Those who work in the food safety and quality industry may know Tami Dumond, microbiologist and Director of Quality Assurance at Omeat, by her oft-changing vibrant hair color. Her career has been equally varied. Dumond has worked as a scrub nurse, QA lab manager and owner, motorcycling instructor and food quality manager and director.
Tami spoke at a recent meeting of the Women in Food Safety about the path that brought her to her current leadership position at Omeat, a tissue engineering company scaling cellular ground beef, and the value of varied work experiences.
I Like To Party
After graduating high school, Dumond entered a one-year hands-on certification program to become a scrub nurse. “It taught me a lot about showing up and the importance of processes and protocols,” she said. “Almost everything I do in food safety and quality brings me back to things I learned in surgery.”
She chose the program because it allowed her to pursue her interest in science without going to college. “I am dyslexic and I didn’t want to go to school anymore,” said Dumond. “I liked school, but it was very hard for me.”
When she became a single mom, she decided to go back to school to earn a Bachelor’s degree, and got a part-time a job at an external quality control laboratory that worked with several food companies, eventually becoming co-owner of the lab. “I learned I was good at managing things,” said Dumond. “I’m a partier and I want to invite everyone to the party. I solidify my teams by including everyone and making sure they always have fun during training.”
Different People Learn in Different Ways
When the economic recession of 2008-2010 hit, rather than cut staff or pay at her lab, she chose to take on the second job as a motorcycling instructor to help make ends meet. “The students would read what they’re supposed to do, hear what they’re supposed to do, watch the instructor and then we watch them,” said Dumond. “That repetition and format of learning—if you didn’t get it verbally, you got it visually—reminded me that different people learn in different ways, so you need to offer information in multiple formats.”
During this time she also joined a local Roller Derby team, “The Soy City Rollers,” as MRSA Nary (mercenary), an experience that brought into focus the joy of being part of a team and, again, the importance of having plans and protocols. “Teams that play well have a playbook,” she said. “If you don’t have a process in place, pull out a whiteboard and write one right away, and do it with your team.”
Time for a Change
After 20 years at the lab and 11 years teaching motorcycling, Dumond—now a microbiologist—decided it was time for a change. She moved to Austin, Texas, with an eye on entering the field of food safety. “I wanted to be more involved in the food industry, because that is where a lot of innovation was taking place,” she said.
She got a job as food quality manager at ATX Specialty Foods, before moving to Omeat. Her goal as Director of Quality Assurance is to empower her team and bring a culture of food safety to the entire organization by making it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing. “I try to empower my teammates and create trust so they know they can come up and talk to me anytime,” she said. “I involve the entire team in training and when anything new is happening. I have made everyone aware of the importance of everything that goes on in the lab. Maintenance team members come to our PCR training so they can better understand the equipment.”
She values the relationships she has built with her teammates throughout her career and stays in contact with many past colleagues and employees. “Even if you leave a company, you don’t leave the people you worked with,” she said. “You never want to burn bridges.”
Today, Dumond describes herself as a quality scientist who specializes in biological business modeling. In addition to her role at Omeat, she is the founder of Qronika Consulting, which focuses on food safety training and industrial biome investigations. The company is named after a video game character. “Qronika is a titaness of good and evil, who knows you must balance good and bad to move through life,” said Dumond.
In her free time, she volunteers with Texas Food Bank and Food Rescue, as it provides the opportunity to support her community and experience different approaches to how people work with food.
Looking back on her career, she credits her success to always meeting challenges with action. “You have to show up and make the best of the situation,” she said. “And we, as a food industry, need to start paying attention to cellular Ag, and being more high-level in the biological sciences of food safety and quality.”
During the meeting, Tami shared her “Words to Live By”:
I Like to Break Things. If you break things, they can be fixed. If something is wrong, then we’ve got to dismantle it and rework it.
I am Petty. Every quality professional is petty. We worry about the small things.
I Take Things Personally. My life and my career is personal to me
I Party a Lot. I am an entertainer. I am an artist. I try my best to make everyone comfortable in a conversation. With me, you’re going to have a good time and I’m going to figure how to get what I need to get from you in order to make your job better.
I’m a Time Traveler. Everything I’ve done since that first job as a scrub nurse at 18 has brought me back to what I learned when I was 18.
I Steal Things. If a teammate has a good idea, it’s going upfront and I want it. We’re always downloading stuff, incorporating it and making it our own. Don’t waste opportunities or other people’s knowledge.
I Enjoy Being Afraid. Fear means there is an unknown. When we’re afraid, if we can understand that it’s a fear of the unknown then we can learn and become less fearful.
Training is one of the foundational principles of every food safety program. It is a theme that’s repeated throughout governmental regulations, industry guidelines, and audit requirements, but adult learning can be challenging. It is also expensive, when you factor in the resources needed, salaries of everyone involved, and loss of operational productivity. After all these resources are allocated, it’s frustrating to witness mistakes made by those that have gone through the proper training…so you “retrain” as a corrective action, only to see the same thing happen. When this cycle repeats itself, I can’t help but be reminded of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
A true preventive measure may be to reevaluate your training methods and train smarter, not harder. Take time to really understand your audience, discover their motivations, and devise ways to truly reach them. The five cornerstones of teaching: legitimacy, authenticity, engagement, empowerment, and simplicity can be used to elevate any training program to make it more effective.
Your audience will be much more open to receiving the subject matter if they believe in the legitimacy of the source, namely, the trainer. Objectively ask yourself, “Why should I be teaching this class, and why should these people believe what I say?” Take the time to establish yourself as a subject matter expert. Instructors often start with a quick bio slide to explain their qualifications and experience. You can also start by telling your audience a bit about yourself, including your educational background and experience. Also take the time to explain the “why” of what you are teaching. For example, we don’t allow jewelry in the processing room, because it could fall into product or could get caught in a conveyor and cause a serious injury.
