Communication is an essential element in developing, implementing and maintaining a functioning food safety management system. Its importance is highlighted in the ISO 22000 standard under parts 5.6.1 and 5.6.2, internal and external communication. These two parts of the standard emphasize the importance of communication in ensuring food safety programs are properly maintained and managed, both within the company and with stakeholders outside the company. Within the company, the key is to ensure the food safety or HACCP team is aware of any issues that may affect the food safety management system. Part of achieving this goal is documenting and managing how external communication with regulators, suppliers, customers, contractors and any other groups is maintained.
There are many different means for communicating within a company, including new employee orientation, team meetings, educational programs, bulletin boards, email messaging and the use of well-documented procedures. Communication starts the instant a new employee walks through the door for orientation and should continue throughout his or her tenure.
Food processors should establish a culture that encourages interaction and information flow not only through top management to the workforce, but from the workforce upward. A workforce that is encouraged to participate and rewarded if their performance skills or ideas are adopted often has minimal turnover. A document control protocol that includes managing how procedures, work instructions and forms are developed, implemented and modified makes the system tick. Processors must ensure their workforce has been trained on these protocols, including how communication must be managed to maintain the system. The training must, of course, be documented.
Communicating with people outside the company requires another set of protocols. One crucial element of today’s food safety management systems and a new mandate of the Food Safety Modernization Act is the establishment of a vendor quality program. One aspect of this program that some processors fail to properly develop and document is ensuring the communication lines between processors and vendors address any changes to ingredients. However, processors should adopt this policy since even a minor change in a vendor’s sources or processing operations could result in a product recall.
It also is absolutely essential to establish communications procedures in the recall and traceability program. This has been acknowledged as the third pillar of a good recall program, along with the technical and legal requirements.
The technical requirements are a basic recall team and the means for information gathering. For example, there must be documented procedures for the staff members that make up the recall action team. Company spokespersons must understand their roles and be educated on how to properly communicate information.
The last element of communication in a recall program is the workforce. Workers must to be told that if there is a problem, they should defer all inquiries to the spokesperson. They must be informed that speaking to the media in these situations is against company policy and will be grounds for dismissal.
Ultimately, a food processor’s commitment to traceability is determined by top management, whether at the corporate or plant level. Management must set the tone and support their staff in developing and maintaining the communication programs. In light of recent food safety issues and their legal implications, the role of management in communication is even more important since they can and will be implicated in such events.
Good communication systems are essential to every element in a food safety management system, from management commitment and mission statements to prerequisite programs to each principle within the HACCP system to dealing with third-party auditors and regulators.