Karl Thorson: 2016 Operations Executive of the Year
December 5, 2016
by Joanie Spencer
Karl Thorson, 2016 Operations Executive of the Year, is helping lead the charge of continuously improving food safety and sanitation standards for the baking industry.
When it comes to best practices, the baking industry is a bit of a conundrum. As in any competitive field, “proprietary” is the name of the game; but baking also is an inherently collegial industry, so education and idea sharing are just as important. Perhaps no one understands this more than Karl Thorson, food safety and sanitation manager, General Mills, Minneapolis, and Baking & Snack's 2016 Operations Executive of the Year.
A lifetime of learning
With a lifetime of experience on a family farm and a degree in food science from University of Minnesota, Mr. Thorson had an unlikely beginning — one might think — that put him on a path toward sanitation and food safety.
But the reality is that sanitation is an area that has little to no formal educational foundation. And pathogens and recalls do not discriminate, have no borders and certainly do not require a college degree.
Sanitation expertise comes from experience, on-the-job training and the practical execution of creating safe food — three things that Mr. Thorson lives every day.
In his two decades in the food industry, which began at Pillsbury during the time of its acquisition by General Mills, Mr. Thorson has held positions in operations, quality and sanitation in multiple plants and corporate headquarters, where he dealt with the production of a variety of products ranging from dry goods such as cereals to US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-inspected foods such as chimichangas and burritos.
In 2010 — due to recalls including the catastrophic Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) crisis — food safety became a top priority for food producers and a household word for consumers. In response, General Mills created a major initiative to heavily focus on food safety and sanitation. "The company asked me to join a food safety action team," Mr. Thorson recalled. "They pulled together a couple people with significant experience to go into plants with the primary goal of reducing pathogen risk. We did a lot of traveling and saw the plants that were considered higher risk."
Thus, the Sanitation Center of Excellence (SCOE) was born, giving way to Mr. Thorson’s distinctive love for the discipline. SCOE was first led by Kevin Farnum, one of Mr. Thorson’s mentors, and when Mr. Farnum retired, SCOE lived on and is now led by committee, with Mr. Thorson as the only remaining original member.
In his SCOE role, and with his food science and operations experience, Mr. Thorson carries an unparalleled food safety perspective. "Sanitation is my passion," he said. “But I had never really thought about it until [joining SCOE].”
Today, Mr. Thorson carries his torch for sanitation by working with cross-functional groups throughout General Mills. “When I first got into this role, I thought it would be sanitation programs and executing those plans,” he said. “But I’ve learned that sanitary design is also a huge piece of it. You have to have that foundation because if the equipment isn’t designed properly, we can’t put together a good cleaning program to go with it.” To put all the pieces together, he relies heavily on building relationships, internally and externally, as a means of continuous improvement.
Mr. Thorson has learned about food safety and sanitation by experience and continually educating himself through internal resources — such as General Mills’ staff toxicologists and microbiologists — as well as groups such as BEMA and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. He also gives back by sharing his knowledge with others, be it those same professional groups or students at the University of Minnesota, where he participates in a formal mentoring program.
In Mr. Thorson’s eyes, food safety is a critical issue not just for General Mills but also for the baking industry and all of food production.
Understanding how far-reaching the effects of a recall can be, Mr. Thorson places heavy emphasis on shared learning. “We, as an industry, need to support one another around sanitation and food safety,” he said. “No one benefits from a recall.” Although General Mills did not have a large stake in the PCA incident, it affected the company’s overall business, simply for the fact that consumers were, for quite some time, leery of peanut butter in general. “People just didn’t want to eat it; the attitude was, ‘I’m just not going to eat peanut butter-based products for a while.’ ”
Having food safety be such a critical aspect of production without an established curriculum is quite the juxtaposition. Overcoming that hurdle requires the effort of individuals who are passionate about not only the importance of food safety but also instilling that passion in others.
For Mr. Thorson, it also required a lifetime of on-the-job training. “There’s not a clear career path for this. I didn’t grow up thinking, ‘I want to be the next sanitation manager.’ People end up in sanitation because they become passionate about it,” he recalled.