Why should these people care about what you say? Steven Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” also wrote the book, “The Speed of Trust.” In this book, he explains that trust is the foundational principle that holds all relationships together and the most essential ingredient in effective communication. Establishing trust and authenticity is the quickest means of taking a training from you talking to people to having them hear what you are saying. Some people are automatically suspicious, so being honest and straightforward goes a long way to gaining that trust.
I’ve been training adults for my entire 21-year career—see how I started establishing legitimacy with you—and I’ve learned that training is about 90% entertainment and 10% relaying facts and hoping they stick. Remember your favorite teacher. Were they boring and monotone, or lively and engaging? Engagement can be achieved by actively getting your audience to participate. This can be done through verbal quizzes, break-out exercises, live polls, and asking them to share their experiences.
At the end of the day, engagement is coupled with the question, “Why is this important to me?” How do you make the subject matter important to the audience? How can you get them invested in the subject matter and motivated to implement what they’ve learned? When dealing with food safety subject matter, one way is to share foodborne illness statistics and stories of those who have been affected. Stop Foodborne Illness has captured many of these stories on its website. When you identify something that everyone has in common, namely, that we and our loved ones all eat the food that we are producing, it increases audience engagement.
Once you have an engaged audience, the question becomes, “What can I do about it?” By telling the audience what they personally can do to influence (prevent, reduce or, eliminate) the problem, they are more likely to have a vested interest in the outcome.
I was involved in opening a new facility a few years ago. The General Manager personally took every new hire for a tour of the facility to explain the machinery and demonstrate some of the workplace safety features. While on that tour, he told them that each person in this building was allowed to hit the E-Stop button at any time and shut down the line if they saw something wrong or suspected that something wasn’t right, with no repercussions. He emphasized the importance of the subject of food safety by empowering each person with the authority to shut down the line. By giving them this power, he ensured that every person was captivated by the safety training and took the message to heart.
One of my personal mantras is, “Simplicity is the key to sustainability.” The simpler you make something; the more likely people will be to do it correctly and keep it up over time. The more complicated you make something, the less effective it becomes, especially over time. I use this quote when talking about creating procedures, but it’s applicable in the training setting too. The more complex the training, the harder it is to understand. The longer the training, the harder it is to captivate your audience, as people often “check out” and stop paying attention, especially if they’ve worked a long shift and just want to go home. I’ve found that shorter, interactive trainings can be more impactful than longer sessions.
One of my most successful training sessions was as a temporary QA Manager, trying to ensure that the annual training requirements were performed, prior to an audit. I asked the attendees they’d done in the past and got an eye roll along with grumblings about PowerPoint presentations. I decided to try something different and created about 10 “slides” on chart paper and held the training while we stood in a quiet corner of the warehouse. My first group was the third-shift sanitation crew. We spent 20 minutes going over the big concepts, joking about my horrible illustrations, and sharing stories about the subject matter. Afterwards, I asked them how they liked it and got some genuine nods and smiles. I decided to repeat the session with the rest of the processing employees and all the office staff (warehouse setting and all). I was shocked how many people came up to me afterwards and told me how much they enjoyed the session and appreciated the change.
Case Study, “Don’t Throw-Up Worms!”
One of the most effective food safety campaigns in history was the effort to slow cases of Trichinellosis, a foodborne disease that was sweeping the country in the early 1900s. The government’s strategy included new regulations for swine feed and educating the public of the dangers of eating undercooked pork. It started in the 1920s, when Benjamin Schwartz, Senior Zoologist with the Bureau of Animal Industry published a leaflet for the USDA entitled, “Trichinosis: A Disease Caused by Eating Raw Pork.” As a result, the government started surveillance activities to understand the extent of the problem. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was estimated that one in every six Americans was infected with Trichinella spiralis, so the U.S. government implemented a widespread campaign to educate the public.
This campaign, which was so effective that Trichinella is almost unheard of in domestic pork today, worked because they leveraged the five cornerstones to create an extremely effective training.
- Legitimacy – The U.S. government was a trusted source of knowledge.
- Authenticity – This message was backed by doctors and scientists from the CDC and other agencies. Also, people knew that pork was the making them sick, so this information was verified by personal experience.
- Engagement – Because scientists had discovered that Trichinella is a microscopic parasite, they coined the phrase, “Don’t Throw-Up Worms!” since vomiting was a common symptom, and that caught everyone’s attention.
- Empowerment – The general public had a tremendous amount of control because the solution focused on fully cooking pork at home or ordering pork chops “well done” at restaurants.
- Simplicity – The solution was extremely easy, just cook your pork a little longer. If it’s easy, people will do it, and they did.
Let’s look at the results. Between 2002 and 2007, the CDC only recorded 52 cases of Trichinellosis and only seven of those were traced to commercial pork. The figure below shows the number of reported cases of Trichinellosis in the U.S. from 1947-2007, and the steady decline is evident.
Trying a New Approach
Occasionally, you’ve got to mix things up to keep your audience interested. There are so many different training tools that are available on the internet, from YouTube videos (my favorite is a rap about handwashing) to novel ideas. You can also change up the setting; try standing in an unusual place in the facility or host a training outside or on the facility floor.
Make sure that you are thinking about your target audience when creating your training. Use language that’s appropriate and techniques that resonate. This might take a little trial and error, so don’t be afraid to try new things and discard the ones that don’t work well.
