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Five Ways to Prepare for a Changing Food Safety Landscape

By Holly Mockus   |   
Changes in food safety training landscape

If you ask almost anyone in the food safety industry if they think it will be easier or harder to keep up with food safety requirements over the next two years, most will say it’s going to be much tougher. That’s probably not a big surprise because we generally fear the unknown, whether it’s new regulations or changes in consumer demands.

But the last couple of years has taken things up a notch. The pandemic, a shuttered supply chain, the Great Resignation, and climate change have all drastically altered the food industry and our efforts to keep our workers healthy, and the food supply safe and sustainable.   

What food producers do over the next two years will define the growth and success of their companies. There are several ways food producers can prepare and manage for changes ahead during this time. Here are five of those areas.

1. Focus on the Well-Being of Your Employees

One of the most significant changes that we have to address from a personal and operational mindset is a new focus on the people who work for us. The pandemic reminded us about the importance of employee well-being and the need for a more substantial commitment to their physical and mental health.

This starts with education, helping them understand how diseases spread and ensuring they understand the importance of preventative measures. But beyond the pandemic itself, it’s essential to provide them with a means and encouragement to see the dentist regularly, to get all their vaccinations, including the flu, shingles, and Covid-19. And offer them time to go to the doctor.    

But first and foremost – and this seems so obvious now – we need to educate employees not to come to work when they’re sick.

When I worked in food manufacturing plants many years ago, we never told employees to stay home when sick. We wanted them to come to work every day regardless. But I think we’ve come to realize on this side of the pandemic that if workers are sick and come to work, they will make their peers sick. And that’s going to create issues with productivity and meeting schedules.

So, I think one of the big priorities for this year is making sure we’re getting that messaging out about keeping employees well and how they should definitely not come to work if they are sick.

2. Make Time for Training

It’s common to say we don’t have time for training. After all, that means taking people, who are already in short supply, away from their jobs. But I think it’s going to be more critical than ever to make time for training over the next two years because of potential exposures created by a combination of the pandemic and the historic labor shortage.

The need to work around inconsistent and limited resources is causing a lot of food manufacturers to take shortcuts in their production process, which can have a significant impact on the safety of their employees and products.   

So, it’s crucial to reinforce food safety training measures. Training reminds employees about the importance of following procedures and the need to point out something that seems questionable, like shortcuts in the production process. Shortcuts lead to risky behaviors. And risky behaviors lead to unwanted events, such as an injury or wasted product. And so, not making time for training provides a greater risk for employees and food safety.

3. Mature Your Food Safety Culture

The issue of training to prevent unwanted events brings us to the importance of creating or improving your food safety culture. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been hearing about the importance of a food safety culture from GFSI. But now, regulatory and consumer groups are also talking about it.

Every company has a food safety culture. The question is more about the maturity of that culture. If you’re not sure where your company stands in its food safety culture spectrum, I suggest you begin by measuring what you have in place now.

Start with a survey to reveal how much your employees believe in keeping foods safe. Remember that a food safety culture represents what employees do and how they do it when no one is looking. 

Once you know where you stand, put your flag in the ground and start filling in the gaps. Intertek Alchemy has a wonderful, complimentary eBook about building a mature food safety program and preparing for GFSI audits. You can check it out here.   

4. Evaluate Your Supply Chain and Prepare for the Worst  

While there is so much in the news about supply chain issues now, I believe, unfortunately, we will be in this mess for at least a couple of more years. So, your focus should be on how you’ll keep operations going despite a delivery setback.

That means putting in place robust programs and providing more diligence to what you’re doing, what you need to do, and what happens if something goes wrong. Start asking questions, like what happens when your supplier goes away or what is your backup plan if key ingredients or packaging don’t arrive on time.

You’ll need a robust program to approve suppliers on the fly if needed and a way to inspect incoming goods to avoid fraud. You’ll have to be highly vigilant to ensure ingredients like oil, spices, and seasonings that arrive are what you ordered.

5. Develop Food Defense Plans

As the FDA begins focusing more on food defense vulnerability assessments, food defense plans will be a big topic over the next two years. Right now, the emphasis is on educating before regulating. But that’s not going to last long.

This means having a written food defense plan is an absolute must for your organization. If you need help, Intertek Alchemy has a consulting team that can identify your vulnerabilities with an assessment and provide assistance with putting together a plan.

You’ll want to focus on training for actionable process steps where your supervisors and workers are responsible for making and enforcing actions that protect the integrity and safety of your foods. And you’ll want all of that training well documented and easily shared.  

6. Prepare for a New Era of Food Safety

In the early days of the pandemic, regulatory agencies made many adaptations including limiting on-site inspections. Some of these adaptations may continue for the foreseeable future. However, the focus on foodborne illness prevention, including science-based interventions and technology, will continue to increase. 

I think there will be a big focus on companies that sell foods online and then deliver them directly to consumers, potentially developing new regulations.  We’ll see more directions on labeling with more requirements around naming ingredients that can cause allergies. Similarly, the USDA as well as consumer groups are increasing their focus on salmonella.  

And this momentum will carry well across U.S. borders. You can expect a lot more food safety oversight and requirements from other countries. Canada, for example, is setting its regulatory sights on bakery, confection, snack foods, cereals, and processed foods. The government is also looking at licensing and preventative control programs to protect public health.  

Managing change has become the norm and as the industry, markets, and climate change, you’ll need to be prepared to undertake these steps and many others as the future unfolds. Alchemy shares your concern for food and workplace safety. We’re here to partner with you as you navigate the uncertainties of the coming year.

Contact us if you have questions or need help in any of these areas.

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About the Author

With over 30 years of experience in the food industry at companies like ConAgra, Kellogg, and Sara Lee, Holly has recently joined the Alchemy Systems team where she currently helps the firm to create world class workforce development solutions for large, complex operations within the food industry.

Holly has held positions in food safety, quality assurance, sanitation, and plant regulatory affairs. She has authored several chapters related to the importance of record keeping and documentation in the food industry. She was honored to become the 2013 recipient of the Safe Quality Food Institute's Outstanding Achievement Award, and is passionate about the importance of training in the food industry including the cultivation of successful safety cultures.

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