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5 Signs You Don’t Have a Food Safety Culture

As I travel across the nation helping food companies with food safety issues, I get to be in a lot of food companies and observe many employees going about their jobs. Most of what I see is good. When I dig deeper into a company, I see what is missing in the food safety culture.

There is no publicly-available training program (so far) for a food safety culture. If you know of one, I want to know. What do you think about when you first think of food safety culture? I think of employees wearing clean uniforms and footwear. I think of good handwashing procedures. As I have been in food plants, I have compiled evidence of a food safety culture. As you get deeper into the culture of your company, you will see or not see these five signs of food safety culture.

You need a Vice President of Food Safety.
A food safety culture starts at the top with the President of the company. Period. If that is true, your company will have a direct report for food safety to the president, CEO or owner of the company. The title of the job may be Director or Manager, but the role of that person is to oversee food safety. It doesn’t matter how big or small your company is and what the actual titles are. What matters is that food safety has a seat at the table, i.e. the conference table where the President is at the head of the table. The Vice President of Food Safety must be equal in importance with Operations and Sales and Marketing. Why? Because you make food! Your company is legally obligated to make safe food.

You need a preventive maintenance program.
There are companies and management styles which are described as “putting out fires.” If your management goes from one crisis to the next, you do not have a food safety culture. One symptom is the absence of a preventive maintenance program. Gears must be lubed; filters need changing. In a preventive maintenance program, these activities are scheduled. Factory shutdowns for cleaning are scheduled.

Your work orders need to be completed in a timely manner.
In a food safety culture, there is a work order form. Employees know where to find the form, anyone can fill out the form, and everyone knows who receives the form. After the form is completed and turned in, the work order is logged and goes through triage to determine its timeline to completion. Critical problems are reported and fixed immediately. Less serious problems are fixed as soon as possible, e.g. within a week. Problems requiring additional labor or capital expense are put in the budget to get done within a year. As work is completed, the keeper-of-the-log records valuable information for planning purposes and marks the work order as complete. Typically, the manager of maintenance is responsible for employees following the company’s procedures for work orders, including paperwork, and reports the status of work orders to upper management. In a company without food safety culture, this simply does not happen. According to Matthew Botos, CEO of connectfood.com, “Food Safety is all about communication and documentation! Communicating what is being manufactured, what is arriving and what is leaving are just some of the fundamentals of food safety. Communicating when equipment needs to fixed and documenting the actions is critical. Consumers consume safe products because all throughout the supply chain, from top to bottom, we are communicating and documenting our procedures.”

Speaking of critical problems being fixed immediately, it is Murphy’s Law that critical problems will occur at night on a weekend or when key personnel are on vacation. It does not matter what day or time of day the problem occurs; the appropriate maintenance personnel must return to work and fix the problem. In a food safety culture there is a record of maintenance on equipment. This history is valuable in times of trouble and when planning for capital expense. It is wrong to rely on people’s memory of the history of repair.

Your company’s food safety team needs to meet.
A food safety team is required of small and larger companies and documented in a written food safety plan. If I were an inspector, I would ask to show me the list of names on the food safety team. I want to see the name, title, email address and telephone number. You get extra credit for personal cell numbers. Is everyone on the team still employed at the company? Are their titles current? Second, show me the food safety team meeting minutes. There are many opportunities for the team to meet. I am not a fan of scheduled meetings for the food safety team, so I do not want to see consistent dates, like a monthly meeting. I am a fan of the team meeting when corrective action forms are initiated that affect food safety. I want to see a copy of the corrective action form to show the root cause. The team discusses the situation and determines if there is a threat to food safety; document the discussion and conclusion.

Duct tape has been used.
First, never use duct tape in the production area. Second, never use duct tape beyond the production area where wet cleaning is done. Duct tape does not provide a smooth, complete seal. Product and moisture get under the tape, creating the perfect growth niche for your pathogen of choice.

As I returned to write this blog over several days, I thought of more and more examples. It is easier to determine where you lack in a food safety culture and focus on making improvements. That is good quality assurance, but don’t forget to recognize and celebrate good food safety culture when you see it. You can read my blog, 4 Signs of a Food Safety Culture here at connectfood.com.

Still have questions? The ConnectFood website has free resources, and the folks at ConnectFood are here to help! Contact us.

About the Author
Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
Kathy Knutson Food Safety Consulting
Dr. Kathy Knutson works nationwide with food manufacturers on recall investigations, problem-solving, training, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compliance. After being trained in 2016 as a Lead Instructor with the FDA-recognized curriculum for Preventive Controls Qualified Individuals, she delivered over 20 workshops to industry. With over 35 years in microbiology and 15 years of full-time teaching, Dr. Knutson is passionate about training and is an effective communicator at all levels in an organization. She has taught and consulted with companies on laboratory methods, interpretation of lab results, quality assurance, sanitation, environmental monitoring, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). As a life-long learner, Dr. Knutson is trained in prevention of intentional adulteration, a topic on the horizon for the food industry. Dr. Knutson is a contributing author at CannabisIndustryJournal.com. Dr. Knutson writes a food safety blog and contributes expert services to manufacturers through connectfood.com, an online site for writing HACCP and food safety plans. When Dr. Knutson is not traveling, she works from home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and an adorable Bernedoodle. Learn more about her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathyknutsonphd