By: Srirama C Manyam *
Food safety is acquiring a central role in the food industry irrespective of the nature and scale of business; be it in food processing, food service, or retail. The lapse in food safety can be to detrimental to the companies to the extent of causing complete loss of business besides threatening consumer health and safety, penal actions, recovery or punitive costs, loss of long standing business, and personal reputation. Most businesses have identified this and started paying increased attention to the food safety aspects in their overall business strategy as well as in operations. The key challenge faced by most businesses, especially in developing countries like India, is implementing and sustaining a food safety system.
The challenge in implementing a food safety system stems from various aspects ranging from awareness, technology & design, socio-cultural practices, management commitment etc. The foundational aspect of implementing a food safety system at a policy or business level is to understand the dynamic nature prevalent food safety issues of our time. Gaps in understanding, and alack of periodical reviews and outlook mechanisms leaves us in a tight spot when faced with a new kind of hazard. Most businesses fail to understand the importance of re-evaluation of their food safety systems and often claim that “nothing could be changed at their end”. On the contrary, a lot could be improved at operational level (e.g. change in employee habits) or at a supplier end (e.g. new supply chain risk, change in ingredient/process of supplier) or at a retail level (e.g. storage and handling at retail level).
A committed Management is crucial for determining the efficacy of the food safety system implemented. The first step is to recognize food safety as an integral part of the business; the business owners/management representatives taking keen interest in understanding food safety dynamics and acknowledging that food safety risks are as serious, if not more serious than other business risks. This will arm the management with vital understanding required for allocating necessary resources for efficient and successful implementation of a food safety system. The QA or Food Safety Department can own and implement a food safety system only with the support of a strong management commitment, instead of banking on the utopian idea that it has to be achieved in any other way. While it is the QA/ Food Safety Team that implements the food safety systems, the Management Committee shoulders the ultimate ownership and paves the way for effective participation of all the other stakeholders.
Next important step is to educate all stakeholders that they are not external to the food safety system and their participation is as essential as the participation of QA/Food Safety Team. In a way, they are the owners/ implementers of the particulars of the food safety system. Regular training and awareness drives will be a key step towards achieving unconditional participation of all the stakeholders. Instead of a cookie-cutter approach to training, the content and delivery should be such that it would help make the stakeholders understand the relation between their roles and critical aspects of food safety, along with possible consequences of failure to achieve it. At times we see the whole corpus of personnel of a processing unit attending the same food safety training. The training imparted to Quality and Operations personnel should be different from the training designed for Purchase, Maintenance/Engineering, HR and Management personnel. For example, a detailed GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) training might empower the shop floor personnel but for HR, training on implementation and conserving the GMP practices will be far more relevant. Another important aspect in sustaining a food safety system is by combining it with the other operational systems that are relevant to each department/function. The relevant elements of the food safety system should be made deliverables and tracked in their operational systems (e.g. marking the maintenance issues critical to food safety in preventive maintenance records, tracking non-compliant suppliers in master supplier list etc.).
Social and cultural aspects are important factors in determining the success a food safety system at operational level. Failure to consider these factors while designing the system will only lead to an impractical food safety plan. It is a common how the “well designed” GMP or food safety aspects are by passed at operational level. It’s important to understand the operational conditions, environment, and importantly the current behaviors and practices before designing the format. For example, it is impractical to wear an uncomfortable hair net throughout the day; similarly, chewing pan/tobacco is prevalent in certain regions. Paying special attention these factors is important for designing an effective intervention. At operational level, particularly in countries like India where the adoption of the harmonized food safety standards is still in nascent stage and the literacy and awareness is low among the shop floor workers, including design elements in the food safety system to make it foolproof can be an effective way to tackle social and behavioral factors. Another important aspect to uphold the food safety culture is by encouraging and rewarding the stakeholders who highlight any deviations and implement the food safety elements diligently.
Design elements can be effectively processed for sustaining a food safety culture, particularly in new processing units or businesses that employ lot of manual handling of food. Some prcatices, like hand wash stations, can be integrated with the door open control of the food processing area, extra-long foot washes etc. Most of the technology suppliers and OEMs are inclusive of process specific controls which are scientifically validated in the respective unit operations. In cases where the technology or process has been designed specific to the product, it is important to explore and validate any design controls applicable to prevent process failures causing food safety issues.
Traditionally, at household level we all pay high emphasis on food safety. But when this comes to an enterprise level, the focus on food safety is artibtrary. This may be due to poor transparency among different stakeholders, lack of resources and other factors leading to failure in perceiving the larger picture. A viable food safety system can be sustained by just imparting it as a culture; it is only possible when we aptly consider the foundational elements.
Srirama C Manyam, a passionate food technologist, is a Consultant- Life Sciences Advisory Group at Sathguru Management Consultants Pvt. Ltd.
Sriram has extensive experience in Product Development, Innovation Chartering and in identifying consumer relevant concepts in food processing industry. He is adept in designing food processing plants and analytical facilities and food safety systems for various categories.
He is a “Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI)” for the FSPCA Preventive Controls for Human Food,(US-FDA), and holds a Master’s degree in food technology from CFTRI, Mysore.