Developing relationships is a key factor for mutually beneficial outcomes for both regulators and industry partners. There is a saying many have heard—“the time to exchange business cards is not when the emergency or crisis occurs, but rather during a time when you can develop a relationship and form trust with each other.”
The best time to build relationships is when you don’t need them, outside stressful and challenging situations. These less stressful interactions facilitate dialogue and the opportunity to learn and better understand the industry partner’s business and allow trust to develop between both parties. Building these relationships develops strong food safety partnerships that can help when challenging conversations are needed or if difficult situations arise such as foodborne illness outbreaks or emergencies.
Established relationships allow regulators and industry to concentrate immediately on handling the problem and looking forward to a resolution rather than looking at each other.
Opportunities for Industry to Have Conversations with Regulators
Discuss New, Innovative Ideas, Processes, Products, or Designs. In an ever-changing food world, new and innovative ideas emerge when industry is looking to increase their market share. Being able to come to regulators and discuss ideas can be advantageous. Having the regulatory authority look at the model idea, ask questions, and present possible concerns can save industry money and time in the implementation process. It allows the regulatory body to also conduct their research to ensure they are prepared to train and educate their employees for the new process. This opportunity might include training on new equipment, methods, techniques, floor prints, and products. Often, this conversation provides awareness for the regulators but opens up a conversation beyond the development at hand.
Attend Regulatory Meetings and Get Involved. Consider attending regulatory meetings like those of the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) or its regional affiliates, regional retail seminars, and National Environmental Health Association or its regional or state affiliates. These meetings will not only offer insights into regulatory approaches but will also present an informal opportunity to get to know regulatory leaders from many agencies. Be outgoing, introduce yourself to people during breaks, and consider going to lunch or sitting at tables with individuals you do not know. There are usually opportunities provided at these meetings to meet and mingle and get to know one another to further your exposure. Volunteer to present on trends in your industry or topics you have expertise in such as interesting food safety challenges, recalls, and research. Participating in project-based work in committees and work groups expands your industry and regulatory network, while allowing you to provide and showcase your unique perspective and experience to participants in the project. If you are strategic about the groups you engage with, this can pay big dividends.
Engage in Food Protection Task Forces or Food Advisory Committees. Over 40 states and several local agencies have a formal task force or advisory committee that brings together stakeholders from regulatory agencies (at multiple levels), as well as industry, consumer, and academic institutions. These task forces and advisory committees vary, but most focus on education, information sharing, and networking. Randy Treadwell, program manager for rapid response and emergency management at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, says, “Food protection task forces bring together many different perspectives and result in robust discussions and a better understanding of the complexity of the food system. This assists both regulators and industry stakeholders in better understanding of the various viewpoints and assists in stakeholder collaboration and consensus building toward win-win solutions.”
Frequently, task forces or food advisory committees are also asked to participate when regulations are being updated, such as when a new edition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code is being adopted or manufacturing regulations are being updated. FDA provides limited funding to many states for a task force. More information about task forces and contacts for them can be found in Table 1 and at foodprotectiontaskforce.com.
Create Other Industry and Regulatory Groups. In some regions of the United States, regulatory and industry groups have developed collaborative opportunities such as periodic breakfasts in Minnesota and four-state group meetings at the Heartland Regional Food Safety Roundtable in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. In both cases, industry representatives decided there was a need. This desire for routine regulatory and industry meetings resulted in an invitation for regulatory agencies to join in the conversation. The meetings and breakfasts involve updates from the regulatory agencies and industry participants, joint training, and networking.
Reach Out to Individual Regulatory Agencies. Many food industry professionals have adopted a simple best practice. Prioritizing yearly, in-person or virtual meetings or telephone calls with regulatory agencies has paid big dividends. While each form of outreach is different, frequent topics include:
- Key contacts and staffing changes
- Updates on regulatory changes or approaches
- Discussion of changes within the facilities or establishments
- Discussion of any inspectional trends
Individual open communication is beneficial to industry partners when they are looking to grow their brand, expand their markets, and innovate. Having conversations about developing new and novel concepts, processes, and equipment prior to inspections helps avoid potential challenges. This opportunity allows regulators to understand the changes in advance of an inspection and ask questions while getting fully educated.
All these approaches pave the way for industry and regulators to develop informal relationships. These relationships support broad-based collaboration in the throes of issues that threaten public health.
Table 1: State Contacts for Coalition of Food Protection Task Forces
Partners with a Common Purpose
Partners with a Common Purpose, a program for industry and regulators, serves as a springboard for new initiatives and creates change through a shared vision with food industry representatives. Partners with a Common Purpose, dubbed PwCP, recognizes an objective embraced and supported by both government regulators and industry alike in improving public health and consumer services. To broaden industry-regulatory cooperation for the protection of public health, this collaboration was formally launched in 2018. Industry food safety and quality assurance professionals and food protection regulatory professionals engage and participate in face-to-face discussions. PwCP provides participants with a safe-harbor forum to investigate, explore, discuss, and advance particular topics as they relate to food safety within both industry and regulatory arenas. These sessions have been held at a variety of industry and regulatory association meetings.
The Focus of PwCP Efforts
Gatherings to date have focused PwCP work on six common themes: Communication; Food Safety Culture and Awareness; Education; Recalls and Traceability; Novel Tools, Technology, and Products; and Uniformity and Standardization:
- Communication – the importance of explaining the “why,” focusing on growing our proactive approaches and developing routine contact between food safety system participants rather than waiting to talk in crisis.
- Food Safety Culture and Awareness – getting buy-in at the highest levels within all organizations involved in the food safety system and encouraging change through the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) where appropriate and productive.
