Regardless of the work performed in a food plant, companies tend to do things a little differently from one another, but as an industry, they consistently strive to do things better to protect food safety.
Many manufacturing operations have training programs to ensure the best food-safety behaviors by employees. Specifically, new employees receive an array of training — from good manufacturing practices to hazard analysis and critical control points — as a knowledge-based start and to promote long-term success for each individual and for food safety. In fact, most plants we visit have impeccable records on training programs.
The litmus test, of course, is not the training itself or the associated documentation. More importantly, it is the execution of behaviors that should result from the training. When we observe activities in our workplaces, we expect to see what was taught in the training and reinforced at least annually. This is critical, especially in food production environments, where food safety and quality are essential to business success. However, the training is not always followed to the “T.”
In a manufacturing environment, where thousands of pounds of product pass on a conveyor each hour, people can tend to forget that each ounce of food will be consumed. How do we communicate the importance of treating products and their contact surfaces with a heightened degree of reverence and respect? Much of it comes back to effective training to promote awareness of personal behaviors and the associated consequences. We need to work on this as an industry.
In a restaurant where I recently dined, I had partial view of the kitchen as we were led to our table. I peeked in as we passed by but was unable to see food preparation in action then or from where we were seated. I was disappointed; I was hoping to observe more.
But it made me imagine that if there were a “camera view” of a restaurant’s kitchen to let customers see employees preparing the meals, what would you see? What if you observed someone sneeze on your prepared plate? What if you visited the restroom and later saw the employee who bypassed hand-washing preparing your dinner? What if you ordered a steak and the knife on your plate fell on the floor and was conveniently returned to the plate? We know better than these practices, and these are behaviors that we prevent during food safety training.
When we visit food manufacturing/processing areas during operation, sanitation or when a line is idle, sometimes we discover behaviors or conditions that unfortunately deviate from the standard set during training. This is a frustration for many in the industry. As advocates of the food industry, we all must be champions of sanitation and food safety. I like the saying, “If you see something, say something.” Perhaps not at that very instant, but we should have a constructive conversation with the supervisor or facility management concerning our observations. If you are exposed to conditions every day, you have a tendency to overlook the obvious, so they may appreciate your comments.
Here are a few examples of items that are often included in training but are more difficult to execute on a daily basis, in part because day-to-day operations are not always set up to make it easy to do the right — and most sanitary — thing every time.
Hand contact from a Zone 3 (remote non-product contact surface) to Zone 1 (product contact surface) without washing/sanitizing hands presents a challenge. That may happen when someone is working on the production line, a Zone 1 area, which is elevated and accessible via stairs. Some plants, for safety reasons, require employees to hold the railing whenever using stairs. But if someone ascends the stairs to the production line, that person must wash hands after holding the rail on the way up.
Another potential pitfall is when an employee might use tools in a Zone 1 area to repair equipment and place the tool on a product contact surface without it first being washed and sanitized. In some cases, depending on where the tools were used, this is like picking up a steak knife from the floor and putting it back on the plate again. Unclean tools and utensils can be vectors for product contamination that may cause consumer illness and potentially destroy brands.
Our hands are the most common vehicle for spreading illnesses and bacteria. To protect against this, all employees need to wash hands not only when they are soiled but also prior to entering a food plant and again upon entering into a ready-to-eat area where products are processed and packaged.
The challenge is how to make training effective and as personal as possible with employees. As an industry, we can make a difference between success and failure, and our employees need to be food safety believers and trained accordingly.
Let’s take the “if you see something, say something” approach, and perhaps we will all learn things about behaviors and food safety we were not aware of … and be better for it.