, develop a strategy to eliminate the foreign contaminants. And of course, measure and evaluate when and where possible.
Tactically speaking, we recommend tracking the cost of internal failures to FM on the plant metric dashboard, as well as the rate of in-process FM findings. FM found during processing has a cost both in terms of product that must be disposed of and the labor required to manage the issue and ensure no affected product reaches consumers. Giving all teams a clear view of the overall impact of FM on their business helps drive action and maintains a sense of urgency.
Another method we have found successful is organizing an annual meeting with our suppliers’ food safety and quality representatives and their counterparts at our plants to share best practices in FM prevention. Hosting such a forum promotes shared learning and nurtures relationships among everyone responsible for FM prevention across the supply chain. The goal is to improve communication and problem solving during FM events.
Another tactic, reliability engineering, deals with the longevity and dependability of parts, products, and systems. More importantly, it is about controlling risk. Reliability engineering incorporates a wide variety of analytical techniques designed to help engineers understand the failure modes and patterns of these parts, products, and systems. Traditionally, the reliability engineering field has focused upon product reliability and dependability assurance.
In recent years, numerous organizations have begun to deploy various reliability engineering principles in production settings for the purpose of production reliability and dependability assurance.
As suggested previously, make the discovery and elimination of FM a competition between departments, with appropriate acknowledgements and rewards for the winners. Set up regular meetings focused on FM. Just make sure you’re not the only one talking!
The strategies that do not work include yelling at people, firing staff, and generating detailed paperwork regarding retraining staff how to detect FM.
Company Cultures That Help or Make It Challenging to Identify FM
It is a challenge when groups such as QA and CI are viewed as overhead rather than part of the value arm of the business. High turnover rates, while not necessarily cultural but perhaps a symptom of a challenging corporate culture, can lead to inconsistency of applications and processes; line of sight from top to bottom of the company can be obscured. While on-boarding and training do address FM prevention, it can be a challenge to avoid relearning the same lessons over time as staff changes. Another impediment exists when senior management is unable to embrace changing technology when leadership does not fully recognize its worth.
A strong culture of cross-functional teams engaged in problem solving at the plant level supports a consistent focus on FM prevention. The seek-and-destroy team model utilized to identify and eliminate microbiological niches in the ready-to-eat production environment can also be applied to a cross-functional team similarly tasked with addressing potential FM entry points.
The safe procurement, processing, and distribution of the world’s food supply promises to remain a hot-button issue. Unfolding climate crises, political unrest, and other unforeseen events can only exacerbate the challenges inherent in safe food delivery on a global scale.
In many ways, the quality of consumer food safety in much of the world has never been better. Yet the constant threats of physical, chemical, and biological hazards demand unceasing vigilance and constant improvements in food safety processes.
Now more than ever, any enterprise engaged in the food industry must make safe food practices an essential element of its corporate culture. We hope that the insights we have provided here, based on real-world experience, offer guidance to any company seeking to embed safe food handling practices into the hearts and minds of every employee. A hungry world demands it.
Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., is principal at Cultivate and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Food Safety Magazine; Matt Henderson, M.Sc., is the director of food safety at Land O’Frost; and Wade Fluckey, Ph.D., is vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at Clemens Food Group.
St. Jeor, VL, et al. “Identifying Foreign Material Contamination in Food and Food Ingredients.” Cargill Global Food Technology Group.
Edwards, BR. 1980. “Method of Determining Foreign Material in Food Products Using Ultrasonic Sound.” J Acoust Soc Am 68:1913.
Prince, G. 2014. “Controlling Foreign Material Contamination.” Snack Food Wholesale Bakery 103(8):36.
Qu, CC. A Research on Method and System for Foreign Material Detection In-Process (Tsinghua University: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2006).
Burd, SB. Guidelines to Detect Foreign Material Contamination for Food Processors (California State University: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2007).
Kennell, B. 2015. “Why Food Safety Matters.” Food Manufacturing June 10.
Payne, J. 2015. “Track and Trace Technology: One Cure for the Common Recall.” Food Manufacturing June 12.