Every food processor, restaurant operator, or any other individual or company involved with the production of food has one common theme in their business plan: repeat sales.

These operations want customers to buy their products over and over and over again. There are several elements that make up repeat sales. The first is, obviously, the production of a quality product that tastes good. But the most important may be ensuring that the product continually meets the quality and safety expectations of the customer. If a product makes one sick, is involved in a recall, or the consumer finds a foreign material in an item, the consumer may never buy that item again. Even worse, people who have a bad experience tend to talk. 

Back in 1987, the Technical Assistance Research Program in Washington, D.C., determined that persons who had problems usually told 8 to 16 persons of the problem, and often told 20 or more.

So it behooves each and every manufacturer or purveyor of food to do whatever it can to protect the integrity of its products.

Prevention over testing

There are a wide range of programs that food processors must develop, document, implement and maintain to ensure the production of safe and high-quality foods, beverages and ingredients. To ensure that these programs work and work effectively, it is imperative that management make a commitment to educating the workforce on not only how to conduct these programs but also why they are important and the potential consequences if they are not followed. Taken as a whole, these programs are designed to minimize the potential for bacteriological, chemical and physical contamination of the products being manufactured. The term contamination is used because these programs are aimed at ensuring both food safety and quality. 

Programs that integrate the workforce that are aimed at meeting these goals include, but need not be limited to the following:

  • Personal hygiene including clothing
  • Cleaning and sanitizing
  • Preventive maintenance
  • Chemical handling and storage
  • Glass and brittle plastic
  • Pallet management
  • Pest management
  • Vendor approval
  • Detection technologies
  • HACCP monitoring

Let’s take a look at some of these programs and touch on some of what might go wrong if plant personnel do not do what they are supposed to do.

Personal hygiene: There are good reasons why personal hygiene is one of the essential prerequisite programs for all food safety management systems. The food industry commitment to the different elements making up personal hygiene have stood them in good stead during the COVID-19 pandemic. These elements include personal hygiene, handwashing, clothing, jewelry, hair restraints plus other issues. The two add-ons during the pandemic have been masks and distancing. 

As an example of why personal hygiene extends beyond the plant, use real-life examples of outbreaks. A ravioli processor in California suffered a salmonella outbreak some years back that was attributed to salmonella that was brought into the plant on the street shoes on an employee. The person in question raised chickens, fed them before work by walking through their cage and picked up the pathogen. 

A failure to properly wash hands ended up transferring it to product. Several of these elements, such as the use of hair restraints, focus on foreign material control. Hair nets and snoods must be properly worn to keep hair out of food. A hair in a product might not make one sick, but it could very well turn a customer off so they never buy the product again.

Cleaning and sanitizing: When I became involved with the food industry years ago, cleanup was one of the least desirable tasks and often relegated to the operation’s least talented people. Today, many companies pay the cleaning people top dollar and give them a title such as sanitation engineer. Each and every person involved in cleanup must be properly educated on how to clean, how to safely handle the cleaning chemicals, and the importance of doing the work correctly. Failure to follow documented cleaning protocols may create a quality problem, such as economic spoilage of a chilled juice item, or a food safety issue, such as Listeria monocytogenes contamination of ready-to-eat products. 

Preventive maintenance: Preventive maintenance and cleaning and sanitizing are the two most complex and detailed of the prerequisite programs. Each and every piece of equipment has multiple levels of maintenance. As an example, each piece of equipment might require daily inspection and lubrication, minor maintenance each week, a detailed checkup every month and a yearly complete overall. There must be documented procedures for each of these activities, and it is imperative that records be maintained for each. And, these activities may be shared, that is, some will be done by the production staff and others by maintenance. 

Post-cleanup checks may be construed as a maintenance activity. And it is imperative that all individuals responsible for these activities be properly educated and document the activity. One element that often causes problems is something that appears quite simple—lubrication. If the guidelines say “deliver two pumps with the grease gun,” they mean it. Workers often feel, “If two are good, five will be better.” The extra amount of grease may fly out of the unit when the line starts and could potentially end up in the product.

Chemical handling and storage: There are many different kinds of chemicals used in food processing facilities. These include cleaners, sanitizers, lubricants of all kinds, fuels such as propane, food chemicals such as preservatives or acids, inks or dyes, and others. Each material has specific requirements defining how it should be used and stored. These requirements also define the personal protective equipment that must be used when using that particular chemical. 

Perhaps the best example of the importance of chemical handling is a story I heard from a chemical salesperson many years ago. His company had to go to court to defend itself after a food plant employee got a caustic cleaner in his eyes and almost lost his sight. The individual in question failed to wear the required PPE, which included eye protection. In addition, the person had just attended a company-sponsored workshop on safe chemical handling. Other workers testified that the person was at the meeting. However, the individual failed to sign the attendance sheet, so there was no physical evidence that he attended the program. The judge not only ruled in favor of the injured employee, but also ruled that the company was negligent for failing to properly educate the person. 

Pallet management: Every food processing company should develop, document, implement and maintain a pallet management program. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all. Only good quality pallets should be used in production operations, and only good pallets should be accepted at the receiving dock. 

Wet, contaminated, smelly, dirty, infested or damaged pallets could pose both a potential food safety and food quality risk. If materials are delivered on such pallets, the processor could reject the product or material on that pallet. The same holds true for pallets used for finished goods. This is where the line worker must be taught never to use a pallet that has been compromised. 

Pest management: Pest management is generally thought of as a management tool for minimizing potential pest concerns. It is also one of those prerequisite programs that should be everyone’s responsibility. All too many processors rely far too much on their pest control operator to manage this program. In addition, interactions between company management and the PCO are also often limited to one or two persons.

Ideally, the pest control program should be introduced to all plant workers. Let them know why there are insect light traps, bait stations and live traps. And let them know that they have a role in this program whatever their position in the plant. Explain why doors must be kept closed, why food should not be kept in lockers, why spills should be cleaned up as soon as possible, why materials should not be stacked against walls and inspection aisles maintained, and situations that allow standing water should be corrected. 

Employee sabotage: Perhaps the most insidious of what might be called employee error is sabotage, or what some may call intentional adulteration. The real focus of intentional adulteration occurs when a company intentionally adds something to the product or process that usually reduces costs of operations and the overall value of the product. An example of this is adding a lower value edible oil to virgin olive oil yet declaring that it is 100% virgin olive oil on the label. 

But every once in a while, an employee gets upset and decides to get back at the company. A recent horror was the gentleman who filmed himself urinating on a breakfast cereal that was in process. Sabotage is usually more subtle, however. Examples might be a worker who inserts something in a bottle or can or drops something into a batch kettle. Pity the poor consumer who finds the treasure that the saboteur has placed in the package. 

At one time, a common consumer complaint was the finding of gum in canned foods. Researchers at the old National Food Processors Association actually did studies to determine what happens to gum when it goes into a can prior to processing. Interestingly, the gum that was canned looked like a starburst, as the entrained air was literally blown out of the gum. This work helped the industry address some fraudulent claims.

The keys to preventing sabotage or minimizing sabotage are keeping workers content and monitoring what goes on. This must be done by managers and coworkers. If someone sees something, he or she must try and stop the saboteur and report the incident to management. 

Economics of consumer complaints

  • Statistics show that for every customer who complains, 26 remain silent.
  • The wronged customer will tell 8-16 people; some may tell 20 or more.
  • 91% of unhappy customers never purchase goods or services from you again.
  • If an effort is made to remedy complaints, 82-95% will remain with you.
  • It costs 5x as much to attract a new customer as to retain an old one.

Source: TARP

Minimizing worker error

Processors must strive to do what they can to minimize potential problems. First and foremost, processors need to develop, document, implement and maintain programs that are designed to ensure food quality and safety. Ideally, processors should conduct risk assessments on each and every element making up the food safety management system. These assessments should examine the potential for human error. If there is a significant risk of human error, the procedures should be modified to minimize that risk.

The next key, which should be part of implementation, is to ensure that all plant workers have been properly educated on the procedures with which they are involved. Again, the term education is used as it is imperative that plant workers not only know how to do something but why it is important and the potential consequences. 

Management must be committed to ensuring food safety and quality, which is accomplished by following documented procedures and working with employees to establish a food safety culture. This is something that comes from the top. The following statement by former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi summarized the company’s commitment to food safety:

“No matter where we are, the safety and integrity of our products is the single highest priority. It’s our duty as a responsible company. People buy our brands because they know they can count on consistent quality—every time. We follow very rigorous standards of safety and quality. Our standards are equally rigorous in New York, London and Beijing as they are wherever else we operate. We stand behind each and every product we sell.” 

Managers and supervisors need to monitor operations and make corrections when needed. Hopefully, they will catch people before they can make an error and create a problem. Part of this element is ensuring that employees have a voice and that their contributions are acknowledged. Many companies have policies that reward performance and those persons who make suggestions that are adopted. It is amazing how far a simple bonus like grocery chits or coupons for the theater can go toward creating an environment where people appreciate their company and the work environment and work together. 

The last element is for the company to build or upgrade the buildings, equipment and grounds to minimize the potential for error or problems. One of the first things that management should look at is the work environment. Is it a comfortable place to work? Is the lighting good? Do employees have a clean locker room with plenty of secure storage space? Are they provided with uniforms which the company keeps clean and which are replaced as needed? All of these are things that the workforce will appreciate. 

American Meat Institute 10 principles of sanitary design

  1. Cleanable to a microbiological level
  2. Made of compatible materials
  3. Accessible for inspection, maintenance, cleaning and sanitation
  4. No product or liquid collection
  5. Hollow areas hermetically sealed
  6. No niches
  7. Sanitary operational performance
  8. Hygienic design of maintenance enclosures
  9. Hygienic compatibility with other plant systems
  10. Validate cleaning and sanitizing protocols

Management can also provide equipment and an environment that is easy to maintain and clean. The easier it is to do a task, the less chance that there will be an error. As an example, if a member of the cleanup crew has to remove six bolts with a special tool to properly access a piece of equipment to clean it, there is a chance that this person may decide to cut corners one day. However, if the unit can be accessed by removing a few quick release clamps, there is a greater probability that the work will not only be done, but be done correctly. In other words, is the management committed to sanitary design of its equipment and the environment? Committing to the 10 principles of sanitary design developed by the American Meat Institute will definitely help a company operate more efficiently and minimize the potential for human error.

Another thing that management can do is adopt CCTV or closed-circuit television. Install cameras at different places around the facility, especially those where there is a potential for error, such as the receiving and loading docks, fillers, blending and mix kettles, and areas where allergens may be handled. Continuous monitoring of these areas minimizes the potential for error and will allow management to go back and check operations if there is an error.

One tool that processors can utilize to determine potential risks from human error is FMEA or failure mode and effects analysis. The FMEA program has three basic principles:

  • A systemized group of activities intended to recognize and evaluate the potential failure of a product, process or design, and its potential effect on customers and consumers.
  • A systemized group of activities intended to identify actions that would mitigate the chance of a potential failure from occurring.
  • A systemized group of activities intended to document and continuously improve the product, process or design.

Of all these issues, the most important is probably that of creating a food safety culture or team within the operation. People are more prone to do things properly when they feel that they have a stake in the process and have some ownership in the operation. People do not want to mess up their own house or harm their family.