- Education – humanizing regulators and industry through education and presenting a joint front by collaborating on trainings.
- Recalls and Traceability – improving the effectiveness of recalls at all levels and removing redundancy while increasing the speed of traceability.
- Novel Tools, Technology, and Products – pushing automation as often as possible to provide faster, better, and more effective solutions so that food safety expertise can be freed up to do what automation cannot.
- Uniformity and Standardization – accepting the retail food code as the overarching guide for successful retail food safety while recognizing the success and challenges experienced by each component of the system and collaborating to provide uniformity through the continued implementation of FSMA or preventive controls.
To see how you can have an impact, check out the PwCP website for current status and upcoming opportunities to contribute at https://pwcp.info.
Relationships Facilitate Broad-Based Collaboration
Investing time to build regulatory and industry relationships will assist during situations such as the development of regulation and policy, inspections, and regulatory challenges.
“We believe in building strong and ongoing working relationships with regulatory officials,” explains Dionne Crawford, manager of restaurant food safety for McDonald’s. “The value comes in both of us understanding that we have the same goal to protect public health and serve safe food. We want regulatory officials to know that they can always call us if they have a concern or an issue and that we will work with them to make sure it is properly addressed. We truly value establishing a partnership with regulatory officials and working towards our common goals.”
Situations—Illnesses, Outbreaks, and Recalls. This established relationship will also set up advantages when situations occur that result in harder conversations. When foodborne illness outbreaks are, or may be, emerging, being able to pick up the phone and have immediate discussions and trusted conversations with key management about how to identify and approach risks is a win-win situation for both regulators and industry. This can allow industry to take early preventive actions to mitigate risk by stopping the sale of additional products or holding product while an investigation continues. Beginning a search to determine the right contact starting with general phone numbers and not knowing a specific person simply isn’t effective and can cost valuable time on both sides of a situation.
For example, very early in an outbreak investigation, a potential suspect food was beginning to emerge from case interviews. The regulatory leader called the industry partner’s mobile phone after hours on a Friday evening about the suspect food. During this discussion, the industry partner decided, out of an abundance of caution, to immediately remove the suspect item from shelves across the chain while the investigation proceeded. The suspect food was subsequently found to be the cause of the outbreak. This conversation also provided valuable immediate information about the product source, distribution, and manufacturing. This early response and trusting relationship prevented hundreds of additional illnesses and the costs associated with them.
Regulation Development and Policy Proposals. Relationships are advantageous in times of new food laws and rulemaking, impacting both regulatory and industry stakeholders. There are times when changes are needed, and regulators require the help of industry stakeholders to encourage and support those changes in the public interest. Collaboration often results in a mutually acceptable solution that can be supported by both groups when regulatory changes are needed. Proposed legislative changes may be introduced from outside sources that impact both regulators and industry in a way that may be difficult or controversial. Being able to present a united front as regulators and industry stakeholders can often lead to overcoming these challenges that might otherwise have a negative impact on food safety.
“We work collaboratively with our stakeholders, including industry, during the legislative session to provide accurate information including potential advantages and challenges to proposed legislation,” explains Pam Miles, program supervisor, Food Safety Program, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We have also found this open and collaborative relationship has resulted in very strong support for our food safety program with our key industry partners.”
Inspections. Good relationships are very important when regulatory inspections occur. A good relationship allows for open dialogue and conversations about noncompliance issues found in the facility as part of the inspection. Regulators and industry have the same goal, which is to produce safe food. When you can collaborate and ask questions during the inspection process, it can promote an understanding of the issue and potential solutions.
This collaboration can also lead to immediate corrective actions that can avoid enforcement actions. Industry is the expert in their facility since regulators are generalists and see so many different operations. Industry should understand regulatory approaches that might apply and be prepared to explain the facility and processes. Having open relationships results in having the regulator ask basic questions and learn about the food processing operation, better understand the food safety risks that might exist, and have productive conversations when noncompliance findings occur. When industry disagrees with an inspectional finding, a positive relationship leads to a better ability to begin a discussion toward a mutually beneficial outcome.
What to do when you disagree with an inspectional result:
- Approach disagreements constructively
- Be prepared, have evidence, show why the inspection result may be wrong
- Typically, it’s harder to dispute inspector observations, easier to dispute application of regulations
- Present your concerns as soon as possible
- Try a phone call rather than an email
- Follow up after the call with an email outlining discussions and next steps
- Consider a written response to the inspection showing you take the findings seriously
Regulatory Challenges. Several years ago, a food safety professional was sitting in the back of the room at a food safety conference and introduced themselves to the person next to them, who happened to work for a major industry chain. This conversation began to address to some major problems this professional’s agency had experienced with one of the chain’s franchisees. The franchisee had explained that they were not allowed to make the changes identified due to the chain policies or processes. The conversation addressed the lack of progress, and the state colleague asked who might be able to assist with this. Ironically, this was the first time the two had met, and this industry representative was responsible for assisting with these very issues. Although this new relationship developed in a few moments of introduction, the chain and the state were able to collaborate to ensure these long-term challenges were successfully addressed by the franchisee.
This situation repeats itself across meetings and events each year. Ideally, through ongoing relationships, industry representatives and regulatory agencies have the appropriate contacts so this interaction can occur early in the challenge and accelerate compliance. An important takeaway is that developing relationships is imperative for mutually beneficial outcomes for both partners. These partnerships allow regulators and industry to concentrate on resolving issues as they arise, as the relationships are already established.
Brenda Morris is director of produce safety at AFDO.
Steven Mandernach, J.D., is executive director at AFDO and a member of the editorial advisory board of Food Safety Magazine.