Many years ago, I posited this question in the opening paragraph of an article for Food Testing and Analysis Magazine,1 the forerunner of Food Safety Magazine: In a corporation whose principle source of income derives from the manufacture and marketing of human food, why is there a need to sell food safety assurance? That was in 1999, and what I reported then in my answer to that question still applies for many companies today.
Food safety assurance is an emerging science, and it is not understood as well as is quality assurance. Let us be clear on one point, however—quality assurance is negotiable, subject to the whims of the consumer or of a company's brand manager. Color changes, added flavors, cost-reduced ingredients, or new packaging formats can be (and are) implemented on a regular basis in the industry. Changes to these cosmetic attributes are the stuff that often defines quality. Put succinctly, quality is an arbitrary and subjective proposition that is frequently guided by market pressures such as price and competition. Many esteemed quality experts have also opined that "quality is free."2
Food safety, on the other hand, is non-negotiable. Food safety is objective, inflexible and based on the scientific principles that underpin and define public health. Food safety is a condition. It is a state of being. It is quantifiable and grounded in science. Food safety also has an associated cost; it is not free. For companies that manufacture and market food products, food safety is value-adding, but for their customers, food safety has little or no added value; it is invisible, and it is also an expectation. However, when food safety goes missing from a product, the consequences are perilous and highly publicized. By contrast, however, companies that invest in food safety often gain a competitive advantage with their products in the marketplace. This competitive advantage may also yield a positive return on investment.
A great deal of attention is being given to food safety these days. It is possible today to earn a university degree, and even a Ph.D., in the subject. This was not a possibility in 1999. Most food science curricula at that time did not include a single course in this newly emerging science. Likewise, most food companies did not have an office of food safety or an identified food safety officer. This, too, has changed. It is difficult now to find a consumer products company that does not include food safety as a function on its organization charts. Another important consideration in this regard is the fact that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did not come into existence until 2002.
Yet, today, I continue to be amused by the responses I receive when I ask, "What is food safety, exactly?" I often get blank stares in return. By way of answering that question, many years ago, I proffered the following definition: "Food safety is the chemical, physical, or biological status of a food that will allow its consumption without incurring an excessive risk of injury, morbidity, or mortality."
Food safety is a condition, it is quantifiable, and it is ultimately a question of acceptable risk. There is no such thing as a zero-risk food. A portion of any population will always remain vulnerable to an identified food safety hazard, irrespective of the effectiveness of applied countermeasures. Therefore, food safety, as I see it, is a dynamic, bifurcated proposition. One aspect deals with the food as it is presented to the end user for consumption, while the other deals with the methods for assuring that the food is fit for purpose. Thus, food safety assurance is the scientific study and application of methods, practices, and procedures that are specifically designed to mitigate or reduce the identified threats in the food to acceptable levels that are consistent with relevant public health standards.
Food safety, as noted previously, is also dynamic. Regrettably, this important fact about the discipline is often overlooked and understated. New information about a food, a newly identified threat, a new regulation, or the uptake of a novel processing method will all send ripples throughout the science and demand new assessments of risk. Simply stated, the old assumptions that have defined food safety may no longer apply. I remind CEOs and other corporate leaders, at every opportunity, that food safety is that work which is never finished and never completely paid in full. This is unsettling news for many in leadership, as they are accustomed to reporting, "We've already paid for that." So, here again, we are still faced with a compelling need to sell food safety.
The good thing, this time around, is that the vice president of human resources, the vice president of marketing, and others in leadership positions should have some modicum of understanding about food safety and why it is important to both the immediate and future success of the business. They are at least open to hearing the message and sales pitch, albeit with a measure of misgiving and trepidation. Unfortunately, many continue to see the food safety function as an obstacle or impediment to progress. The deliberate, methodical, cautious approach demanded of food safety science is frequently seen to negatively impact important, high-value business considerations, such as speed to market or innovation.
Here, then, is the challenge. The company's food safety representatives must understand the needs of the business, and they must also understand that food safety is not the company's main product. The primary purpose of the business is to market and sell safe food. Seldom, if ever, do food companies market and sell food safety (remember that it is a consumer expectation). Nonetheless, a company's food safety professionals must be viewed as integral parts of the business processes. They need to understand an income statement (P&L) and the value proposition that underlies an important business concept like speed to market. Just being the company's food safety scientist is not enough. You must be a technical businessperson and use your scientific skill and training to enable the business to succeed, innovate, and grow.
