The Keynote presentation at the 2024 Food Safety Summit, titled, “Being Right is Not Enough: Leading Food Safety in a Corporate and Global Environment,” took place on Wednesday morning. The Keynote speaker, Mary Weaver Gertz, Chief Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) Officer at Yum! Brands Inc., shared the critical importance of developing soft skills in food safety leaders to enable effective food safety leadership throughout a business.

Before Mary took the stage, Stacy Atchison, Publisher of Food Safety Magazine (FSM), introduced the session and thanked the Food Safety Summit’s Educational Advisory Board (EAB), announcing that EAB Chair Gillian Kelleher will remain in her role for the 2025 Summit. Stacy then invited Adrienne Blume, M.A., FSM Editorial Director, and Larry Keener, CFS, PA, Chair of FSM’s Award Committee, to introduce this year’s recipient, Kathleen Glass, Ph.D., who was selected for her work at the Food Research Institute (FRI) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When accepting her award, Dr. Glass remarked, “This award serves as a testament to our teamwork and as a reminder of what we can achieve through collaboration.”

Next, Anjan Chatterji, J.D., M.B.A., L.L.M., CEO of NomadX—the 2024 Food Safety Summit’s Platinum Sponsor—took the stage to introduce Mary, whoopened with, “Something we don’t talk about enough is people—we need to get back to the importance of people, the importance of leadership. How are we teaching the next generation of food safety leaders?”

Being Right is Not Enough

Mary first discussed her personal history, and how it led to and intertwines with her career in food safety. From Mary’s mother contracting severe foodborne illness as a child, leading to her exemplifying stringent food safety practices in her home kitchen, to Mary’s own daughter being sickened by three different foodborne parasites and pathogens throughout her life, the crucial public health importance of food safety has always been in Mary’s awareness. “Food is supposed to be nourishing, celebration, comfort, connection, love… and above all else, food is about trust,” said Mary, before going on to explain how trust is a core pillar in her work as Chief FSQA Officer for Yum! Brands.

Yum! Brands operates more than 55,000 restaurants around the world (Yum! Brands is the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, and the Habit Grill). Yum! Brands implements the same rigorous food safety standards in all of its restaurants regardless of geographic location, resource difficulties, or local regulations. The way Yum! Brands accomplishes this, Mary explained, is by giving its food safety leaders worldwide the tools they need to meet food safety goals, no matter what. In fact, “Unrivaled Capability and Talent” is one of Yum! Brand’s core strategic pillars that helps the company assure food safety at such a large scale. “It all comes back to people, and preparing them to execute,” she said, elaborating that global objectives carried out locally require clear and defined governance, oversight, and reporting. Yum! Brands leverages several “secret weapons” that help reinforce food safety throughout all of the company’s restaurants, such as an intentionally built, connected, and empowered food safety community; constant recognition when people are “caught doing the right thing;” and operating from the assumptions that “change is the new normal” and “compliance moves slower than risk.”

Zooming out from Yum! Brands to the food safety sector as a whole, Mary said that the skillset that the next generation of food safety leaders is lacking is not technical—it is soft skills. “Being right is not enough,” she said. In her experience, Mary has found that providing technical expertise is not always necessary, but it is necessary to demonstrate common-sense knowledge of the business and how FSQA supports business objectives. Mary was once told at work, “You know, you don’t always have to be so competent.” Although that statement originally took her by surprise, it eventually clicked: “I need to be competent, but I don’t need to lead with my competence,” she said. “I don’t need to prove everything I know the minute I walk in the room. Your colleagues trust that you’re competent.”

Next, Mary shared how food safety leaders can develop their relationship, communication, and leadership skills to truly influence business decisions and make food safety a priority across roles and functions. Food safety leaders must demonstrate to colleagues how FSQA enables growth, supports operational efficiency, and protects all stakeholders.

Mary discussed why it is important to be a “business enabler,” which involves shifting from saying “no” when ideas are presented to explaining “how” new ideas can be achieved. Food safety leaders must build accountability with business partners, and create an understanding of risks associated with a project and what structures need to be put in place to do something new. “A lot of the bad ideas filter themselves out really quickly when you start to explain what they will take,” Mary said. By collaborating with business partners, food safety leaders and the food safety expert’s perspective will become sought after rather than dreaded, Mary explained.

Sometimes, however, saying “no” is necessary. By establishing trust and a dynamic of collaboration, Mary explained, “no” decisions will be more accepted. “When I say ‘no,’ people know that if I could have helped them make it happen, I would have,” said Mary. Overall, it is crucial to build real relationships and practice real empathy during peacetime, so that these relationships can be relied upon during times of crisis.

Additionally, Mary advised food safety leaders to lead without authority. Rather than relying on standards, regulation, and governance in justifications for food safety decisions, she explained, only pull out governance when you need it. Explaining the “why” behind decisions creates credibility; if you lead by referencing someone else’s authority, then you may diminish your own authority, Mary said.

Finally, Mary underlined the importance of “marketing” food safety throughout the entire company—such as by celebrating events like World Food Safety Day and giving food safety awards to employees—to elevate its status as a business priority. 

“Food safety is not a function, food safety is a movement… and you’re all a part of it,” Mary concluded.