Mr. Thorson prides himself on creating a solid network for continuing education on food safety best practices as well as professional development. “The more diversity I can expose myself to is very helpful,” he explained. “BEMA has been great for that; they’ve brought me into that fold, and it’s been a great opportunity for them and me, especially with all the food safety and FSMA discussions I’ve been a part of.”
For Mr. Thorson, food safety is an area where General Mills can lead the industry.
“You can’t look at our company in terms of food safety and the small scope of our own plants we operate,” he pointed out. “Yes, we roll out our policies and standards and training for our own people. But that’s a very small piece of the puzzle in the overall scheme of things. We have to figure out how to work together with outside organizations. We all use a lot of the same suppliers, so that’s why we dedicate a lot of our time and resources externally.”
Involvement in BEMA through its Baking Industry Forum also benefits from Mr. Thorson’s leadership. “Karl is a true subject matter expert in the area of FSMA and sanitary design,” said Kerwin Brown, BEMA president and CEO. “He is also engaging to listen to, which makes him ideal for our BEMA audience. He is truly deserving of this award.”
As a leader in the realm of sanitation, Mr. Thorson prides himself on the ability to deliver the right answers, even if he has to seek them out himself; he is quick to point out the difference between having all the answers and having the ability and resources to find them. “No one can be an expert on everything, so you have to figure out who your contacts are and network with them,” he explained. “I have access to great people, within General Mills and through associations, our chemical suppliers and our OEMs.”
Mr. Thorson participates in groups such as BEMA and the Grocery Manufacturers Association to share best practices in sanitation.
Theory into practice
It’s one thing to ask the right questions. It’s another to know how to find the answers. But having all the answers isn’t of much use without putting them into practice, especially in terms of producing safe food, and this is the next level of Mr. Thorson’s passion for his craft.
The way he sees it, food safety is only one step in the broad landscape of safe food production. You have to be safe, yes, but you also have to be effective and efficient. Sanitation is no longer a “value added” component in equipment design. “We need to make changeovers as quickly as possible and manage our risks appropriately,” Mr. Thorson said. “We need to get through changeovers and cleaning processes as quickly as possible and get back to making the high-quality products we sell to our customers.”
From a food safety standpoint, the basis is very clear and quite simple: minimize the pathogen risk. And the outcome is straightforward and quite serious: produce safe food or risk recall. But the path to get there can be a complicated maze filled with pockets of gray areas. “The absolute is food safety, and we know what safe food is,” Mr. Thorson said. “But how I get there? There are a lot of ways to do that.”
Mr. Thorson’s experience working on the plant floor — not to mention on his family’s farm — is a major asset for him as a leader in driving sanitary equipment design. “I understand when people talk about the difficulties of cleaning a unit in operations,” he said. “I know exactly what they’re talking about — when they have to get out a whole toolbox of tools to try and meet quick changeover principles — they’re dealing with the complexity of taking things apart and putting them back together.”
That perspective, coupled with his ability to collaborate and network, helps Mr. Thorson communicate these maintenance and sanitation challenges all the way up to the corporate suite. “I also understand that we have a business to run, and we don’t have endless amounts of time to clean our systems,” he explained. “We’ve got to do it as efficiently as possible and learn how to improve that through new technologies and advances in our processes.”
Sanitary design will often come down to a series of “if … then …” scenarios, depending on the product platform and regulation involved, such as with products that contain meat or dairy. Design and sanitation of equipment for those types of products will vary significantly compared with those designed to produce low-moisture foods. Dry applications require less frequent cleaning, less-experienced sanitation staff and, possibly, a relatively under-developed relationship with the equipment manufacturer.
But thanks to technological advances, detection of pathogen risk is more acute than ever before, and a closer eye on sanitary design is necessary for nearly every aspect of production. “Today, we have a better understanding of the microbial risks, especially related to pathogens in these low-moisture environments that were traditionally seen as low-risk areas,” Mr. Thorson observed. “We’re dealing with more allergens and dietary claims, so we need to make sure we can manage our systems for those criteria.”