As Gen Z and Millennials overtake older generations as the majority of the workforce, there has been a lot of research into effective training for younger generations. One technique that is garnering a lot of interest is gamification. I’ve seen video games that replicate a chef at a busy restaurant, in which good manufacturing practices must be used to fulfill multiple orders. This might be more effective than sitting an 18-year-old down for a four-hour ServSafe training. It doesn’t have to be as complex as a specially designed video game, I’ve seen things as simple as food safety word searches and crossword puzzles that are left in the breakroom. Trivia is also a popular and engaging tool to use during training sessions, especially when there are fun prizes on the line.
Reconsider your approach to training by implementing the five cornerstones of teaching and trying novel approaches. Even small changes can make a big difference. Reach out to your colleagues to learn what has worked for them, and try new tools to help make these sessions more enjoyable for all the participants which will directly increase the effectiveness of your training program.
 Covey, Stephen M. R. 2008. The Speed of Trust. London, England: Simon & Schuster.
 Schwartz, B. 1929. Trichinosis: A Disease Caused by Eating Raw Pork. USDA Leaflet No. 34; 1-12. https://archive.org/details/trichinosisdisea34schw/page/n1/mode/2up
 Most H. Trichinellosis in the United States: Changing Epidemiology During Past 25 Years. JAMA. 1965;193(11):871–873. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/656503
 Kennedy, E. E. et al. 2009. Trichinellosis Surveillance – United States, 2002-2007. CDC MMWR. 58 (09); 1-7. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5809a1.htm
After restaurants nationwide experienced several years of a stressful, disruptive labor shortage, the leisure and hospitality industry has recently added 128,000 jobs, leading all sectors.
Hiring new employees is exciting, especially after years of being seriously understaffed. As you welcome new employees to your team, do not underestimate the importance of onboarding, as 69% of employees are more likely to stay with a company for three years if they were onboarded properly. Additionally, organizations with an official onboarding process experience 50% greater new-hire productivity.
When new hires are trained properly, they feel more confident in their roles and the companies they work for can maximize safety, quality, and compliance. To accomplish this, restaurants and other food businesses should:
Adopt Integrated Digital Solutions
Tech solutions can improve all aspects of your operations, making everything from budgeting to scheduling, forecasting, purchasing, and inspecting more efficient, accurate, and streamlined. Tech tools offer many significant benefits, helping your brand save time and money, reduce waste, and optimize operations.
What’s more, an integrated tech stack can help you get a holistic view of your entire enterprise, whether you have one location or dozens. Easy-to-understand reports provide critical information, allowing operators to make more informed, data-driven decisions.
Digital tools do require an investment, but they offer a tremendous ROI. These solutions help improve safety, efficiency, transparency, accuracy, and consistency. These positive changes boost key performance indicators, including increased sales, profits, customer loyalty, and employee retention.
Prioritize Safety, Quality, and Compliance
Each year, 48 million (1 in 6) Americans get sick from contaminated food or beverages. Don’t let food safety breaches happen at your business!
Prioritize a food safety culture, where all employees work together to maximize safety and minimize risks. Put food safety protocols in place and be certain that all employees are following them. Provide the proper tools for employees to ensure food safety, such as Bluetooth sensors that can tell when walk-in temperatures rise above safe temperatures, and state-of-the-art food thermometers that ensure foods are cooked to proper temps.
It’s not enough just to follow proper food safety protocols yourself, you must be sure that all your suppliers adhere to the strictest food safety standards, as well. If you are following all the right protocols, but a supplier delivers compromised products, your customers (and your business) are at risk.
Food safety and quality assurance must be followed from each product’s point of origin until it’s prepared and served to the consumer. Audit all suppliers regularly and be sure that they have proper, up-to-date safety certifications. When you have multiple suppliers—as most food businesses do—it can be overwhelming to track and organize these important safety certifications manually. Tech tools make this ongoing process easier and more accurate.
Modernize Training Efforts
Some food brands, particularly smaller companies, think that they don’t need a formal training or onboarding process, or they rely on antiquated training programs that have been in place for many years. Swap out your outdated (and/or informal) training programs in favor of something more modern, relevant, and tech driven.
Add more interactive tech elements to your training program, such as microlearning platforms and gamification, to make the information more engaging and memorable. Supplement online training efforts with a live trainer, who can spotlight best practices, answer questions, and role play with your employees to make the lessons stick.
Don’t just tell employees what to do but explain why the rules are so important. Employees are more likely to comply when they understand why the rules are in place.
Keep in mind that training never officially ends. Provide ongoing training opportunities so employees on all shifts can keep important information top-of-mind. Digital tools not only provide key information during initial onboarding, but are essential for reinforcing lessons, delivering updates, and sending reminders throughout each employee’s tenure.
Work to Retain Employees
Digital solutions can help you retain employees, as these technologies make their jobs much easier. Tech tools can streamline tedious administrative tasks, such as inspections and inventory, so your employees can spend more time doing the things they enjoy, such as cooking delicious meals and interacting with guests.
Offer competitive pay, appealing benefits, growth opportunities, mentorship, and a supportive culture. And don’t discount the “seemingly small” gestures that can be a big deal to your team. Thank your employees often and sincerely. Praise them in staff meetings for going above and beyond. Write thank you notes. Give bonuses and small gifts. Promote from within.
Get Inspired by Innovative Brands
It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but White Castle has a robot working its fryer. Dominos has delivered its first pizza by drone. KFC is using facial recognition technology that recognizes repeat visitors and tailors their experiences based on their past orders and meal preferences. And Panera Bread uses geofencing to track each customer’s location so employees can promptly bring their order to their vehicle.
