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Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Safety Must Be An Executive Imperative: 24/7/365

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 27, 2011

Richard Yudin has frequently contributed to the Pundit as with these pieces:

Why Don’t American Retailers Just Standardize On EurepGAP?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Fairtrade And Harsh Capitalism

Pundit’s Mailbag — Poor Management Attitude Leads To Food Safety Failures

Banana Import Policies In Europe Defy Logic And Ultimately Hurt Consumers

His European perspective and time spent abroad adds much richness to his analysis. So we were pleased when he sent a note regarding the cantaloupe crisis:

Your article titled, CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: The Need For An Aligned Supply Chain And An FDA That Won’t Punt On Food Safety, and the article titled, CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety... Shall The Twain Ever Meet? — which included John Rice's letter — both outlined one thing: audits are not enough, there has to be a cultural change across the fresh produce industry making food safety as important as it is for our meat, poultry and seafood colleagues.

The rules must be followed 24/7/365, not just when you know an auditor is about to show up.

All an outsider can do is give you a snapshot of what was being done at the time of the visit; it is ultimately up to management to make sure that contamination of any kind is being controlled ALL the time.

— Richard Yudin
Fyffes Tropical Produce
Coral Gables, Florida

Clearly no audit can be enough, and anyone who procures on the assumption that an audit is enough needs to reassess their practices.

Yet it is not easy to develop a food safety culture.

Getting prepped for an audit is the opposite of what we want to happen, but human nature is a tough act to alter. How many of us knew that when we were in school we should pace our studying every day, but actually wound up cramming for the test?

This is very hard to change; the challenge therefore is to get the whole team to redefine what the test actually is. Of course, the audit is not the test; properly understood, the test is producing safe food every single day.

The challenge is to make the whole team loathe the thought that they could be part of a supply chain that ever kills even one person.

It is a truism to say that food safety has to start at the top. Obviously this means establishing a cultural imperative for food safety, supporting employees who stop a production line or refuse to harvest a field or who need budget to buy equipment or do testing.

Yet it is so much harder than this. Here is a true story:

A friend of ours was working for one of the top quality supermarket chains in the country as a night deli employee many years ago. His job included working with another employee to make carrot raisin salad — a specialty for this chain. The job took several hours every night.

As the end of the shift rolled around, the two employees, having completed the carrot raisin salad, had it in a huge tub, which they together were bringing from the back room to the deli counter. One of the employees grew unsteady and they tripped and dropped all the carrot raisin salad on the floor.

Exhausted at the end of a long night shift, the two employees looked at each other and thought what they should do.

We should explain that this was a family-owned chain and the owners were focused on safety and quality. The employees were treated well. They both knew perfectly well that if they told their supervisor they would not be punished in any way, and they would be told to dispose of the sullied carrot raisin salad. They also knew that they would be asked to stay and make a new one — on overtime at time-and-a-half.

But they didn’t want the overtime; they were tired and they wanted to go home. So they looked at each other, quickly shoveled up the salad from the floor, removed any obvious dirt and delivered it to the deli counter to be sold. They went home praying that this would not be the day an inspector came in and did bacterial counts.

We happen to know both these people. They now are high executives in the industry today and can assure you that they are very nice normal people. They were in their early 20s then and, in fairness, they didn’t think they would kill anyone. It was a dirty floor, not a pile of arsenic.

Still, we think the story is a lesson pregnant with implications:

1) Much food safety depends on how the operation is engineered. The key food safety decision was the decision to make the carrot/raisin salad at the store.

2) One can’t assume that employees share your priorities. In this case, going home was more important than quality, safety, etc.

3) Transparency is hard to achieve if there are any consequences at all for the individuals. In this case, the fact that they would be asked to work more outweighed everything.

Changing a culture is thus more complicated than it sounds. It is, also, of course, essential.

Many thanks to Richard Yudin for weighing in on this important issue.

For those looking to explore this outbreak in more detail here are the main pieces we've writrten on the subject to date:

 

October 4: 2011:THE CANTALOUPE CRISIS: The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Priority Can Be Safe or The Priority Can Be Local, But It Cannot Be Both

October 12, 2011:CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety...Shall The Twain Ever Meet?

October 20, 2011: CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: The Need For An Aligned Supply Chain And An FDA That Won’t Punt On Food Safety

October 23, 2011: CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: While “Blame The Auditor” Frenzy Rages, It Pays To Look At Best Practices Vs Standard Practices

October 23, 2011: The Cantaloupe Crisis: Audits, Auditors And Food Safety

October 23, 2011: Trevor Suslow Of UC Davis Speaks Out: Reflecting On Pathogens, Produce, And Practices

October 23, 2011: When It Comes To Audits… Retailers Get What They Specify

October 23, 2011: When A Buyer Is Short Of Product… Do We Have A Plan To Ensure Food Safety?

October 23, 2011: A Call To The Buying Community: Uniform Food Safety Standards Are Required

October 23, 2011: A Choice Had To Be Made: Which Was The Top Priority: Buying Cheap, Buying Regional or Buying Safe?

October 23, 2011: Vendors Risk Much By Not Standing Up For Food Safety Premiums

October 23, 2011: Cantaloupe Crisis Discussion to Take Place At New York Produce Show And Conference

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