When you are able to talk dollars and cents, then you can then make sense to the company's leadership. Lecturing about Cronobacter, Listeria, Campylobacter, or Escherichia coli is likely to cause leadership to lower their gaze and revert to reading their latest text messages. However, when you speak about enabling the success of the business, or about creating shareholder value, then the leaders will be more inclined to hear what you have to say. You may want to consider topics such as productivity gains, increasing rolled throughput yield (RTY), or maximizing asset utilization. In other words, you must first learn the business and the marketplace in which the company competes. Food safety can be a competitive advantage; this fact can also be leveraged when selling food safety to an enterprise's reluctant leadership. Remember, when companies make investments, they typically expect to receive a return on that investment (ROI). So, then, when CEOs invest in food safety, it is entirely reasonable that they should expect an ROI.3,4
Understanding how food safety expenses are budgeted in the company's accounting practices is another important consideration when attempting to sell food safety. Indirect cost and direct cost are important distinctions in the corporation's budget allocation process. Direct cost are those charges or expenses that have a direct impact on the production, processing, and distribution of a product. The items listed on a product's bill of materials, for example, are direct costs. Product development and related activities are also classified as direct cost. Frequently, however, food safety budgets are coded or classified as an indirect cost. Although I am not attempting to make a judgement here, it is noteworthy that when it comes time to make budget cuts, it is the indirect budget that most often takes the hit. This experience is common among the majority of companies.
In my way of thinking, food safety is a direct cost. This budget is absolutely essential for supporting the safe production and handling of the products. This information about the budget may also be a useful indicator for judging a corporation's journey toward "food safety culture." When the food safety budget is insulated and protected against cuts, then it is also likely that the "bean counters" will hold food safety in highest regard. The converse of this statement is also true. It is worth restating that "food safety is not free."
Who are the Customers?
When "selling" food safety, your customers are managers, technicians, vice presidents, technical specialists, and engineers. They work on the line, in research and development, accounting, purchasing, maintenance, quality control, warehousing, or marketing. Your customers are all of those employees involved with manufacturing and supply—the bulk of the company's business. These people have a vested interest in the safety of the company's products. In fact, their jobs depend on it.
A stakeholder is anyone who justifies or pays for the food safety programs, defines the needs or wants of the business, or evaluates or uses the results to drive the business—or thinks they have the right to do so. Know your stakeholders, but understand from the outset that all stakeholders are not equal. Is the stakeholder supportive, or is it someone who wants to derail your program? Does the stakeholder have a special interest in your success or failure? Do they have insight into why previous efforts to sell food safety have failed? Importantly, is the stakeholder accessible? Screen your stakeholders, and seek out and actively recruit an advocate. A good advocate is someone who already subscribes to your programs and has influence and power, as well as access to key players within the corporate structure.
For example, the head of marketing, the chief financial officer, or the company's legal council would make ideal advocates. They have the appearance of authority, as well as immediate access to the CEO and members of the executive committee. Your CEO is the primary customer and stakeholder4 and must be sold on food safety so that your programs will be embraced and supported by the broader business. The CEO must finance and pay for your food safety programs. In the final analysis, the CEO is ultimately responsible for food safety.
The Sales Approach
When developing a sales approach, first gain access to the key stakeholders. An effective advocate can help facilitate these connections, which can then lead to strategic alliances with other stakeholders. In unison with the advocate, begin a program to educate the stakeholders on the scope of your vision for food safety. Inform the stakeholders about both internal and external food safety issues facing the business. Benchmarking against other companies in your category is a productive exercise. Know the competition's food safety organization and, if possible, how much they are spending on food safety.
Providing information and education are effective means of pre-selling your food safety programs. Pre-selling is crucial to the success of the sales effort. An effective advocate will be able to pre-sell at levels of the organization to which you may not have immediate access. The more individuals on the board to which you are able to pre-sell, the greater are your chances of gaining approval and funding for your programs. Depending on the organizational dynamics, an outside consultant can be effective in facilitating the pre-sell process.
Being successful in selling food safety requires that the seller have the following:
- An in-depth knowledge of food safety, including what it is and what it is not. Do not make every important issue faced by the company a food safety issue.
- A keen awareness of the business and exigent business challenges. You must be seen as a technical businessperson using your technical training and skills to solve business problems and create shareholder value.
- An appreciation of the needs and wants of your customers and stakeholders. Stakeholder analysis is vital for understanding the guardrails and potholes that will either enable or scuttle your efforts at selling food safety.
- A fundamental awareness of the organizational dynamics, politics, and corporate culture. Proper respect for protocol is very important.
- An advocate and a well-developed alliance network.
- An effective and compelling presentation to the CEO and executive committee. Make certain that your "ask" is clearly delineated and properly communicated. Keep in mind that when companies make investments, they expect a return on those dollars.
- An understanding of both the costs and benefits of food safety. Properly framed justification with clear-eyed expressions of intent, purpose, and outcomes are key.
Selling food safety is a dynamic and continuous process. As the business changes, so too must your food safety programs. A successful "sell" will result in the integration of food safety into the manufacturing supply chain and an appreciation of the value of food safety by the broader corporate structure. Food safety is not "free," and it is an account that is never fully paid. However, companies that invest in food safety can expect a return on that investment and a competitive advantage for their products and services. Serendipitously, "food safety culture" may simply be a dividend.
- Keener, Larry. "The Mechanistics of Selling Food Safety." Food Testing and Analysis Magazine, August/September 1999.
- Grosby, Philip B. Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
- Keener, Larry. "Maximizing Food Safety ROI." U.S. Trademark Application, 2005.
- Keener, Larry. "HACCP: A View to the Bottom Line." Food Safety Magazine, August 1, 2002.