Your organization may not yet be able to afford robotics in your kitchen or drone deliveries, and that’s OK. But, as tech solutions become more affordable, accessible, and user-friendly for food businesses of all sizes and budgets, it’s clear that technology is improving many aspects of our industry. Digital solutions are no longer “nice to have” luxury items. They’re necessities for brands that prioritize consistently excellent and safe experiences.
By investigating and integrating new technologies, you can provide better service, safer food, and a more convenient dining experience. All of which will help you better meet (and exceed) customer expectations.
The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), a professional society of governmental, private, academic and uniformed services sector environmental health professionals, has launched a new national assessment aimed at identifying the knowledge and training needs of retail food regulators. The NEHA is asking individuals working in retail regulatory food safety to complete a needs assessment survey, which was developed by NEHA as part of the NEHA-FDA Retail Flexible Funding Model (RFFM) Grant Program. The findings will be used by NEHA to bolster educational resources, reduce knowledge gaps and improve workforce capabilities to help ensure safe retail food for the public.
“This assessment is essentially a national census of the retail food regulatory community. It is significant for both what it includes and who it surveys,” said Rance Baker, director of the Entrepreneurial Zone department at NEHA. “With so many competing interests pursuing the same financial resources, it is important that we determine where the training dollars are needed most. This survey will look at the intersection between curricula and needs in the retail food regulatory community to identify the gaps in the integrated food safety system.”
Complete the survey here.
At the beginning of the pandemic, restaurants were hit hard. Fine dining sales dropped by more than 90%, casual dining was down 75%, and fast casual decreased by 65%. Nearly two years later, the restaurant industry is still reeling. Most restaurants experienced huge financial losses, and many couldn’t survive. Our industry continues to deal with supply chain disruptions, rising prices, skyrocketing rent, labor shortages and other major challenges. To make matters worse, new COVID variants and surging cases has consumers on their couches watching Netflix and avoiding dining out.
Back in March 2020, delivery orders surged by 67%, and now 60% of American consumers order takeout or delivery at least once a week. Online ordering is growing 300% faster than in-house dining. And operators are discovering a colossal opportunity: Ghost kitchens.
Ghost kitchens allow operators to utilize commercial kitchens without the overhead (and expense) of a full restaurant space and staff. They focus solely on prepping and cooking “to go” orders, and don’t have the option of onsite dining.
While the business model may have shifted, ghost kitchens still need to prioritize food safety and quality, just as traditional restaurant kitchens do. As such, they should:
- Embrace digital tools. Tech tools make food safety and quality assurance much easier to manage. Use digital tools to elevate food safety checklists and audits, track ingredient lists, manage allergen information, spot trends, etc. These solutions can help staff manage food safety processes, quickly, easily, efficiently and accurately.
- Use sensors. Install digital sensors to check equipment. For instance, these tools can alert the team if a refrigerator or freezer door is accidentally left open, or if temperatures drop below a certain level. Digital thermometers are also essential to check food temps and to ensure foods are cooked properly.
- Use tech tools for ongoing training. All workers must be trained in food safety, not just upon hiring, but throughout their tenure. Use tech tools to provide regular training and safety reminders. Send small “chunks” of information right to employees’ phones and provide online resources so they have valuable information right at their fingertips. Communicate regularly with employees, sending updates on COVID protocols and other important safety information.
- Be transparent. Food safety practices used to happen “behind the scenes.” Restaurant guests just assumed that employees were taking proper safety precautions. Today, though, everyone’s demanding safer practices, and they want to see staff wearing masks, more frequent sanitation of high touch surfaces, proper social distancing, etc. Since ghost kitchens are a virtual business, you’ll have to proactively spotlight the safety and quality protocols you follow to reassure customers (and prospects) that you take safety very seriously.
- Use social media to spotlight your safe practices. Traditional restaurants display health inspection letter grades and reports in their dining areas or storefront windows. Since ghost kitchens don’t have storefronts or dining areas, you’ll need to find new ways to spotlight your commitment to safety. Post information on your website and social media platforms about your meticulous attention to safety and quality to make customers feel safe ordering from you.
- Audit differently. Pre-COVID, restaurants and other commercial kitchens had third-party auditors come onsite occasionally to inspect their facilities. Now, food businesses—including ghost kitchens—must audit differently, especially when travel restrictions and other COVID-related disruptions make in-person auditing unfeasible. Use a combination of regular self-assessments, remote auditing, and onsite inspections (when possible) to ensure safety protocols are being followed, the facilities are spotless, equipment is working properly, etc. Previously, in-person audits were often viewed as punitive, with the Big, Bad Auditor coming onsite to point out a company’s mistakes. Now, teams are more engaged and invested in the process, making these inspections more collaborative and cooperative. Also, operators are conducting more frequent remote audits and self-inspections, rather than annual or bi-annual onsite audits, which is a great way to identify (and fix) infractions before they become liabilities.
- Prioritize food safety. Even though your business model may have changed from a traditional restaurant to a ghost kitchen, your focus on food safety must remain top-of-mind. Follow food safety protocols: Cook to proper temps, store foods properly, don’t cross-contaminate, accommodate food allergies, etc. In addition, be sure everyone on your team follows COVID protocols: Frequent sanitation of high-touch areas, frequent hand washing, social distancing, masking and not working when ill.
- Only work with vendors that prioritize food safety. Be aware of your vendors’ food safety policies. Only work with suppliers that adhere to the strictest safety and quality standards, and make sure that they’re properly certified. New software solutions allow you to easily manage and track supplier certifications.
- Accommodate food-allergic guests. Train your staff about food allergies. Have a knowledgeable manager carefully oversee meal prep (and answer questions) for food-allergic customers. Designate an allergy-friendly prep area where foods can be prepared without contamination risk. Use clean and sanitized utensils to prepare allergy-friendly foods. Mark food-allergic guests’ meals with a frill pick or special colored container. Put allergy-friendly meals in separate containers for delivery so there’s no risk of cross-contamination.
