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Food safety culture new focus of Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy

Tim Stubbs

Tim Stubbs is vice president of food safety at Dairy Management Inc., which manages the national dairy checkoff. He is a guest columnist for this week’s Cheese Market News®.

Nobody purposely sets out to create food that will get recalled, cause illness or worse. But these unfortunate risks to public health and your company’s bottom line and reputation come with the territory of food production. The dairy industry has a long, successful history of producing food that is safe, but occasionally things happen.

It’s often crystal clear in the aftermath of a food safety issue what went wrong and how it may have been easily avoided. In some cases, it comes down to an employee’s lack of understanding, poor decision making or not feeling empowered to act. So how do you help ensure that all employees know what to do and feel empowered to do it? That question leads to a topic that is gaining momentum across the industry: food safety culture.

All companies have a food safety culture. They may not know what it is, it may not be optimal, but they have one. One simplified definition I’ve heard: Food safety culture is what your employees do when no one else is looking.

Simplifications aside, the topic of culture is here to stay. It is being promoted by FDA as one of the four pillars of its “New Era of Food Safety” launched last year. In fact, Frank Yiannis, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, even wrote a book on the topic in 2009.

Also, in the past year, major audit protocols that follow the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards — Safe Quality Food (SQF), British Retail Consortium (BRC) and others — have added “food safety culture” as part of their audits.

It’s understandable if all this attention to a hard-to-measure, human-science topic is causing some angst. The concept is new to many people, the criteria are loosely defined and it’s not obvious how to change a culture.

In my view, a good measure of culture is what your employees teach each other and hold each other accountable for. It is their beliefs that influence how they act. It is what people throughout an organization think and the behaviors they exhibit because they know doing the right thing matters. Culture isn’t about reaching the end zone. It’s not a short-term program or a box to check — it’s a continuous improvement journey as you work on enhancing your company’s actions.

This subject has become a key priority for the industry executives who lead the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Food Safety Committee. The committee was formed in 2011 to help processors share best practices, offer training and develop tools that can help the entire industry in a pre-competitive spirit. We are staffed by volunteer experts from more than 50 organizations and have trained 4,000-plus people in our workshops. We produce guidance documents, webinars, tools, resources and other materials, which can be found at www.usdairy.com/foodsafety.

Last year, we launched an initiative knowing many companies are aware of the culture dialogue but weren’t sure how to get started on assessing and improving their own. The Innovation Center is working with Dr. Lone Jespersen and the Cultivate organization, which is arguably the go-to resource globally to help companies improve their food safety culture, to develop a program specifically for U.S. dairy processors. Cultivate has developed a scientifically-validated assessment, a dairy industrywide dashboard, and is helping us identify shared tools and programs to help advance the industry.

With Dr. Jespersen’s guidance, dairy companies assess the maturity of their culture across five dimensions to identify gaps and choose the areas where they want to focus. It starts with a scientific-based survey done by employees from the front lines all the way to the top executives and results in confidential assessments and recommendations each company can build upon.

With results in hand, each company can build customized employee and management programs to address its needs, and it can compare plants/divisions to each other as well as against industry peers via a shared, anonymous dairy dashboard.

So far, 53 dairy plants from nine processors have participated in the project, received their results and have come together to discuss findings and share next steps, which might include tools, training and programs.

Some solutions have to be plant/company specific, but many will be common to us all and best solved together.

A second wave of companies is invited to do assessments in the fall, and we are open to having more processors join us.

Food safety is the cornerstone of any business. Trust and confidence in the products we produce comes from having trust and confidence in the people who produce them. That trust is everything, and without it, consumers will move along to other options. The consequences are very real if a company’s food safety culture leads to missteps which could have been prevented.

If you’d like more information on the Innovation Center’s program to help understand and improve your food safety culture, please reach out to me at tim.stubbs@dairy.org.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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