Yesterday FDA released the initial phase of its findings of a 10-year nationwide study that looks at the relationship between food safety management systems, certified food protection managers, and the occurrence of risk factors and food safety behaviors/practices, and how this contributes to foodborne illness outbreaks in retail establishments. This first phase collected data from 2013–2014; subsequent data collection will be from 2017 and 2021. The entire span of the study is 2013–2023.
Restaurants had the most effective control over ensuring there is no bare hand contact with RTE foods as well as cooking raw animal foods (including meat, poultry and eggs) to the required temperature
Unsafe food behaviors in fast food and full-service restaurants. Improvement needed in:
Employee hand washing (knowing when and how to do it)
Proper temperature control of foods that require refrigeration to limit pathogen growth
Study results will be used to help advise retail food safety initiative and policies, industry partnerships and specific intervention strategies that target foodborne illness risk factors. It will also aid in providing technical assistance to state, local and other regulatory professionals. FDA put together a factsheet with highlights of the study.
Building the right food safety culture around environmental monitoring requires a realistic approach to your processes. “Culture starts with understanding your process,” Zephyr Wilson, product manager at Roka Bioscience told Food Safety Tech at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium. “You need to ask questions—a lot of questions.”
In the following video, Wilson talks about food safety culture in the context of environmental monitoring and how companies should approach environmental monitoring. “Understand all of your processes,” she said. “Take an honest look at your metrics and make sure you’re encouraging your employees to find the Listeria.”
She also reviews the steps a company should take when undergoing self-auditing, and encourages companies to work under the direction of an attorney to ensure that all results are confidential.
“If you think about evolution and continuous improvement in food safety, it’s nothing new,” said Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium. In the following video, Yiannas introduces his perspective on how food safety culture has evolved and moved beyond a slogan or buzzword.
Stay tuned for more video clips from Yiannas’ presentation at the Food Safety Consortium.
Today’s workforce includes several different generations of employees and learning preferences. In part II of a Q&A series with Food Safety Tech, Laura Nelson, vice president of business development at Alchemy Systems, explains how food companies need to adjust to this new environment.
Nelson: Yes. Our employee demographics are continuously changing and, as a result, those changes impact the effectiveness of our training program. We have five different generations, and each has a learning preference—and some are directly opposed to each other. We have employees who like to learn by reading—baby boomers like things clearly spelled out like detailed sanitation SOPs. And then we have employees who would absolutely not want to read detailed protocols but prefer learning from their fellow colleagues and their supervisor – millennials who prefer micro-burst training and learning through interactions. [Based on] our research conducted in partnership with The Center for Research and Public Policy, when we asked employees their learning preference and what works best for them, the majority (57%) said on the job with a supervisor, and (56%) said on the job with a coworker. Clearly, learning beyond the formal classroom training is taking place every day. We have to ask ourselves how consistent is the food safety program learning experience on the plant floor? Are bad habits, incorrect behaviors and short cuts being reinforced by fellow employees? In a follow-up research question, we asked how much coaching employees receive from their manager and more than 43% of the responding employees said they rarely or never receive coaching.
Our challenge as an industry is to make sure employees are learning in a consistent way through their supervisors and colleagues. It speaks to the all-important role of the frontline supervisor and the fact that we have to arm them with the knowledge and skill to effectively mentor and coach their employees and give them time and the responsibility to do it. It’s important to include soft skills training for supervisors: How do you communicate and motivate employees? How do you encourage them in a way that [facilitates] improvement and reinforces appropriate food safety behaviors?
We also have data that says the quality of onboarding training is an area for improvement—over 20% of respondents rated the quality of their onboard training not good. Some companies are still executing the ‘one-and-done’ training where you spend a full day or two trying to do all the training that the employee needs prior to starting their new job. If an employee is bombarded with food safety training—all the different sanitation information, GMPs, operational controls, SOPs, industry regulations, etc.— by the time the employee leaves for the day, the reality is that they forget more than 80% of it within 30 days. So, our challenges extend beyond the employee learning preferences and where training takes place. We have to improve our training content to really meet [employee] education level, language, and learning preferences and provide in smaller chunks to improve knowledge retention. Our critical food safety messages need to be part of a continuous rolling thunder of communication, meaning you’re not trying to train all at once but rather are building a food safety awareness program, maybe through posters, shift huddle talks or digital signage. It’s the different things you can do that don’t require additional training time but impacts employees with multiple touch points to reinforce these key food safety messages.