- Deliver foods safely. Delivery-only concepts must ensure that foods are kept safe from their kitchen to their customers’ homes. Your drivers should have equipment to keep foods at proper temperatures—hot foods hot, cold foods cold—during delivery. Drivers should also sanitize their hands frequently, including after they touch doorknobs, doorbells, money, pens, etc.
Ghost kitchens are an exciting new chapter for our industry. It has been wonderful to see savvy operators pivot to this new business model to accommodate increased consumer demand for “to go” meal options. While ghost kitchens operate without the overhead and infrastructure of traditional restaurants, they still must prioritize food safety every day, for every shift and every meal.
A key focus of Women in Food Safety is to highlight female leaders in various food safety career paths. This month we have the privilege to speak with Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., SVP of Food Safety & Technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, who has a storied career combining hard-core science with policy development that is risk-based, science-based and pragmatic to implement.
As many know, I am a lawyer. With that, I feel compelled to disclose the following disclaimer: I have worked alongside Jennifer as a business and industry colleague, and I consider her one of the most impressive, influential yet humble people I have ever met. Given my first-hand knowledge of her professional and personal contributions and unquestionable character, our conversation quickly dove deep into candid discussions about her career path, focusing on her passion for policy and seeing trade associations as a vehicle and a collective voice to influence and shape policy. Jennifer’s insights on being female in our industry are truly enlightening. See for yourself.
Melanie Neumann: Can you please summarize your career path to your position today, or what I like to consider your “path to produce?”
Jennifer McEntire: I grew up in Long Island, which is not exactly the epi-center of agriculture. I liked science but didn’t want to be a doctor. At the time the University of Delaware looked through all the postcards (yes, I’m dating myself!) of kids interested in science and sent packets of information about the food science program. It was the best thing that could have happened to me! It was a small program; there were only four people in my graduating class; so I really couldn’t fly under the radar. I am the first person in my family to go to a university and I had no idea what graduate school was. Tons of people took me under their wing. I was able to do food safety research as an undergrad, which allowed me to jumpstart my graduate education. I truly had no plan to get a Ph.D. I wanted to work! But during my freshman year of college my biology professor nonchalantly mentioned that graduate students in sciences get paid to go to graduate school. I was like, WHAT?!? It was a no brainer. The more I got involved with the food science clubs at UD and at Rutgers (where I got my Ph.D.) and the more I networked with professionals at regional meetings of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), the more I learned about the breadth of career options. I knew I didn’t want to be an academic so I didn’t do a post doc. (That said, I love mentoring, training and professional development, and have been lucky to weave it into every job I’ve had). I liked the product development side but thought I might get bored in one company. Although I am an introvert, I like hearing different perspectives and meeting very different kinds of people. Once I saw the nexus of disciplines and perspectives in Washington D.C., I was hooked. Although I’ve always worked in the general food safety arena, at IFT, The Acheson Group, GMA, and now at United Fresh, each role has been vastly different and I keep realizing how much there is to learn.
Neumann: Much of your career centers around trade associations. Why did you choose this sector over others in the food industry?
McEntire: Trade associations provide me with a vehicle to fulfill my goal of being an “Ambassador for Science.” I was fortunate to have a rare opportunity as USDA National Needs Fellowship at Rutgers, which allowed me to work for both FDA and a trade association, the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), towards the end of my Ph.D. program. I quickly fell in love with the buzz of D.C. and realized this is where the action is—the intersection of science, law, policy and the power of networking. I accepted a permanent position with IFT in their D.C. office after graduation to continue my quest to learn more about the inner workings of D.C. as well as provide IFT with an even greater voice based on science. I’ve now been in D.C. over 20 years. I understand why it turns some people off, but I love it. I’m constantly meeting new people and really love being a conduit between the industry, the regulators, policy makers and others.
Neumann: From the start it seems like you were fortunate that you were able to start your career at the strategic level, or “forest”. What advice would you give someone who perhaps had a more typical start in a technical role, or “trees”, and wants to gain strategic roles in the industry?
McEntire: From the get-go at IFT I was pulling together expert panels, meaning I was constantly around experts, which was exhilarating for someone in her 20s. But I realize that’s atypical. Part of what I love about working in associations is the ability to connect people. Those are opportunities exist at every level. “Seek out, don’t sit back.” This advice applies equally personally and professionally. If you want to understand how your current technical role supports your food safety strategic plan or corporate strategy, seek out who you believe can answer your question and ask. If you have a suggestion to improve your role or an aspect of your food safety program, speak up. If you would really like a mentor but no one has assigned you one, seek them out. What worked for me early in my career and what still does today is that I study people. I may be at a conference listening to a presenter, and I will ask myself “what do I like about their style of communication?” or “What about them is capturing my attention enough to listen to them?” Adopting certain aspects you like, (or dislike and want to be sure you avoid doing!), and adapting your style to incorporate them is a great way to professionally evolve. This said, don’t lose yourself or your own style by impersonating or assimilating too much of others’ ways. What sets you up for success is designing an approach that leverages your personal strengths and is unique to “you”.
A key message from my perspective is not to sit back and wait for the career you want. Rather, my advice is to proactively seek out opportunities, answers to questions and relationships with others in your company and/or in the food industry that you believe you would benefit from interacting.
Neumann: Have you experienced challenges in being a female in this space?
