In recent years, the concept of “food safety culture” has become an industry mantra for virtually all aspects of the food supply chain. Introduced in the early 2000s by Walmart Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas, who also published the first book on the topic in 2009, the concept has since gained traction, particularly with FDA’s affirmation of food culture as having a positive bearing on a facility’s compliance with FSMA. As former FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor stated (in the QA article “Food Safety Behavior: Catch the Culture,” May/June 2015), “We have zeroed in on this as an important part of our new compliance strategy in implementing FSMA. … When you look at companies doing the best job, you do sense this idea of a food safety culture where it is a primary value of the company,” Taylor said. “An element of it is leadership from the top that makes food safety a value.”
AHEAD OF THE PACK. While this emphasis on a top-down cultural prioritizing of food safety is causing many facilities to take a new look at their people, policies, and programs, at Smithfield Foods, it has simply reaffirmed what the company has been doing for decades or, as Packaged Meats Division Vice President of Food Safety and Quality Warren Dorsa noted, since “before it was cool.” Dorsa was hired as vice president of food safety and quality for John Morrell (now a part of Smithfield Foods) in 1998. “Long before it was chic and popular, Smithfield understood the value of and established a leadership team to build a food safety culture. Then, and still today, Smithfield recognizes that food safety should report to the highest level.”
It is a statement that is indicative of the entire Smithfield Foods Corporation, with their complementary philosophies being key factors in Smithfield’s acquisition of John Morell as well as Farmland Foods, whose vice president of food safety Kathleen Hanigan also reported directly to the company’s president and is now Smithfield’s Fresh Pork Division Vice President of Food Safety & Quality Assurance.
EXECUTIVE DRIVEN. Both Dorsa and Hanigan now report directly to Smithfield’s president who drives the company’s food safety culture from the top down. From its top levels, the company has always been proactive in food safety not wanting to have an issue that needs to be corrected. “They had the vision to say, we don’t want to be ‘that company.’ How do we prevent that?” Dorsa said. The answer at Smithfield Foods is not only making it a part of the daily culture in the plant, but also at the highest corporate levels, which means making food safety an integral part of its capital resources system and a key tenet of its sustainability program.
Every capital request is reviewed and approved by numerous managers at both the plant and corporate level, with reviews focused not only on economics but also on worker safety, food safety, and environmental safety. In fact, Hanigan said, “Our suppliers and vendors would probably say that we’re tough to deal with because of our high standards. I would say they would tell you we are darned tough. We don’t bend.”
Kinston General Manager Marvin Peterson noted that the same standards flow to the plant level. “In our annual budgeting as plant managers, we are encouraged to include anything that will keep our plants operating safely and our food safe,” he said.
“Food safety, quality, and employee safety are #1. They are Job One when we get here every day,” Hanigan said. “Regulation isn’t a driver for us, and we’re not all about process efficiency. If you do food safety and quality right, it drives everything else.”
“A QA tech inspecting 1.0% of the boxes isn’t how we drive quality,” Dorsa added. “But ultimately, 100% of our product is inspected by someone … the consumer.”
Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Chief Sustainability Officer Stewart Leeth agreed. “The drivers are our quality team and our customer, who need to make sure low quality doesn’t affect their brand.”
That doesn’t mean the company doesn’t have food safety processes and policies in place. Rather, like that which is now required by FSMA, Smithfield has long assessed hazards and risk, then built its systems based on sound science, Hanigan explained. This means assessing every aspect far up the line, not after the product is in the box, then preventively fixing any potential issues. By doing so, she said, “When we do uncover something, we can react immediately.”
“We realized a long time ago that making food safe drives sustainability which drives profits. And when you have the president of the company driving that, the rest is easy,” Dorsa said.
In fact, Smithfield has a zero tolerance policy that applies to everyone in the company, Dorsa said. “We have zero tolerance for violating a food or employee safety policy. The fastest way to get fired is knowingly violating a food safety policy.” And it isn’t just talk. “We have fired people at the highest levels for food safety issues,” he said. But Smithfield also hires, promotes, and rewards people for food safety excellence and action.
