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  • Archive for August 2009

    Building a Food Safety Culture, Audits vs. Risk Assessment

    Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

    Julia Stewart:

    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker is joining me again to discuss various aspects of building a food safety culture. 


    Bob, you’ve said earlier that some food safety programs just make companies good at being audited – they don’t have true food safety programs that respond to risk and contribute to a food safety competency. How do we alter our discussion to go from audits to risk assessment?


    Bob Whitaker:

    Julia, food safety is about risk assessment and risk management. We are all risk assessors and managers in our daily lives, whether we do so consciously or subconsciously. We routinely evaluate the risks associated with everything we do and then we take precautions to manage those risks.  For example, when we cross the street, we check to be sure no cars are coming; when we drive a car, we be sure it is in good working order, the brakes work, its full of gas and we obey (at least most of the time) traffic rules and regulations to minimize our risk of an accident.  When it comes to produce food safety, it is important to be sure our food safety programs are similarly risk based.  Simply developing a food safety program that supplies the paperwork required by whatever auditor is being employed does not address the food safety needs of your company. 


    Doing a risk assessment does not have to be hard.  Start out by making a simply line drawing.  If you are a grower begin at the point you select the land you intend to grow a crop on through land preparation, planting, growing, harvesting, cooling, right up to the point where you no longer control the fate of the crop.  Processors, transportation companies, distribution centers, and any other handlers can follow the same process picking up where they impact the produce supply chain. It is important for all those who handle our produce to understand the risks associated with their place in the supply chain and adopt risk management strategies to minimize those risks.


    As you perform your risk assessments, reach out to all the experts who are available to you for their expert advice and input on the risks you should be considering, and how to manage them effectively. You already have lots of experts within your own organization. Who knows your operations better than the people who work for you?  You have to step up and take responsibility for preparing your company’s food safety program.  Too often I hear growers and processors say “just tell me what I have to do and that’s what I’ll do for my food safety program”.  How can anyone else possibly know your operations and therefore your risk profile better than you?  In any produce company I have ever been around, there is always at least one guy who knows more about his growers and their practices than anyone else. There are also usually harvest and process guys who have incredible knowledge of what they do and why.


    Use these people, combining them as you need to with those who have the technical knowledge to understand the microbial, chemical or physical risk implications of those practices.  Once these people start talking, I guarantee you that you can build an effective risk management system and practices that mitigate risk…and best of all, your employees will own those practices, because they had a hand in developing them.



    Thank you, Bob. Once again you’ve helped us look at food safety from a different perspective.


    Thanks very much to our listeners, please join us again next time!

    Building a Food Safety Culture, Part 6 – Continuous Improvement

    Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

    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 and I have been talking about the importance of establishing a food safety culture, and what the four basic attributes of a food safety culture are.  Today, he will share more detail on the fourth attribute, Continuous Improvement. 


    Bob, how do we go about building Continuous Improvement into our food safety programs?


    Bob Whitaker:

    Julia, food safety is dynamic, complex and ever-changing activity with many, many moving parts. In that type of changing environment, you can never be satisfied; you must always think in terms of continual improvement.  Absent true and complete kill steps, food safety will always be a process of risk management so you have to drive innovative thinking and search out new ideas and technologies to help manage those risks. There are lots of exciting new technologies out there poised to have an impact on food safety performance.  We have to first test these new technologies, verify they work, and understand how they can impact food safety.


    So, how does one stay current on the latest technologies and the latest thinking on food safety? By getting involved. I think of this as a “ripple effect”. It’s like a drop of water splashed into the middle of a pond.  The ripples increase in size as they reach the shore.  The same thing is true with getting involved to build your food safety knowledge. A little drop of information obtained at a conference, off the internet, or at an ag extension service meeting can be shaped and molded and implemented in your business to impact the food safety performance of your company. However, the information is not simply going to find you; you need to search it out. You can do that by getting involved with your trade associations, by visiting Web sites like the PMA site to get food safety updates and find other useful linked sites, and by supporting the research efforts of the Center for Produce Safety or your local university that is actively engaged in food safety research.


    Always remember, as your business changes, so does your food safety risk profile.  You should be constantly in the mode of updating and re-evaluating. If you add a new product line or a new packing machine, re-examine your risk assessment to be sure all new potential risks are managed. Don’t ever assume they are. Go through the process of risk evaluation – it is a chance for employees to learn, and a chance to improve your performance. Having a mindset of continuous improvement can and will transfer to other aspects of your business activities and have a positive impact on your business culture.



    Thank you, Bob. We all know how dynamic our industry is and certainly the food safety component is no exception. That commitment to continuous improvement is a skill that will pay off in plenty of other management areas as well, in addition to food safety.


    Thanks very much to our listeners, please join us again next time!

    Building a Food Safety Culture, Part 5 – Communication

    Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

    Julia Stewart:

    Hello, welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” I’m Julia Stewart. PMA’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker is back with me to continue our discussion of the four basic attributes of a food safety culture.  So far we have covered the attributes of Responsibility and Knowledge.


    Bob, what role does Communication, the third attribute, play?


    Bob Whitaker:

    Julia, communication should be directed in two ways: internally, at your own employees and externally to suppliers, vendors, customers, and consumers. First let’s talk about internal communications. 


    We all set goals every year for hitting specific sales numbers, controlling operational costs, employee retention, or overall profitability. To truly integrate food safety into our corporate culture, we also need to set food safety goals for our companies, and develop tools to measure food safety performance as a company.  It is even more effective when these company food safety goals are communicated throughout the organization and individual employees “own” these goals as part of their personal performance plan.


    Employee communication is vital to make sure your workforce understands how important food safety is to the company. You need to ask yourself, can our employees speak with authority about our programs, and explain them adequately to others? Each employee should know how they fit into the food safety scheme. For example, the guy at the purchasing desk plays a vital role in your corporate food safety program. If you are short on a product, and your buyer sources from a buddy because he can get it fast and at a good price but has no knowledge of whether the grower even has a food safety program, then he has just compromised your program and put your company at risk. That purchasing employee needs to understand the goals of your corporate food safety program and why his or her role is so vital in that plan.  On the other hand, if your sales person can answer food safety questions for customers, that can only help bolster their confidence in your programs. In addition, involving all your employees in the program and setting goals can become a source of pride and help give your company an identity.


    External communications also need to be part of your food safety programs. Your suppliers need to be as passionate as you are about food safety – and you need to reward those that share your commitment to food safety with your business.


    Finally, also be sure your customers are aware of your commitment. You accomplish this by becoming a true partner with them on this issue. Create data sharing capabilities where customers can access food safety data like audits, product tests, risk assessments, HACCP data, and other related food safety information. Transparency builds confidence and this type of openness and dialogue creates “touch points” where employees on the sales desk, product development, marketing, production and food safety can reach out to your customers and reinforce your commitment to food safety in the course of daily business transactions. 


     Of course, the time to communicate is now, don’t wait until a crisis occurs. We need to aggressively seek out opportunities to speak about our programs and address supplier, customer and consumer concerns every day.



    Thank you, Bob. PMA’s consumer surveys show that the more information consumers have, the more confident they are about overall food safety. As a public relations professional with both marketing and crisis management expertise, I am completely sold on the importance of strong Internal and external communication, delivered sooner rather than later.


    Thanks very much to our listeners, please join us again next time!