Employee training continues to be a hot topic as companies in the food industry gear up for FSMA compliance. Many are working with a much leaner staff and have several different generations of employees, many of whom absorb information in very different ways.
In a Q&A series with Food Safety Tech, Laura Nelson, vice president of business development at Alchemy Systems, discusses how training programs that may have historically been successful are no longer an effective means to educate today’s employees. “A vast majority of employees are doing what we ask and are doing it consistently. But the reality is that we have a subset of folks [who] aren’t doing that,” says Nelson. “I don’t think you can classroom train them to the point that they get it—I think some need that coaching and demonstration; they’re the kinesthetic learners that need to see you do it and then you watch them do it.”
Food Safety Tech: Where are the gaps in how food companies conduct employee education and training today?
Laura Nelson: It can be summarized in three areas.
1. Recognizing that the legacy training programs that food companies have is not effective. Companies are acknowledging that their historical training programs are not entirely effective in driving consistent behaviors. In [a recent] global food safety training [survey], we asked: “Despite our efforts in food safety classroom training, we still have employees not following our food safety program on the plant floor”. Over 60% said they agreed—yes, we still have employees not following our food safety programs. The survey involved 1200+ food safety professionals, so that’s a large number of folks acknowledging that their food safety training programs—largely classroom training—is not delivering the desired results and reducing inherent food safety risks.
There are so many things challenging the food industry and everyone is trying to manage these expanding expectations with their lean teams. The industry is changing dramatically—[from the perspective of] employee demographics, the business itself, pervasiveness of social media and exposure that it brings, and the different regulations—so a static food safety program established two, five or ten plus years ago is not going to address these changes. But who has the time and resources to continually update content, embrace technology and apply the latest behavioral science to the instructional design of new training content? Because of the lack of resources and time challenges, many in the industry are still trying to operate on their legacy training program. It might be old DVDs, PowerPoints, etc. —trainers are covering food safety, workplace safety and operational topics via PowerPoints in all-day sessions, sending around a sign-up sheet and ticking off their training compliance checkbox. Training has to be improved and enhanced for many key reasons—whether it’s considering different cultures, updating languages, engaging millennials or focusing on those critical employee behaviors that present a risk to an individual operation.
2. Understanding that training expands beyond the classroom. The industry as a whole continues to think that classroom training is their training program and that once the classroom training is complete and [the employee is] on the operations floor, that the training and education job is done. The reality is, it’s not. There’s lots more training happening beyond the classroom. Understanding that we need to formalize the extension of the classroom training and manage the ‘plant floor’ training aspect is really important. The industry is starting to embrace this [concept]. Anywhere from formal coaching and mentoring by frontline supervisors to posters and digital signage and short reminders to monthly campaigns on key critical items around food safety. Companies are starting to embrace the power of this holistic approach to training, leveraging new and emerging technology and tools to optimize employee behaviors.
3. Most people are not making the connection between training effectiveness and the ROI, the return on the investment. They think they don’t have the time to make improvements—yet, if they carved out time routinely to assess and evaluate best training practices to make training more effective and implemented these new and proven strategies, then all of a sudden the time and resource question becomes less of an issue because now you’re delivering on things like a decrease in food quality issues or reducing [employees] turnover, decreased downtime, reduced GMP non compliances, etc. It takes some time to establish those related training metrics, but once you’ve done that and have ensured that your holistic training program is current and behaviors are being exhibited consistently, you start to have fewer operational issues, enhanced customer satisfaction and motivated, engaged employees.
Across the board, increased employee awareness and training has become a big issue in food safety. The foodborne illness outbreaks that hit Chipotle Mexican Grill has put retail and restaurant establishments on high alert, yet this is just another example of the reactive culture in which we operate, according to Matt Schiering, vice president and general manager at Sani Professional.