McEntire: Subtle challenges, sure. In my case I feel it was more my age than my gender that I needed to overcome. But specific to gender, my biggest perceived challenge was the pressure I placed on myself. These self-imposed challenges were expectations I put on myself in part due to societal expectations or roles I thought I needed to play as a mother, partner, community member and as a professional. I expected to perform at 100% at all times in every role, and over time realized that isn’t sustainable, or even sane, to expect of yourself!
As a younger professional I knew that I had hurdles to overcome when I walked into a room (sometimes I still feel that way). What I learned over time is how the power of data helps in situations where, real or perceived, I felt that my audience wasn’t tuning in to me as much as others in the room. That is when I became even closer friends with data and gave thought about how to construct and communicate my key points. I learned that with sound facts based on sound science to support my position, I was the most informed person on that topic in the room, and my ability to successfully negotiate and convince the other stakeholders increased considerably. This was especially true when I tied the data to tell a compelling story. The most effective, influential professionals I have encountered, some I consider my mentors, are master storytellers—relying on facts when presenting their case in a way that tells a story.
Neumann: Do you have any additional insights or advice to share with women in food safety regardless of where they are at in their career journey?
McEntire: If you love what you do, and you do it well, be bold and be brave. So many people, male and female, saw a potential in me I wasn’t even aware of, and they made serious investments in me. I find that in the field of food safety, that’s pretty common. We are a friendly bunch! So reach out and start talking to people. You’ll be amazed how many people will chat with you at a meeting or return your email.
One thing that concerns me, and I don’t yet have enough anecdotal data to tell if younger women are more prone to this than their male counterparts, is this expectation that they have to know their full career path from the time they are 18 years old. They seem to put a lot of pressure on themselves to “have it all figured out”. As someone who is “Type A” and very much a planner, I can confidently say that no part of my career has been planned. I never ever could have predicted that I would wind up where I am today. I maintained an openness to new opportunities, listened a lot, and considered new information that became available. I did my best to not burn bridges, while at the same time sticking up for myself and for others. Food safety is hard. It takes a thick skin and at this point in my life I have to say that having a network of women food safety colleagues as a support system makes some of the more stressful days much easier.
This week the final episode of the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series takes place, and appropriately closes out with an afternoon of insights about navigating a career in food safety. The following is the agenda for Thursday’s episode, which begins at 12 pm ET.
- A Modern, Multi-Layered Approach to Professional Development in Food Safety, with Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University
- What I Wish I Had Known Early in My FSQ Career, with Jill Stuber, The Food Safety Coach and Tia Glave, Tia Glave Consulting
- Mentorship Minute and Career Development Journey: From QA Technician to SVP, a conversation between Deborah Coviello, Illumination Partners and Brian Perry, TreeHouse Foods
What does food safety look like? As we enter the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, the elements around food safety behaviors, beliefs and attitudes are a bit elusive, making them challenging for the industry to define. For years, companies have provided messaging around food safety to clarify what food safety should look like for their team members. In reality, most of the statements are around the outcomes organizations want to see.
- Food Safety and Quality are our number one priority.
- We strive to meet and exceed all food safety & quality standards.
- We are committed to producing high-quality, safe food.
- Food safety is everyone’s responsibility.
While these messages may provide clarity around the organization’s beliefs and/or intended outcomes around food safety, how do these messages translate into how food safety behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes show up on a day-to-day basis?
A quick internet search will provide a list of companies that have adopted best-in-class food safety culture practices with top leaders championing and modeling what that means through daily conversation, decision making, etc. Not all companies share that success story, and top leaders may find or refine their organization’s path around food safety culture. As top leaders are taking the time to create strategic plans for food safety culture, how can the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs around food safety be modeled for all to see?
It reminds me of an experience with one of my teams and our journey around championing food safety and quality. Shortly after being promoted into leading our FSQ function for multiple facilities across our organization, I soon found, with no surprise, that each facility had its own FSQ microcosm. As with anything, parts of the microcosms were good, and some, not-so-good. The FSQ Managers had completely different personalities, training and experience blending with and creating resistance in the microcosm to add to the mix.
Join Jill Stuber and other food safety experts for a discussion about industry professional development, training and mentorship on November 4, during the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual SeriesOur team focused on creating consistency in our team’s practices and organizational systems for food safety and quality. After several months together, it was clear the goal would require more than developing one version of the truth with documents; it would also require consistency in how the FSQ Managers “showed up” each day. Thus, we keyed the term the “Face of Food Safety,” which embodied our expectations around how we would each exhibit behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs around our role to support our Food Safety & Quality systems. For us, this insider term solidified our shared passion and belief that food safety culture started with us.
What led us to the conclusion that we had to step into the Face of Food Safety role given food safety culture is supposed to start at the top? Several pieces of evidence led us to this conclusion.
- The term “Food Safety Culture” wasn’t even mainstream for top leaders to start discussing food safety culture. We recognized we needed to continue the food safety campaign across the organization using our team and our voices.
- Our FSQ Leaders were already the go-to for food safety. Like many companies, when the food safety auditor walked in, they were taken directly to the FSQ Manager. If anyone in the organization were asked about who to talk to regarding food safety, they would direct people to the FSQ Manager. It’s no different than if someone asks about a financial report, they were likely led to the accounting department.
- Our FSQ Leaders had the most technical training, even if not formal, to understand the practices and behaviors around food safety and should be already collaborating and championing best practices throughout the organization.
As we started on our quest to define the Faces of Food Safety further, we had some factors to consider impacting our approach.
First, our FSQ Managers came in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Some had high levels of formal training, and others had very practical experience. Some worked in the industry for eons, and others had less experience. Some were more natural leaders, and others were not, and personality tests showed we had a wide range in our team!.
