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Dave Premo, Birko Corp.
FST Soapbox

How to Maintain Food Safety and Protect Your Brand During Construction

By Dave Premo
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Dave Premo, Birko Corp.

If your food processing facility needs an expansion or update, construction can be a disruptive event. Throughout the process, a variety of food safety hazards can be present, potentially putting your products at risk. While the contractors you work with are skilled at their trade, protecting your brand is ultimately your responsibility.

Construction, food safety
Developing a thorough plan can keep products, the facility and your employees safe during construction. Images courtesy of Birko.

Extra precautions are needed to minimize the food safety risks during construction, but by developing a thorough plan and following it diligently, you can keep your products, facility and employees safe.

Preparation: The Important First Steps for Safety

Having an established environmental plan before construction starts will make the construction process go smoothly and help maintain safety. If the plan your staff is following needs changes or improvements, make updates in advance of construction and be sure that your staff is up to speed before the project begins.

First, remove any equipment that can be moved from the construction zone and cover all electrical panels, open conduit and electrical outlets to minimize areas that might harbor dust or bacteria during construction.

Next, taking steps to separate the construction and production areas is crucial. Installing heavy gauge plastic sheeting or even temporary walls to isolate the construction area will help prevent cross-contamination. Any doors or wall openings on the temporary barriers should be sealed on both sides, and the gaps between the base of the barriers and the floor should be adequately sealed to keep the surrounding production areas safe. Do whatever is necessary to minimize organisms from traveling by air outside of the construction zone.

The HVAC and air handling system in the construction area should also be evaluated for cross-contamination potential. Be sure to close off or divert the airflow to prevent air movement from the construction zone to any production areas. In addition, make sure the system will be able to accommodate additional areas or space after construction is complete and make any upgrades if necessary. Thoroughly clean the HVAC system and filters before the construction process starts.

Similarly, evaluate any drains that are present in the construction zone for cross-contamination potential and take precautions to keep pathogens from passing from the construction area to the food production areas.

Make Contractors Part of Your Plan

While contractors might have years of experience in their trade, they don’t know your food safety plan. Schedule a formal food safety training session with the contractor and all members of the construction staff. Don’t allow anyone to work in the facility before completing the training. Determine which protective clothing contractors and their team will need, such as frocks, boot covers or hairnets, and provide a separate bag or place to store them during the construction process.

Designating a single entrance for contractors and construction staff will minimize confusion and avoid mistaken entries into prohibited areas. Educate them on the appropriate traffic flow as they arrive, enter the facility, and conduct their work. Their entrance should be separate from those used by office and food production employees. Have quat or alcohol hand and tool sanitizers stationed at the designated contractor entrance, and require them to sanitize any tools, materials or equipment before entering the facility. Emphasize that no mud or other debris should be tracked into the facility. Provide the necessary guidance and monitor the entrance area to prevent that from happening.

Shoe coverings, food safety, construction
Effectively communicate safety plan with all contractors involved.

Construction staff and in-house food production staff should be separated at all times. To prevent cross-contamination, there shouldn’t be any direct paths from the construction area to the production area. No material from the construction area should ever be brought into the food production area. Contractors and construction staff should also be prohibited from using the break rooms or restrooms that are used by the facility employees. Because they won’t have access to other areas, temporary hand wash sinks may be needed for construction employees to follow frequent hand washing and sanitizing procedures.

Best Practices for Sanitation During Construction

Before demolishing and removing any walls during the construction process, apply a foam disinfectant at 800–1000 ppm without rinsing. If any equipment needs to be moved, or if there will be new equipment brought into the area, clean and disinfect it with quat at 800–1000 ppm without rinsing.

Quat should also be applied heavily on the floors around the designated construction team entrances. Foam or spray contractors’ walkways and the construction area floor every four hours at 800–1000 ppm. Allow contractors, forklifts, dollies or other wheeled carts to regularly travel through the disinfectant to keep their feet and wheels sanitized as they move throughout the construction area.

If your construction project involves new equipment installation, discuss the sanitation requirements and restrictions with a sanitation chemical provider before purchasing this equipment to ensure you have the right chemistry on hand. Any new equipment should be cleaned and sanitized, as well as the area where it will be installed, before bringing the equipment into the area. Make sure all the surfaces of the new equipment are compatible with your current cleaning chemistry and that the installation follows proper food safety guidelines. If necessary, upgrade your food safety process to accommodate the new equipment.

Transitioning from Construction to Safe Food Production
Once the construction project is complete, remove all construction materials, tools, debris, plastic sheeting and temporary walls. Seal any holes that might have occurred in the floors, walls and ceilings where equipment was moved, and repair or replace epoxy or other floor coverings. Inspect any forklifts or man lifts used during the construction, and clean and sanitize them.

Clean the HVAC and air handling system and return it to either its pre-construction settings or an updated configuration based on what the new area requires.

Continue cleaning everything in the construction area, from ceiling to floor, including lights, walls, drains, refrigeration units and all equipment following SSOPs. Note that different cleaning products containing solvents may be needed for the initial cleaning to remove cutting oil, welding flux residues, greases, and other elements from the construction process. Be sure to have those cleaning products on hand before you get to this step to avoid delays of a thorough sanitation process. Where necessary, passivate any stainless steel equipment.

Finally, test the environment. Collect a special set of swabs and monitor the results. Apply post-rinse sanitizer and then begin food production. Implement an enhanced environmental monitoring program in all areas disrupted by the construction until the data shows a return to the baseline levels. Revise your facility SSOPs in light of any changes based on the new construction.

Achieving Seamless Productivity

Expansion can mean new capabilities for your business, but lax food safety processes during construction can jeopardize the new opportunities your expansion brings. By having a strong plan in place, following it diligently, educating contractors on your plan, monitoring activity, and using effective sanitizing chemistry, you will be able to expand while protecting your brand and avoiding food safety issues.

Food Safety and Social Media Crisis Communications

What Does a Social Media Crisis Communications Plan Have to Do with Food Safety?

By Ryan Hardy
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Food Safety and Social Media Crisis Communications

No one can contest the power of social media these days. As of August 2015, there were 2.2. billion users of social networks globally, with Facebook still by far the largest social network platform, at nearly 1.5 billion active users. Even if you aren’t on Twitter or Instagram, you have most likely heard or read about topics on them through other media. The influence of social networks to reach so many people makes them perhaps the most powerful communications tool available.

When it comes to a food safety crisis—whether a product recall or a report that a consumer has found a foreign object in prepared food product—you have to assume that messages about it will show up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even YouTube. From there, it is likely to end up on TV through newscasts as well. If your company maintains silence on social media, the public is likely to assume that you have something to hide, that your company is out of touch with public concerns, or that you just don’t care.

For these reasons, it is important that your food safety program be integrated with a social media crisis communications plan. That does not mean that your food safety team has to create the plan or manage the communications. These responsibilities should fall to your designated communications and public relations personnel. But it does mean that when a food safety issue with potentially harmful effects on public health arises, your food safety team should be aware of the plan and coordinate with the public relations team in the overall response.

The Positive Side of Social Media in a Crisis

The most obvious benefits of using social networks for crisis communications are speed and the large number of people you can reach. In a situation with potential to impact a large number of people, getting accurate information out to the public quickly is important to lower the risk to public health.

Other benefits may not be as obvious. By presenting a consistent and accurate message to a broad audience, your communications can help prevent or counter misinformation. A well-crafted social media post should be clear and concise, and thus is less likely to be misunderstood. That clarity and concision may help to avoid your message being reported as a “sound bite” out of context. And your message is more likely to be transmitted and repeated accurately, as social media users can share it in full.

Studies have shown that frequent communications from a firm can increase consumers’ intentions to comply with a recall effort and, when well handled, actually enhance consumer perception of a company. Thus, a social media crisis communications plan can contribute to action on the part of consumers and to maintain your company’s reputation.

The Downside of Social Media in a Crisis

As with any communications platform, social network communications do have a downside. The social nature of the platforms means that anyone with an account can post a response, and the potential for inaccuracies and outright hostility is very real. How to respond appropriately, and when not to respond at all, takes training and experience. That is the reason that crisis communications need to be handled carefully by the communications experts in your organization.

However, even if you are not the one posting the communications, having an understanding of the plan will help you as you carry out your responsibilities as part of the coordinated response to a food safety incident.

