Business and Operations
Food Safety From the Ground Up
By Cliona Reeves
By Cliona Reeves
How safe are your external contractors?
When people mention food safety or biosecurity, what springs to mind? Everything from good GMPs and HACCP plans running smoothly with well-trained employees at the positive end of the spectrum, right through to an unanticipated system failure or supplier problem, or even a disgruntled former employee or other saboteur with damage on his mind. Most food processors try to anticipate problems and reduce the likelihood of their occurring, but did you know that you could, right now, have a hole in your food safety system that a truck could drive through?
A construction truck, to be precise.
Picture this. You’re doing major renovations on your plant, possibly as part of an eagerly awaited expansion to accommodate a rise in demand for your product. Your external contractors have all the necessary permits and credentials, and work appears to be proceeding apace.
They certainly have not arrived with the intent of ruining your business, but if they don’t understand the special requirements of an environment that must be safe for food handling and processing, they could have just as damaging an effect as a saboteur. Perhaps even more.
For example, do they:
• Wear the same clothes back and forth between different job sites, such as moving from a meat plant to a vegetable plant to your baked goods plant?
• Wear the same boots outside or in barns, and then indoors in your plant without changing to another pair; or at least using covers or foot wash stations to reduce contamination from manure, meat juices, or mouldy straw?
• Not wash tools previously used in raw-food or even non-food environments?
• Bring peanut butter sandwiches for lunch into a peanut-free processing facility?
• Use inappropriate building materials, such as wood for shelves that should be made of stainless steel, or acoustic tile that has millions of crevices waiting to harbour disease-causing or spoilage organisms?
• Know the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) approved building materials list, so they can make the right choice of materials, adhesives, paints, etc.?
• Seem unconcerned about cross-contaminating other active processing areas, suggesting they have not been trained to see where contamination might be a problem for you – a valued client?
Even for the most conscientious contractor, none of these issues might be top of mind as a potential hazard. But it’s your business at stake, so you need to take the reins.
Consider the consequences of inaction. “In 1998, one U.S. processing facility recalled 15 million pounds of hotdogs because of Listeria contamination,” says Paul Medeiros, manager of Consulting Services at the Guelph Food Technology Centre (GFTC). “Twenty-one people who ate the contaminated hotdogs died, and over 100 became ill. The problem was traced to a recent renovation in the plant where the area and the construction refuse were not properly contained, so contamination spread into the final product.”
In another case, Medeiros explains, a company decided to do its renovations itself because it had a problem with a wall that had not been properly installed in the first place. “The wall was soggy, and was a breeding ground for mould. It was fortunate that GFTC personnel were visiting the plant around that time, because we recognized the seriousness of the problem, and the risks associated with their current renovation plan. Mould spores spread very easily. To protect their food products from contamination, they had to alter their renovation plan. The whole area had to be sealed off from floor to ceiling, including any air ducts. Equipment had to be removed prior to construction, any construction garbage had to be wrapped and sealed, and the shortest, least dangerous removal path had to be mapped out and rigidly followed for clearing the area out. If that mould had got into the product, the best you could hope for would be a big recall. If other pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes were also present in the wall, you could be responsible for someone’s death from foodborne illness, and how do you live with yourself after that?”
So what can a food processor do to protect his or her customers, investment, brand equity, and industry reputation? “First, be aware that plant construction, repair and renovation is not a simple matter of getting out the table saw,” says Medeiros. “Educate yourself so that you know what questions to ask an external contractor. Are they using CFIA-approved building materials? Where have their boots been? Have their employees been trained, and to what extent? How do they plan to protect and contain the area?”
Contractors who have gone the extra mile, and already educated their employees about the special needs of food plants – few though they may be – have a distinct advantage over their competitors. “Sooner or later, all food plants will require evidence of training and certification in food safety awareness among their external contractors,” says Medeiros. “The forward-thinking ones are doing it now, before it is required. Their food safety manuals become a selling tool as they vie for lucrative contracts, and they have a way they can clearly add value and differentiate themselves.”
But food companies may not want to wait for their contractors to take the initiative and learn these important lessons. While one may object that spending your hard-earned profits to educate contractors, who will then take that knowledge and benefit their other clients – your competitors – is unfair, which would you prefer? That both you, and your competition, are doing all you can to ensure food safety? Or that one, or both of you, suffers a serious food safety incident, bad PR and, even a possible business closure?
“We all have a vested interest in, a business interest and an ethical responsibility to do all we can to ensure food safety,” says Medeiros. “As more firms become increasingly concerned about being directly on the hook for risk around food safety and biosecurity, the more they are going to require that the contractors they hire become partners in the battle – rather than unintentional, unconscious saboteurs.”
To learn more, and for a resource to help train your external contractors, check out GFTC’s course: Food Safety for External Contractors. Visit www.gftc.ca. Can’t wait until the next time it’s offered? GFTC can customize this or any of its programs, and deliver it to your group at your chosen location, and at your convenience.