Next, our FSQ Managers had specialized training regarding scientific methods to more effectively identify risks, guide solutions, and ultimately create and implement programs that consistently delivered safe food. However, besides the annual human resources training on conflict resolution or getting along, the FSQ Managers had no formal training in human behavior to fully understand elements of the human psyche that shape what people do.
Finally, we faced a standard human limitation—our ego. With serving others, our egos would have to take a back seat to allow the space to recognize our behaviors, our judgments and actions that didn’t align with the Face of Food Safety.
As I look back at work we did together to step fully into being the Face of Food Safety; there are three main areas we focused effort that minimized any factors around skills, experience or personalities yet allowed us to move forward with our quest.
1. Being available and approachable
- Instead of sitting in meetings, running reports, and being “busy,” we focused on spending time with team members on the floor with FSQ Team Members and others to see what worked well, what didn’t work well, and in-the-moment coaching. The team evaluated workload capacity and incorporated these routine interactions into standard work to create capacity for this. No longer was spending time on the floor to talk with team members something we just hoped we’d get around to doing or only do during an investigation. While we still had copious amount of other work, we shifted our priority.
- We spent time developing trust across our team to open doors to conversations that were previously off-limits. For a team that had rarely been physically in the same place at one time, our every-other-month in-person events and daily huddles that, at first felt like micromanaging, became the standard of how our team worked toward alignment and team building. These types of routines provided a foundation for conversations that started with “How do you think you came across in that email?” or “I know you didn’t intend to sound demanding, but some people had ruffled feathers”, or “Your serious face may send the message you don’t want to be bothered.”
2. Helping others help themselves
- In the olden days, issues could be dropped like hot potatoes into the FSQ office for them to spearhead investigations, paperwork, and the like. People would come to the FSQ Managers for answers when often, the answers were already available to them. It took effort from FSQ Managers to provide guidance, re-direct and coach so others could join in owning parts of food safety and quality related to their work.
- We were changing our attitudes that we had to be involved in everything. When we began helping others help themselves, it also gave us the freedom to let go and work in our own lane.
3. Being known for championing food safety & quality both from a policy standpoint but also being practical
- Policies and procedures are fantastic tools to align practices. Even with the best-written documents, there are gaps and unforeseen events that challenge systems. In those moments, our team worked diligently to align on when policies and procedures had to be upheld versus when we would adjust (and update documents) to capture the practical nature of hiccups that happen in manufacturing. We didn’t want a practice to be okay in one facility but not another unless there was a very defined reason, so it wasn’t chalked up to personal preference. It took personal commitment to Our commitment to holding the line for each other.
- Our team was relentless in talking about food safety and quality at every chance we had and related to other areas.
As leaders, our focused, aligned manner that welcomed collaboration and conversation was a cornerstone for being the Face of Food Safety. Using the three areas discussed in this article, we provided clear messaging and support to champion the food safety culture we wanted to see. While not every day was a utopia, our attitude shift and teamwork offered many more days of fulfillment from meaningful work than we had previously experienced and it made an impact for others.
John Carter, area Europe quality director at Ferrero, has been devoted to diversity for more than 20 years. This time, it’s our pleasure to speak with him to hear his perspective on female professionals in the industry and how his male peers can help encourage a diverse environment and break unconscious bias.
His background in engineering, along with an MBA, has given him a scientific mindset when making decisions. After his first job with Campden BRI in the UK, John had positions at Kraft/Mondelez, Metro, Danone, and is now at Ferrero; in that time, he has gained tremendous food safety and quality experience. As is the case with many food safety professionals, John is proud to be part of an industry where he can use his technical knowledge to protect public health. “Food safety is not competitive; it’s a global collaboration, and a rewarding field,” he said.
John advises young professionals to avoid limiting themselves to one function. Explore different functions within a business; if you have been working within food safety for more than 20 years, you might not focus on the full scope of the food industry or food operations. To move forward into an advanced position, especially toward a senior management position, John explained that one should have a helicopter view of the business and vision. For example, moving from food safety to the quality management system, to operations is one option, allowing you to see the big picture. “Don’t hesitate to explore other functions. At Kraft, we used to say that to be a senior executive, you need to do 2, 2, and 2, meaning you need to do two countries, two categories, and two functions. Afterward, you can say you know the company,” he said.
In the future, John hopes to see at least a 50-50 ratio of male-to-female professionals, or an even higher ratio of females.
Melody Ge: What is your most important piece of advice to aspiring—as well as current—food safety professionals?
John Carter: Walk the line and find the balance. To illustrate my point, I’ll tell a story about my experience at one company involving a recall of raw milk cheese due to positive E. coli 0157. It was quite a significant issue, but no one got sick, and we had the products withdrawn from the market. One of the questions we had at that time was why we were selling raw milk cheese. Why don’t we just use pasteurized milk and cheeses? However, the reality is that, in Europe, raw milk cheese is in the DNA of some countries. It would be hard to even think about their diet without raw milk cheese. So there must be another way to manage food safety apart from just pasteurizing the milk. How do you do it? What else can you do? Where are the risks? We, as food safety professionals, must answer these questions. So walking the line between the commercial impact and the risk is crucial. Hence, the skill of the job is to know how to make the decision properly. It’s very easy to say ‘no’ to everything, but it might not be business friendly.
What’s more important is to say ‘yes’ after a thorough risk assessment—for example, ‘yes but…’ or ‘yes with a condition of …’ Every day, we are confronting this issue. The skill in food safety and quality is to give these conditional yesses. It’s based on a logical, scientific and rational assessment of risks. The partnership with the business is that they see us as an enabling function rather than a blocking function.
Ge: Let’s focus on female professionals—any particular pieces of advice for them?