The Basics of a Social Media Crisis Plan
Although each social media crisis communications plan should be tailored for the individual company, the following some common elements of a good plan:

  • Clear assignment of roles and responsibilities. Who should post/comment/tweet on behalf of the company? All others should avoid commenting about the situation, even if using their own accounts, to prevent confusion and promote consistency.
  • Identification of the primary social media channel to use during the crisis (and of secondary channels). For example, will you post all relevant information to the corporate website, on Twitter, or on the corporate Facebook page? Picking one channel helps control the messages and makes it possible to funnel users of other social networks to one central source.
  • Message templates. One template should be for an initial message, indicating that your company is aware of the situation and will be issuing an official statement shortly. Twitter is a good channel to use for this message, but it is also appropriate for your corporate Facebook page. It is also a good idea to include the platform you will be using as your primary channel for communications. For example, the initial message for a company intending to use Facebook as the primary social media communications channel could be “@Company is aware of the [brief description of the situation] and will be issuing an official response soon. For continuing updates, please visit our Facebook page [url].”
  • Internal contact information (including for after-hours). You should know whom to alert and how to contact them regardless of the time, and under what circumstances you should contact them. This is key information to include in your food safety plan.
  • Clear procedures and responsibility for cancelling scheduled social media posts. During a crisis, the company needs to prove that situation is their top priority. Pre-scheduled messages about products can send the wrong message.
  • Guidelines on the frequency and content of messages. For example, measures the company is undertaking and actions consumers can take to avoid the contaminated item(s) should be posted. However, prematurely stating that preliminary measures will completely address the problem should be avoided; otherwise, if you have to increase the scope of corrective measures, your company could lose consumer trust.
  • Message approval procedures. Identify any specific type of message that requires approval by senior management. However, be mindful that a lengthy approval process for all messages will defeat the purpose for communicating through social media. (That’s one reason why templates are an important part of the plan, as they can be vetted and approved ahead of time).
  • Message review procedures. On the other hand, all messages should be reviewed before being posted to verify technical accuracy and to ensure clarity and appropriateness. During a crisis situation, you must adhere to the highest standards of professionalism.
  • Procedures for coordination with regulatory agencies. In the case of a recall, the FDA, CDC and USDA post information on their consumer food safety site at FoodSafety.gov. It is critical that the information provided to these agencies is consistent with messages posted on your social network channel(s).

Coordinating Response and Communications

So what should a food safety professional do regarding a social media crisis plan? Here are some first steps to help with a coordinated response:

  1. Review your food safety procedures to see if procedures for crisis communications are included.
  2. If not, check with your corporate office to find out if there is already a social media crisis plan. Ask to see it, and then update your food safety procedures to include relevant steps to keep the designated contact information updated. If yes, be sure the information in your response plan is current.
  3. Make sure everyone is familiar with the plan and of specific roles and responsibilities. Ensure that employees are trained on what they should expect, and what they should and should not do, regarding social regarding social media during a crisis. Employees should understand that if they post information related to the crisis using their own social media accounts, it can lead to confusion and undermine efforts to protect the public health, as well as affect the company’s credibility.
  4. During a crisis, provide timely and accurate updates to the communications team as appropriate. Be sure to check the designated channels to remain aware of what the company is communicating publicly.

Can Social Listening Lead to Better Crisis Response?

Several major companies in the food industry have found that social listening—the monitoring of social networks for mention of their company and its products—can help them identify a potential problem early. If a consumer post describes finding a foreign object in a can of soda, for example, the manufacturer can quickly reach out to that person through social media to request that the individual contact the customer service department to provide details. That way, an investigation can get underway to determine the accuracy and extent of the potential issue, and the customer can have their situation addressed more quickly and appropriately.

Monitoring the company Facebook page, Twitter ID and hashtags for product names can be a component of proactive measures for averting a larger problem. Better that you find out that someone posted that they found a rat tail in their soup than for you to be blind-sided by a report about it in traditional media.

Public health agencies in New York City and Chicago are also studying the use of social media to identify potential outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in their jurisdictions. They are working to determine if searching restaurant reviews posted on Yelp can help them identify foodborne health issues that have a common source. Results suggest that online restaurant reviews might help to identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling.

Don’t Wait Until a Crisis

It is better not to have to learn about the power of social media once a crisis has arisen. Having an understanding of social media’s role in communications and of how your company can use it effectively can help improve your crisis communications efforts.

If you want the public to trust what you say on social media during a food safety crisis, one of the best strategies is to build a reputation as a trustworthy source of food safety information before a crisis occurs. Consider a social campaign around food safety topics, such as how to prepare food products safely, the difference between a sell-by date, a best by date, and an expiration date, and other topics that tell the consumers that you are attuned to their concerns around food safety. If you are considered a trustworthy source of food safety information, your communications during a food safety crisis are more likely to be believed. As a result, you are more likely to be able to protect both public health and your reputation should a crisis arise.

In a future article, we will discuss specific ways to integrate a social media crisis communications plan into your food safety incident response plan.

The WDS Food Safety Team also contributed to this article.