Food safety planning, especially in the complex production and supply chain of the produce industry, can seem like a daunting task. In fact, a few simple steps can help ensure your program is as effective as possible. These four key steps will serve to guide a comprehensive analysis of a successful food safety program.
1. Map Your Process
Mapping an operation is a key step in any risk assessment. Each company must draw out each step in its operation and then evaluate where a food safety problem could occur. Creating a good map means including the participation of a wide range of employees. An effective food safety program is not created alone by the company president or a single food safety manager.
Designate a food safety team spanning from field-level employees to senior managers and everyone in between. Involving these “internal experts” helps ensure meaningful input in the planning process, and gets corporate-wide buy-in or ownership when the plan is complete. Every operation has employees who are experts in their area, from growing to harvesting and cooling to processing. Those who live daily in the operations can help define the mapping process more accurately.
2. Verify Your Program
A company cannot manage what it cannot measure, so measurable activities must be built into a food safety plan. Measurable activities generate data that verify if you are following your risk management plan. The data may also help identify improvements that could be made.
For example, if your map identifies irrigation water sourced from a well as a risk factor, then measurable activities could be to physically inspect the well head on a weekly basis and to test for generic E. coli monthly.
Consider in advance the ramifications of a positive test result and have a plan in place to handle such a situation. Decision trees are great tools in this circumstance. Draw out who will interpret the data and who will make the decision to ship or destroy products or to harvest or walk-by a field. Identify who will be responsible for what. These decisions can be painful because of their bottom-line impacts. Being prepared beforehand will help diminish confusion and negative impact.
3. Keep Proper Records, Properly
Records are vital to the success or failure of a company’s food safety program. At some point, your food safety data may be your best means of demonstrating adherence to a written program to regulators or customers. And, should a food safety event move to a legal setting, complete, accurate, and properly evaluated data could make or break the case. So a plan to store and catalog this data is essential.
- First, make sure your data is being collected and stored properly and securely. Put checks and balances in place to ensure data integrity is maintained.
- Second, put written policies in place describing how to handle the data, who should read and verify if the data are complete and properly reviewed, and where the data are to be stored. Only food safety professionals should be authorized to collect, verify, and store food safety data.
- Third, consider both short-term and long-term storage options — both on-site and off-site — to avoid losing data should a disaster compromise a facility.
4. Continuously Improve
Your risks are continually changing so risk assessment and management is never really finished. Every company should regularly reassess and update its risk assessment and related risk management plans. As you add a new ranch, re-organize a cooler, add a new process line, contract a new transportation company, or change display cases, then your risk management program must be re-examined to ensure it is still accurate.
Food safety managers are challenged to be innovative thinkers and search out new ideas and technologies to help manage those risks. Trade associations, food safety web sites, and the Center for Produce Safety are all beneficial resources for continuous improvement.
As a business changes, so does its food safety risk profile. Undertaking a continual process of risk assessment management is a chance to learn and to improve your company’s food safety performance. As an added benefit, a mindset of continuous improvement can and will transfer to other aspects of your business activities, and have a positive impact on your overall business culture.
This and all of our food safety-related material is made possible by the members who support PMA's Gold Circle Campaign for Food Safety. Find out how your company can help improve produce food safety throughout the supply chain.