Food Safety Tech recently hit the road with Schiering and John Caton, regional sales manager at Sani Professional, to experience first hand how one company is communicating its message to customers. Breaking with tradition has been an important part of promoting cleaner technology: The use of the rag and bucket as a means to clean both the front of the house (tables, chairs, counters, etc.) as well as the back of restaurants and retail establishments, while still fairly common, has outlived its effectiveness, and frankly, says Schiering, “screams unclean”. Caton and Schiering continued the conversation with their customers about how using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection helps prevent the spread of contamination, along with the cost savings associated with using such products. The company takes a multi-prong approach to promoting awareness among its current and potential clients, from deploying a sales force that directly interacts with quality assurance and food safety professionals in establishments to offering how advances in sustainable technology can help them stay ahead of the curve to driving consumer advocacy.
Food Safety Tech: How is Sani Professional raising the level awareness of the disadvantages of the traditional cleaning method (the rag and bucket method) in the retail environment?
Matt Schiering: There are a few ways to raise the level of awareness. The first and foremost is “feet on the street”. We’ve deliberately moved toward a direct-to-customer sales force, which gives us the opportunity to interface directly with QA, food safety and operations to show them a simpler, more efficient, more effective, and guest appealing way versus the traditional rag and bucket. The first win is one for the user (the employees of a given establishment), because associates have shown us time and time again that they do not like the mixing and measuring, and the errors that are often associated with that process. They don’t like the dirty rag itself—having to fish it out of the bowl and then present it or be seen with it in the front of the establishment. It’s a win for the operator (the manager), because with our system, there’s no longer any heightened heart rate when the health inspector shows up. One of the most common violations is the water in the buckets being out of spec or the rags themselves not being inside the bucket per regulation. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a win for the guest. Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean.
As we talk about the evolution in perception, away from traditional methods, we believe that speaking directly to the consumer has to play a role. There has to be a degree of consumer-driven advocacy for a better way. – Matt Schiering
FST: Regarding employee training, how should retailers be more proactive in ensuring their employees are engaging in proper food safety practices and aren’t spreading foodborne illnesses?
Schiering: It varies by chain. Unfortunately, we live in a reactive culture—and that goes well beyond the restaurant industry.
Oftentimes a problem precedes a protocol or other means of addressing said problem. Chipotle is one example: They’ve taken an exhaustive look at restructuring their food safety protocols as a result of a myriad of foodborne illness-related issues that they suffered in the preceding months. The [retailers] who are doing it best are the ones who build it into their establishment in the first place where it’s not predicated by some sort of problem. That involves training materials, in-service lessons, and online training (i.e., ServSafe certifications). Waffle House, for example, has Waffle House University where food safety is a key component to that system.
We envision ourselves as part of that process. We take a microcosm—the notion of proper food handling, prevention of cross contamination related foodborne illness—and provide an innovative and easy-to-use solution, and all the training and collateral materials associated with the solution that explain the proper use. We also provide test kits so that if the health inspector wants an in-the-moment proof that our product is doing what the label says it does, [the retailer] can provide that at a moments notice. It becomes more of a service proposition than simply a product-driven solution.
FST: Where do you see sustainable products fitting into the space?
Schiering: This also boils down to education, because the perception of disposables is that they’re wasteful, when in fact they needn’t be any more costly than existing solutions.
If you’re using a linen service, there’s a cost associated with renting towels, but there’s a higher cost associated with wasting towels. So if a towel ends up in a gym bag or in the trash because of overuse and/or abuse, there’s a significant upcharge for not returning that towel to the rental agency. That’s what we call the hidden cost or the dirty little secret of rag and bucket sanitizing. When you factor that in, and everyone [retailers] experiences that type of loss, and you look at the fact that sanitizing wipes kill pathogens trapped in the wipe as well as whatever it is coming into contact with at the surface, thereby enabling it to be used on multiple surfaces without causing cross contamination—the cost aligns very closely. And of course it’s a more value-added guest experience than a dirty rag being used from table to table, which is not preventing cross contamination.
