5 common Mistakes Made in Food Safety Programs

Kristina Schoen has been in the produce industry for more than 5 years and in the food safety industry for 11. She has been fortunate to see the entire supply chain work together from the product being grown, all the way to the consumer level. She has experience in dietary supplement manufacturing, meat manufacturing and beverage industry. However, produce has been her favorite! She believes that food safety doesn’t have to be overwhelming. She enjoys helping growers and operators better understand how to comply with best practices and regulations.

Let’s face it, if you are responsible for running a food safety program in agriculture or in any industry, then you know how complicated it can be. During my time as a Food Safety Specialist, Food Safety Manager or any other Food Safety position (in produce and in other industries) I have seen reoccurring mistakes made, and with mountains of paperwork and daily updates, it can be overwhelming. So, I felt compelled to cover some of the most common mistakes and then let you know there’s help.

Mistake #1 Food Safety is only for the food safety team.

One of the best sayings I have ever heard at a food safety conference was, “Just because it’s a food safety issue, doesn’t mean it IS Food Safety’s issue.”

Sometimes there are problems that are food safety concerns that production or the crew leader must address. Food Safety is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone should take equal ownership. Food Safety teams may not always be able to resolve issues without senior management support. It’s just like a well-oiled tractor or packing line, every part needs to work together to get an amazing product out to the consumers.

Mistake #2 Only complying for an audit.

There have been too many times that I’ve spoken with operations who tell me, “We are trying to get ready for our audit and catching up on paperwork.”

This makes me cringe. There’s one thing that you can absolutely count on, more certifiers and regulators are scheduling unannounced inspections these days. So completing your necessary checks and balances every day is much easier than trying to play catch up, and it helps that it is safer too! This also ensures you are doing the right thing and the safe thing every single day.

Mistake #3 Lack of training.

The struggle is so real here. Usually the crews, harvesting and production, know what to do and usually do it right. But another favorite saying of mine fits perfectly here, “If it is not documented, it never happened.”

If you do not document your training, it never happened! Always take the time to ensure your crews are comfortable with their job functions. When people understand the why then they are much more receptive and take more ownership of following best practices. Something as simple as allergens can largely influence the food safety practices at a given facility. Everyone has a family member or friend who has an allergy to food like dairy, wheat or peanuts, and these foods have the potential to kill someone who has a severe allergy. If they understand why they should wash their hands after eating a peanut butter sandwich, then you will find more people taking the time to do it right.

Mistake #4 Remembering corrective actions AND preventative actions (CAPAs).

There are two parts to correcting mistakes, Corrective Actions (how to fix the issue) and the more forgotten part, Preventative Actions (how to prevent the issue from re-occurring). When you break a tractor or a packing line, you don’t want to just keep fixing the same break. So how do you prevent the break from happening again?

There are some great resources out there regarding CAPAs and Root Cause Analysis.

The best way I learned CAPAs is the 5-Why’s. This is a tool that can be used to better understand the non-compliance and get to the root cause. You ask yourself “why” as many times as you can until you determine the root cause. (It might not necessarily take 5 times) For example: Why 1 – “Why did the packing line break? – Answer: Preventative Maintenance was not completed on that packing line.” Why 2 – “Why was preventative maintenance not completed on that packing line?”; and so on. Finally, how do we prevent this root cause from happening again?

You didn’t have any corrective actions? That means you never find any issues! (Not a good thing!) That means you have never had animal tracks in the fields? You have never had training issues where you needed to retrain someone for wearing a watch or a necklace? Auditors and regulators know this is not real-life. You want to find issues. That means you are catching things and learning. If you find animal tracks in a field during a pre-harvest inspection, document it. That means you were doing what is right and were looking for any source of contamination. Be sure to follow that finding with CAPAs. Again, if it is not documented, it never happened!

Mistake #5 Resources

There are a ton of wonderful resources out there that can help guide you to having a strong food safety program. To name a few, depending on your geographical location:

  • United Fresh
  • Center for Produce Safety
  • State Associations like Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA)
  • Extension offices like University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension (UF/IFAS)

Reaching out to trade associations and extension offices can keep you on track, making sure you are operating with food safety best practices in mind. There is also a tremendous number of scientific studies that have been done. Sometimes they may even ask you if they can come visit and use your site as a case study for your commodity. These are some of the most powerful and impactful resources you can find. Not to mention Highland Ag Solutions! There can be so many regulations which can seem extremely daunting. Highland offers a digital ecosystem where you can manage your food safety programs, regulatory compliance, and farm data from any device.

In my experience, these are some of the most common mistakes found in building a strong and robust food safety program. Feel free to reach out to Highland to discuss formulating a stronger more efficient food safety plan.