There are many who believe Murphy is a constant companion of food processors around the world. This is the Murphy as in Murphy’s Law and, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” This may seem rather pessimistic, but it is a fact of life especially for those who are long-time members of the industry. So, how does a processor address the ever-present Murphy? The operators need to develop, document, implement and maintain programs that ensure operations are well managed and properly documented. It is also imperative that processors have contingency plans for events that may disrupt operations.
I have worked in food processing operations on six continents, and one common thread for well-managed plants has been the existence of what most call a crisis management program that targets what needs to be done if there is a problem. What is defined as crisis in the crisis management program varies by plant and where it located. As an example, many years ago during an audit of a facility in Indonesia, I asked if the company had a program that addressed the possibility of an earthquake or volcanic eruption sinceIndonesia is part of the Pacific ”Ring of Fire” and has significant seismic and volcanic activity. The suggestion was ignored and, several months later, a mud volcano erupted that completely isolated the plant for several months. The bottom line is that they were simply not prepared, and the length of the operating disruption was longer than it should have been. COVID has underscored the importance of identifying and planning for potential disruptions. The pandemic has forced food processors to add global health issues to their crisis management programs, which also means that supply chain disruptions had to be added to the list of potential disruptions if the operation had not already done so.
So how might a general crisis management program be developed, document, implemented and maintained, and what might be included in planning for different kinds of disruptions? An introduction to the program might read as follows:
“This facility shall establish programs to ensure that workers and the business are protected in the event of a crisis that may affect plant operations. These procedures include evacuation procedures, contingency plans to ensure clients are satisfied in the event that production is disrupted and protocols to handle crises or other stress situations.”
The processor should then make an effort to identify and define potential crises that could adversely affect operations. Such a list may include, but not limited to, the following:
- Power outages
- Hostage situations
- Bomb threats
- Ammonia leakage
- Acts of terror
- Supply chain
- Severe weather
As noted above, emergency situations will vary from country to country or state to state. Given the way that weather has been over the past few years, it would be imperative for processors to take a long look at what has happened in the past and ask themselves whether more unlikely situations should be added to the list. Look at what happened in Texas a few winters ago.
The processor will need to develop specific work instructions as to how to handle each of the crises that have been identified. It may turn out that the procedures for addressing one situation may be the same for others. That would be fine as it will allow for greater ease in educating the workforce as to what their responsibilities are in the event of a crisis.
One protocol that will need to be developed, documented, implemented and maintained is emergency evacuation procedures. These procedures need to be developed, and the staff needs to be educated so that they understand what to do. It is also important that processors practice the procedure by conducting mock evacuations. Maps should be installed around the facility along with establishing “rally” point or points where attendance can be taken and management can ensure that all people are properly accounted for.
Another element that must be part of the general crisis management program is a list of emergency contacts. Organizations that should be on this list should include, but not limited to, the police department, fire department, local, state and federal regulators, homeland security, utilities (water, gas, electric, power), customers, distribution centers, suppliers, refrigeration contractors and local hospitals. Contact information should include telephone numbers, addresses, email addresses and actual contacts for each emergency contact to make sure there is a person or persons that can be contacted. The company should also establish protocols to regularly (at least quarterly) contact each person on the list to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date.
Responses to Crises
So, what kind of contingency programs should processors develop, document, implement and maintain to address to address disruptions to production?
Let’s look at the worst-case scenario; the plant being shut down for an extended period due to a situation like the volcano mentioned above, a fire or significant damage to the production facility—the plant is down, and nothing is being produced. Many operators establish contracts with other processors to co-pack some of their products. One option is to ask the contract packer to produce more product. Other processors may not utilize the contract packer on a regular basis but have established agreements where the contract packer will manufacture their products in the event of an emergency. Establishing such a relationship is certainly not easy. A potential processor needs to be identified, evaluated and determined as being able to properly manufacture your products and trials must be done to confirm that the facility can actually do the work. This is why it may be wise to work with contract packers on a regular basis.
Power outages may be caused by a number of things—especially extremes of weather as alluded to earlier. If power outages are a reality, especially in parts of the U.S. or the world where weather extremes such as hurricanes, high heat or intense cold, are present, the obvious solution is to install a backup generator. Power outages, even ones that are very short, can add up in terms of loss of productivity and could even impact food safety. The power failure might only last few a few seconds or a couple of minutes, and may even extend into hours or days. The bottom line is that productivity and other issues can be adversely affected.
Supply Chain Disruptions
If there is a single lesson that the COVID-19 pandemic taught the U.S. food processing industry is that it would be a good idea to take a long, hard look at the supply chain. Look at the problems that have occurred as a result of the infant formula shortage. One point that food processors need to look at is ingredient sources and whether they’re domestic or international. China is a major supplier of food ingredients—especially non-nutritive sweeteners. Users were unable to get the ingredients because manufacturing operations had closed down. This prompted concerns that products such as diet soft drinks were not able to be manufactured. The problem was magnified thanks to issues at the major ports across the country. There were simply not enough people to handle the huge number of ships that backed up while awaiting delivery of their loads.
The answer to this is to diversify the supply chain. Don’t rely so heavily on materials that need to be shipped from overseas. The solution is to source a percentage of the materials from the continental U.S. As mentioned before, this should be handled with production operations; make sure that all your suppliers get some business. Keep everyone happy in the event that one or more suppliers needs to increase the volume that they are providing because of a disruption somewhere else.
The COVID-19 pandemic was (hopefully) a once in a lifetime event. The virus did not disrupt food processing operations as much as it could have because food production was an essential industry. People had to eat, so food processors stayed open. The disruptions seemed to occur mostly at the start of the pandemic as processors in the industry adjusted to the changes that were made in operations to protect workers—issues such as mask mandates, installation of plastic protective guards and taking of temperatures.
What Can Cause Disruptions in Your Plant?
As noted, each and every food processor must establish a crisis management program. Management and staff, whether it is the food safety team or a group made up of a management team, are going to have to get together and establish programs to both identify potential disruptions and determine how these issues should be addressed. When establishing the potential disruptions, the team needs to ask itself, “Is there a chance of this happening?” It cannot simply reject something out of hand because the odds are against it.