Service through sanitation
Being raised with Midwestern farmer’s values, Mr. Thorson lives by the “golden rule” — treat others as you want to be treated — and works on a principle of service. “I often ask, ‘What can I do for others at work?’ and I think of it in terms of my customers, both internal and external,” he said.
Serving internal customers, Mr. Thorson explained, includes supporting engineering, human safety and operations, helping them be more effective in their roles. “I want to be transparent with my expectations around food safety — and reasonable in those expectations — in talking about risk management,” he said. “We are never going to get to zero risk, but we need to calibrate on what constitutes an appropriate risk.”
And while external customers are obviously the retailers and consumers, it hits closer to home for Mr. Thorson. When he thinks about the people who eat General Mills products, he needs only look around his home, at his wife, Melissa, 13-year-old son Cal, 10-year-old daughter Sascha, and 3-month-old son Emmett. “Am I comfortable feeding food from General Mills to my family?” Mr. Thorson asked. “The answer is, always, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
The SCOE mentality of “find it, fix it” ensures that General Mills employs safe food practices in each of its facilities spanning the globe. “One of the things I’m most proud of is the work we’ve done around validating sanitation and taking a more scientific look at what ‘clean’ means,” Mr. Thorson asserted.
“There’s a more analytical component to validating what clean looks like and trying to translate that to engineering and OEMs to ensure that when I say, ‘I need to get this micro-clean, and these are the criteria,’ they can make sure I’m successful in my sanitation program.”
As he continues the crusade for continuous improvement in creating safe food, Mr. Thorson lives by a very important principle: Visibly clean is not clean enough.
Again, in thinking of his own family, Mr. Thorson uses the analogy of a home kitchen when teaching about food safety and sanitation. “The hazards we’re dealing with — chemical, physical, biological — these can all be understood on the same level as our own kitchens,” he said. “No one wants to get sick in their own kitchen or have foreign material in the food they feed their families. You want a cleanable surface and to be able to clean up easily, right? It’s not a complex concept; we just need to scale that into talking about plants.”
Having held positions ranging from operations to quality and sanitation, Mr. Thorson's two decades with General Mills gives a broad-reaching perspective.
Becoming a guardian of food safety
For the most part, sanitation is often a thankless job. It’s the department that gets attention when things go wrong, as Karl Thorson, food safety and sanitation manager, General Mills, Minneapolis, and Baking & Snack's 2016 Operations Executive of the Year, can attest.
Because the areas of food safety and sanitation have very little in regard to formal education, those who rise up through these ranks rely heavily on the guidance of others. Mr. Thorson’s passion for the craft has made him a guiding force in this realm. And because of his leadership, he recently received the Sanitarian of the Year Award from the International Association of Food Production.
“I was so proud to receive this award, not only for me but also for this area,” Mr. Thorson said. “It’s becoming a lot more popular as a career and an area of study, to be able to manage allergens and microbial risks. And as you look at the growing visibility of things like recalls, a lot of it is tied back to sanitary design and sanitation execution.”
Although he’s recognized as a leader in this area of bakery production, Mr. Thorson is quick to admit he’s standing on the shoulders of giants, those who helped him rise to this level. They include Brian Anderson, who led sanitation for Pillsbury and was part of the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s food safety working group, and Kevin Farnum, who was the founding leader of General Mills’ Sanitation Center of Excellence.
One of Mr. Thorson’s earliest mentors, Eldon Hansen, stands out in particular.
“He’s the one who gave me my first sanitation training,” he said, recalling how Mr. Hansen taught him that visibly clean is not clean enough, and how to take a piece of equipment apart and get to the root of a problem. “It was my first experience with sanitation and learning about the importance of design, cleaning methods, disassembly, inspection and digging into a root cause.”
In 2016, Mr. Thorson received General Mills’ Eldon Hansen Leadership Award, one of the accolades he is proudest to have received.