Speaking to the environmental piece: At the moment, we’re actually fairly well ahead of the industry. It varies chain to chain—some chains are doing a better job than others, because it’s part of their corporate culture. But by providing solutions that are leveraging either recyclable substrates or compostable substrates, we provide greater opportunity to reduce the environmental impact often associated with disposable products. If a retailer is working with a waste management partner that can handle industrial compostable products or non-solid state recyclables, we have solutions that are appropriate for those operations, so that we’re not just adding to landfills but rather essentially recycling and/or regenerating the products that are being used, and at no greater cost.
Most retailers haven’t gotten there yet. It speaks directly to corporate culture and corporate mission of the end user. We deliberately target customers who are a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to “green technology or “green behavior”. And so when the rest of the industry catches up, we’re more than ready to serve them with products that meet those needs.
FST: Where do consumers fit into the picture, especially has industry moves away from traditional methods in food safety?
Schiering: About a decade ago, consumers started demanding that retailers like Walmart, Target, and local grocers provide a means of sanitizing shopping carts when they walk into their local retail establishments. There were myriad news reports about the germs and potential for contamination and illness arising from the often used and rarely cleaned implements—these vehicles for placing your groceries. We answered the call a decade ago, and at one time it was a significant piece of our business. It continues to be a marketplace we serve, albeit a much commoditized one. But the rise in that solution would not have taken place if not for consumers advocating for a better way.
We’re starting to create a presence on Facebook and other social media outlets to remind consumers that it’s up to them in many cases to ask for, if not demand a more effective, more pleasing way of ensuring their safety in dining establishments. Unfortunately, incidents like what we saw at the large Mexican food service retailer do ultimately play a part in that consumer advocacy, albeit a negative one, because we are a reactive society. But by presenting a positive message and sharing alternatives in the absence of citing examples or shaming retailers through the problem, we believe that will be one of the keys to changing perceptions at the retail level.
At this year’s IAFP 2015 conference, there was a lot of buzz surrounding food safety culture and employee behavior. Laura Nelson, vice president of business development at Alchemy, shares her insights on the importance of empowering employees. This is achieved through providing training that gives them the confidence to make immediate decisions on the facility floor.
“We have to own the fact that employees are the key. They are exposed to the product and they’re really the ones touching our food every day,” says Nelson. “And yet, we don’t do a really good job at training and measuring that effectiveness in their execution of the behaviors that we train them on, on the plant floor.”
In the following video, Nelson talks about what industry is doing right in food safety culture, and the areas in which improvement is needed moving forward.
To build an organizational culture that embraces true food safety preventive controls, give employees the autonomy to make critical decisions.
Strengthening food safety culture within a company goes beyond the quality function in raising the banner for food safety: Engagement across an organization, from human resources to maintenance to operations are essential. In a recent Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Laura Nelson, vice president of business development and professional services at Alchemy Systems, discusses how companies can train employees working on the plant floor to help them attain a level of empowerment to take an active, preventative role in food safety, as well as how to engage executive leadership in sharing and evaluating metrics.
Food Safety Tech: How does the accountability of employees play into FSMA implementation?
Laura Nelson: FSMA is going to be additive to what [companies] are doing now in some ways. When you look at FSMA, I think about formalized programs for some companies that may not have a full-blown environmental program that is managed as a preventive control. There’s a lot of training [involved], not only in executing the environmental program, but also in how you maintain your environment to prevent those microbial niches. You start to drill back from the actual protocol of environmental monitoring, and what you do when you receive a positive listeria. How can we start educating employees to be able to recognize the niche? [For example,] is it a cramped pushcart, or damage to [something] holding product where it can’t be properly cleaned? You start educating employees at the level that they can play a more preventative role [in recognizing] they need to take equipment out of commission or send it to maintenance because it can’t be cleaned. This is when we start to see a real change in the culture of a plant. People move beyond these SOPs and requirements to a much more facilitative and educational role to drive the support of some of the FSMA requirements.
The other thing I see is record keeping: There’s a big criticality in maintaining records. People maintain a lot of data now, and there’s a lot of ancillary information included. We just haven’t had the scrutiny on record keeping. The auditors will look through it and find the information they need, but it will be a different [level of] scrutiny when FDA inspectors start to look at the data out there. I think that provides a big opportunity for industry to look at how they maintain records, what they use, and how to capture it. Again, it rolls down to employees—educating them on what is a proper record.
