Joe Stout: Food safety deserves respect
Without a fundamental commitment, a plant faces major recall and closes.
BakingBusiness.com, July 10, 2012
by Joe Stout

POWER Engineers

When I present on food safety, I refer to the importance of perfection to avoid recalls or quality failures. Often when I visit a plant, I hear management elevate concerns about food safety, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and quality issues to their employees. They say things such as, “If we do not get it right, this could cost your job,” or, “In the event something goes wrong with quality or food safety, the plant will close.” This raises fear in the audience and elevates their attention.

This may appear to be a veiled threat from management to hourly and supervisory employees, but most employees get the message. However, some believe the reference is being made because of other employees — “They must be talking about Mary or Bob; I saw that they don’t always follow GMPs.” It is important that all who work in the food industry look in the mirror to evaluate their activities every day.

The following is a postmortem of a plant that thought it was better than that and found itself in a major recall after a pathogen was found in a finished product. I had visited the plant on numerous occasions through the years and came away feeling that it was unloved by management and employees. The programs seemed to be adequate, but was the company really doing what was needed? The staff appeared to be going through the motions without a fundamental commitment.

On one of my visits, the plant was under a stress situation while starting up a new product. I saw something and reacted immediately. I normally do not overreact to situations because I am a guest in facilities and do my best to behave as one.

This situation — one I will never forget — was the ultimate in disrespect to the concept of safe food. On the production floor, an idle line was down for the day, and the maintenance team leader was using it as a table to lay out blueprints over a poly barrier. I could accept this, to a degree.

His clothing was dirty because of climbing under and about the line where the new product was running. Later he elevated himself and sat on the production line on a clean belt without any barrier. I no longer could contain my passion for food safety.

I approached the individual and expressed concern about his activities and their impact on GMPs and food safety, as well as his setting a bad example for others. I explained food contact surfaces need to be revered and respected and his action showed disrespect for his plant, company and food safety in general. I heard later from the plant manager that I should have used a different approach, and I agreed at the time. Although, looking back, I think my actions were justified.

Disrespect for food safety in a plant culture exhibits itself in different ways and circumstances. When I saw this maintenance leader sitting on a clean line, I questioned the facility’s commitment to food safety, GMPs and consumers. Something was wrong in this plant for this to happen. Maintenance personnel are critical to the success of a food plant, but if not engaged in the philosophy of food safety, they can be contamination vectors crossing zones from raw to ready-to-eat. They and others need to be convinced to do it right. Did the same attitude prevail in other areas or with other employees and programs? Apparently so.

Unfortunately, less than a year later, the plant underwent a massive recall of finished products because of the presence of pathogens.

We need to show respect and reverence when we work in food plants to ensure that we follow the rules and are perfect in what we do. The next time plant leadership talks about the need to protect jobs, the company and consumers, think of this situation. That plant is closed and lifeless.

This story is sponsored by POWER Engineers, which has one of the most comprehensive teams of engineers and specialists serving the baking and snack industry. As an extension of its clients' engineering teams, the company provides program management, integrated solutions and full facility design for the baking and snack industry. Learn more at www.powereng.com/food.