Carter: Be confident! Between men and women, there is this confidence vs. competency conundrum. Typically, men behave more confidently. ‘Can you do this? Yeah, sure!’; in contrast, for women, ‘Can you do this? Oh, well let me check, I am not sure.’ They may have the same level of competence, and maybe even the women are more competent (it’s the reality). I read a book recently called Why Men Win at Work by Gill Whitty-Collins. Gill also mentioned this in her book: We shouldn’t expect men to be less confident; we should encourage women to be more confident. (On the other hand, if I look at the women in my team, typically their competency is very high!)
The other thing is to be who you are, and keep up the competency. I will use emotional behavior as an example. A female quality manager who reported to me once was criticized by a senior colleague (a male) for being too emotional. I am more critical of the colleague, not the quality manager, because I think we as male managers need to understand emotional behavior instead of removing that behavior. She is emotional for a reason. A man’s way of dealing with that emotion might be to get angry, while a woman’s way might be to shed some tears. But the root cause is the same issue and has the same action plan. Thus, it’s important to get over the differences and manage her talent—and not label it, showing this kind of emotion as a weakness. For example, I would like to believe that crying is not the point; it’s a different way of dealing with stressful situations. You need to look for the root cause of the stress and address the stress, not judge the symptoms.
Ge: Do you believe in a glass ceiling for female professionals?
Carter: I was fortunate that I had an excellent female boss at Kraft. She believed that we needed 50/50 gender equality—that 50% of plant managers should be female, 50% of country managers should be female, etc. I had a good experience at Kraft in developing and seeing many female professionals thrive. In that specific environment, I wouldn’t agree that there was a glass ceiling for females; however, I see it elsewhere for sure. In other companies, I have been thinking about how we can get more females in director levels. It is not easy to just promote at the management level because it has to be a structural change. The system change must happen. Part of what I am trying to do right now throughout my career is address the structural problem. And senior men need to be part of the solution.
On the other hand, there are many aspects to a promotion. One needs to be good, really resilient and lucky. Luck is essential, and the right time and place are important. If you are good enough and you have been overlooked, then maybe you should go somewhere else (It is that simple). I think, in today’s world, the opportunities are there, and the recognition is there. It is the right timing now to break the ceiling. Every company I have ever worked in has started to change, so now is a good time to be in that situation.
Ge: Can you share a story that has impacted you and still inspires you today?
Carter: I remember meeting someone at Kraft, and she was doing something related to IT at that time. She was managing something related to complaints and was in a position where she got to know the quality function in the company. When we had an open role internally for a quality auditor, she applied for it. I was quite surprised when she came to me, because she was not qualified from a technical perspective. But when she told me she was interested, it inspired me. I assigned her to the factory in South Africa for training, and suddenly, she moved from a desk in Munich to a factory floor to deal with the operations and team in South Africa. Of course, the factory environment is challenging, and there is no easy factory. However, she was very talented and really loved it. (It could have gone the other way, but she nailed it). Then, she returned from this assignment and became a QA manager, eventually overseeing the whole SAP QA system. Of course, this is because of her background in the IT department before the QA training. Suddenly, she had this kind of unique knowledge of something, and no one understood the computer system or QA better than her. If she hadn’t come to me in need of a change, and if I hadn’t been inspired to provide a chance to an enthusiastic person, her path may have been different. So, go for it! Once the tough times pass, you will enjoy it, and then the sky is the limit.
Ge: What’s your opinion on unconscious bias?
Carter: I am pretty excited about this topic—I think it addresses the root cause of many issues. I have been working on diversity for the last 20 years; but only over the past couple of years have I started thinking about unconscious bias. The unconscious bias part is relatively new, but I think it may help us address the root cause of many of the behavior issues that we see in today’s world. Gill also mentioned this in her book. She was a senior vice president at P&G, and until she noticed unconscious bias, she was quite happy. So, this happens to females as well as to men. You suddenly see it, and then you see it everywhere.
I can give you another example of my own. Not so long ago, in one of the companies where I have worked, there was an internal announcement about senior leadership changes. When it was announced, I saw a list of 20 names on the screen and didn’t notice that they were all men until our diversity council had a meeting to discuss this issue. The council leader pointed out that we have zero female representatives among the twenty. Wow, I was shocked! I am a man and I genuinely care about diversity, yet my unconscious bias is that I didn’t even notice that there wasn’t a female name on the list. I had to reflect. With this unconscious bias, which we can all have, we need to work harder together.
I think there is a food safety parallel: perhaps the situation is a lot like when we first addressed food fraud at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Food fraud is a crime, and it’s possibly the oldest crime in the food industry—centuries old. Although legislation has been in place for years, it seemed that little concrete had been done about it; but after the melamine crisis in China, and various similar issues, we finally got a political imperative to address it in a systematic way. We now have GFSI guidance documents and CPOs, and we have the technology with DNA testing to guarantee authenticity. Finally, we have the tools and political will to ‘do something’ and really address the issue.
So, coming back to this topic of diversity and unconscious bias – in my opinion, this is the “food fraud” of society; it has been ongoing for a long time, and now is the time for us to make a change. We have to ‘do something’. Every company and culture has its own issues and characteristics and all cultures are different (diverse, right?) but when you have the willingness and tools to change an environment, you can take a series of steps to make that change. The time is right, but having awareness comes first.
Ge: Any last bits of advice for our WIFS group members?
Carter: I read a little book about 40 years ago, and the book’s thesis was that there are two things you need to do and have in life. One is that you need to have fun and enjoy life; the other is to learn as much as possible. In the course of mentoring many talented folks over the years, I have added two other things to this list; have patience and courage.
Patience, courage, learning, and fun! Try to live your life with those things in mind.