FST: Is facilitating employee awareness and training a challenge faced by more smaller companies versus larger organizations?
Nelson: I think large and small companies face the same challenge, and that is to elevate the knowledge of their employees (they are the eyes and ears) to help them maintain your food safety programs. It goes beyond an SOP on how to clean a piece of equipment or wash their hands. It’s more of understanding the “whys” behind it so they can be line-of-sight. They’re [on the floor] 24/7; they’re the ones who see equipment getting damaged, or drips and leaks. For them to understand and recognize what kind of risk that introduces into a plant [enables them] to raise their hand to prompt some corrective action.
There are food companies out there that are looking to achieve that level of autonomy of giving employees the ability to stop a line because there’s a food safety issue. These are hourly workers that have the autonomy to do that. That’s a huge thing. If you’re able to do that, you’ve far surpassed the basic compliance of any kind of training or education. You’re really looking at an organizational culture that has embraced true food safety preventative controls program.
FST: Food Safety Culture makes the connection between employee behavior and accountability, and establishing metrics. What are your thoughts on Food Safety Culture moving forward?
Nelson: It’s very hard to monitor behaviors. It’s easier to do classroom training and check that box. [It’s the] “how-to”: How do you do that? How do you mature your food safety culture to a point where you get to that autonomy point? We know that you need to go beyond letting employees read SOPs and sign-in [sheets], and say they understand it and move on. You have to move beyond classroom training where you’re giving employees what they need to know and telling them the requirements. You have to connect those behaviors, and then monitor and observe those behaviors, and validate that you’re executing on them. Then it’s applied onto the plant floor.
Embrace the culture of helping each other. Once you’ve achieved this: if your employees are executing when you’re not looking, that’s culture. It’s integrated and something that people embrace.
We did some research on the topic and developed an iPad coaching tool that allows people to systematically gather the data, to capture and automate it. We found that supervisors appreciated it because they had something that was clear and gives them dialogue on what to say in the event that something was missed.
FST: Where should companies focus when training and educating employees to reach a stage of empowerment?
Nelson: The training needs to be at the [appropriate] education level; it needs to be in the language they that understand. [For example,] companies may be able to do a lot more with pictures to accommodate non-English speaking folks in their plant.
Employees need to be challenged and quizzed to make sure they understand the information. The training itself needs to be tied to metrics: What are you trying to achieve as a plant and therefore [need] to train people on? This should be tied into factors such as customer complaints, quality issues, and what has a direct impact on what employees are doing or not doing, as this [leads to] much more accountability. That’s where the role of the frontline supervisor is critical. That position is absolutely key to the success of driving food safety program compliance. We have to recognize that our frontline supervisors need the skills to motivate employees and communicate effectively with them, including discussing the challenges in conflict resolution.
Elevating food safety so employees as are aware. Awareness programs have a documented advance to people trying to drive specific requirements. We’ve seen a lot of people develop awareness programs around food safety and provide the focus in the plant on key elements that people struggle with. That way, they’re able to have multiple touch points (posters, digital signage, huddle guides). This is absolutely key as we move forward: not just training, but ongoing awareness.
FST: How can companies further educate management to understand the value of food safety culture and reach a point of alignment?
Nelson: There is and can be a pretty big disconnect between executive leadership and what is going on related to food safety. When you talk about the collaboration of the team and those within the plant, you have to include your executive management team. They should understand the different activities and efforts that go into driving a food safety program in a plant. When talking about metrics and evaluating effectiveness, that data should be shared with the executive team on a routine basis so that everyone is clear on what is happening in the plant as well as the results. If the results aren’t where we want them to be, and we’re not in a continuous improvement mode, then what is it going to take to get there? That dialogue should be had.
If you don’t continue to educate your executive team on what issues you’re seeing, then you start creating a divide within the organization. That’s part of what stems from people struggling with a lack of resources and time; this disproportionate disconnect is between other activities within a plant. Communication needs to be routine; people need to be held accountable for metrics so that you’re actually tracking to them. And if you need [more] resources, it’s the perfect way to start building a case for getting additional sales, technology, programs or procedures.
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