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    Risk Assessment and Management, Part 5A: How Do You Verify Your Plans Work?

    Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” PMA’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker is with me today to continue discussing the steps of risk assessment and risk management.

    Bob, in your previous post you mentioned the importance of being able to measure your risk management program. Can you give us some more details about this?

    Bob Whitaker:
    Sure Julia, it is important that you make your risk management program measurable to the extent possible. Simply put, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. For example, if you identify irrigation water sourced from a well on a farm as a risk factor should it become contaminated, then define your risk management practice in measurable terms. That means, for example, that you can have a check list that calls for weekly physical inspection of the well head, and monthly microbial testing for generic E. coli. These are measurable activities, they generate data, and that data can be used to verify you are following your risk assessment and management plan. More importantly, these data may also help you identify improvements you could make in your risk management program to help improve your food safety performance.

    However, remember you cannot test your way to safety. You need to be realistic about the uses and value for testing in your operations and how it helps you manage risks. Understand that testing is only a tool. Without the proper risk management practices in place, testing is meaningless. We are faced with the need to test water, soil amendments, process environments, equipment surfaces, and even seeds. You need to look at these in relationship to your risk assessment, and determine whether testing these factors will help you manage the risk better, or if the tests will help verify the effectiveness of a process.

    And, just as important as having a way to measure, is also to have a plan for responding to the results. Know what a positive test result means and how you will handle it before you get that positive result. Decision trees are great tools in situations like that. Also know who will interpret the data, and who will make the decision to ship or destroy products, to harvest or to walk by a field. These decisions can be painful because they can have bottom-line impact, so be prepared for that beforehand.

    Thank you, Bob. As always you have tough but constructive information for us. We’ll look forward to hearing more about the role of verification in risk assessment and management in the next post.

    To our listeners, thanks very much for joining us today!

    If you haven’t already signed up to receive Ask Dr. Bob posts by email, we invite you to do so today – just type your email address into the “subscribe” field you’ll find on the home page of the blog.

    We’ll see you next time!

    Risk Assessment and Management, Part 4:Key Principles For Success

    Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is Julia Stewart, PMA PR Director, here with PMA Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. Welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob”.

    Bob, we’ve been talking about the importance of risk assessment to food safety, and how to get started. What are some of the most important steps we should be considering as we go through this process?

    Bob Whitaker:
    Julia, as we have already discussed, we’re already risk assessors and managers, so we’re well positioned to use the most powerful tool we have in our toolbox to build food safety programs.  I want to briefly outline some key general principles you need to bear in mind as you put that tool to work.

    We previously discussed the importance of mapping the process for your operation. This is a key step in any risk assessment. A company must draw out each step in the operation and then evaluate where you might have a food safety risk.  

    While each operation must assign a person responsible for leading that mapping and risk assessment process, it is important to note that this must be a participatory process. Everyone must participate in the process, so that they can ultimately take responsibility for the company’s food safety performance.   The best way to achieve this is by designating a food safety team, spanning from field-level employees to senior managers. That way, you can ensure meaningful input in the planning process, and get corporate-wide buy-in or ownership when the plan is complete.  Your food safety plan is only going to be effective if each employee owns it, if it is specific to your business, and your employees understand it in that context.

    Next, use your internal experts. The president of the company or his or her designated food safety professional can’t sit at a desk and create a complete risk assessment and management program alone.  Involve your company “experts”. Every operation has people who are experts in their area, from growing to harvesting and cooling, to processing. They live in these operations daily and can help define the mapping process more accurately.  More importantly, they can help you develop the risk management practices that you will need. 

    If your risk assessment and management planning process is iterative, as it should be to ensure your plan stays current and effective, you will generally find that your group of experts can be your most valuable resource in suggesting and implementing new management practices to mitigate the risks you identify.  Even better, because they had a role in developing those practices, your experts will turn into your most vehement enforcers of your management practices every day.

    You also must be sure that you make your risk management program measurable to the extent possible.  Simply put, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  You must build measurable activities into your plan. We will talk about this in more detail in a future post.

    Lastly, risk assessment and management is never really done. You must re-assess and update your plans regularly, striving for continuous improvement. We’ll talk about this principle in another post.

    Thank you, Bob. These core principles make basic sense, I look forward to talking with you more about some of them in future posts. In the meantime, to our listeners, thanks for joining us. Please visit the Ask Dr. Bob audio blog again soon, and remember you can also sign up on the blog’s front page to receive future posts by email. If you are finding this valuable, please share it with your colleagues.

    See you next time!

    Risk Assessment, Part 3: Determine the Types of Risk

    Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

    Julia Stewart:
    Hi, this is Julia Stewart, PMA PR Director and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” PMA’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker is with me today to continue discussing risk assessment and risk management.

    Bob, in your last post you outlined the importance of risk assessment and management, and you described how mapping the process sets the base for a food safety program. Can you give us more detail on the different types of risk we might have to plan for?

    Bob Whitaker:
    Julia, as I’ve said before, risk assessment and risk management is our most powerful weapon in our efforts to improve our industry food safety performance. In our last post I talked about how important it is for each operator to thoroughly map and define their production practices, to help identify the different types of risk they face and will need to manage. What do I specifically mean by that? We grow our crops in nature. They can potentially be exposed to a number of biological, chemical or physical contaminants that could cause illness in humans.

    Crops are subject to weather, animals, birds, insects and human intrusion. Our production areas aren’t hermetically sealed buildings. We may farm next to dairy and poultry operations, grazing beef cattle, industrial manufacturing, and more recently populated neighborhoods. Fruits and vegetables grow in soils that can harbor vibrant microbial populations. We irrigate our crops with water sourced from wells and reservoirs that are fairly protected, but also canals and rivers where the water often travels hundreds of miles and can be subject to a wide variety of contaminating factors along the route.

    Many commodities are handled numerous times by humans during harvest, sorting, and packing. We cool and sometimes process products, and these operations further subject the products to contamination risks. We ship products across the country, hold them at distribution centers and then move them to consumers through restaurant kitchens or retail shelves. Each stop along the way presents risks for contamination that must be managed to achieve our supply chain’s common goal of public safety.

    When we look at the complex supply chain that is employed in produce and the potential for contamination events, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. However, these potential risk events are really opportunities for operators to use their best practices to manage these risks. An effective risk mapping and assessment process helps identify the points of potential risk, but it doesn’t stop there. That process will also help each company determine how likely a contamination event is to occur, so that the company can then assign a priority to addressing that risk, and determining what tool or management process might be employed to do so.

    Thank you, Bob. Once again you’ve outlined some interesting information and challenged us to really analyze this entire process and all the types of risk that we might face. We look forward to hearing more from you on this whole issue of risk assessment and management.

    Until next time, to our listeners, thanks for joining us!