People Powered. As Dorsa pointed out, “Our policies are not better than anyone else’s, what drives it is the culture,” he said. “Writing a policy in an ‘ivory tower’ doesn’t make it happen on the floor.” What does make it happen on the floor is providing plant management with the encouragement, the authority and the dollars to not only implement and train on food safety programs and policies but also to educate, empower, and reward its workers by and for making it a part of the day-to-day culture.
Workers are regularly rewarded at the plant level for exceptional food safety action, receiving gift cards and other such recognition and celebration. But it doesn’t stop at the plant level; rather, at Smithfield, food safety is considered to be a return on investment (ROI). In fact, it sees it as enough of an ROI that Smithfield Foods President and CEO Ken Sullivan implemented a new awards program which rewards workers for Responsibility, Operational excellence, and Innovation (ROI) in food safety, as well as other company priorities. The first awards were announced in late August (after the writing of this article), but this editor was able to witness an ROI performance by members of the Kinston plant food safety team which provided not only a look at an intended award submission, but also a glimpse into the dedication of the workers.
At the opening of each shift, the shift supervisor leads a “Huddle,” calling together the team for a few words on food and employee safety, a chance for workers to ask questions, and a pre-shift stretch. At the Huddle I witnessed, Shift Interim Operations Manager Richard Wahl discussed safety gear, the importance of label accuracy, and forklift best practices. The group did a few toe touches, hand and arm stretches, shoulder rotations, etc., and finished it off with applause. The brief five-minute Huddle serves to pull the team together and start off the shift on an upbeat note.
At Smithfield Kinston, this is a typical shift start. But, deciding that they wanted to take the Huddle a step further and make it really ROI-worthy, the food safety team created a few jingles to use in the Huddle. Planning to submit them for the award, Food Safety Manager Crystal Robinson and Quality Manager Nabil Chesimard performed a few for us, including:
I don’t know what you’ve been told,
But our Food Safety is in control.
Can I get a G? G!
Can I get a M? M!
Can I get a P? P!
That’s what Quality means to me!
Metal, plastic, wood and debris;
Keep our products free of these.
Labels, net weights, product quality,
Give each customer our guarantee!
BUILDING THE CULTURE. So, how do you get your workers to be so fired up about food safety that they not only take on the Responsibility and provide Operational excellence, but also create their own food safety Innovation?
At Smithfield, the focus begins as soon as a worker is hired. “They are taught from Day 1 that anyone in the building has the authority to shut off the line,” Hanigan said. “If it’s not something you would serve at a family function, we’re not going to ship it.” But that is just one aspect of Smithfield’s food safety training. There is the ongoing facility training:
- It begins at hire with a general overview of food safety including microbiology, GMPs, general hygiene, labels, hazards, etc. And it is not just for floor workers, but for every employee that is hired, regardless of position.
- Within 15 to 45 days after hire, the employee receives online one-on-one training for further education on his or her specific role.
- A team meeting Huddle is conducted at the beginning of every shift (as previously described).
- All employees go through annual food safety and GMP training.
- All facilities are in a training mode every day. “It is a continual thing; we acknowledge that we need to train continually, and it needs to be simple and straightforward,” Hanigan said.
- The Smithfield University online education program.
- The option to participate in a one-week food safety session in conjunction with Iowa State University which teaches the science behind the manufacture of meat and enables participants to earn a “black belt” or “brown belt.”
- The “Top Gun Program” for selected employees who will be moving up the supervisory ladder.
And there is additional specialized training, including:
Smithfield also provides tuition reimbursement for employees wishing to further their education in a related field. “We are very focused on empowering employees, training employees, and making them successful,” Hanigan said.
APPLYING THE CULTURE. While such programs may serve to build a food safety culture among the people, a plant must also ensure that its equipment and processes truly enable a food-safe product. How is this applied in Smithfield’s meat plants? Peterson took us on a tour of the Kinston plant to show and tell.
Just as training starts at Day 1, so too does application begin when the plant is first built, rebuilt, or reconfigured with a focus on sanitary design. And just as Smithfield employees have the ability to shut down a line any time a best practice is not seen, so too is each hall of the Kinston plant able to be shut down separately without impacting any of the other halls.
The facility, which was expanded in 2013 to add hot dogs and bone-in ham to its premium lunch meats and deli ham processing, is designed in a west to east flow – from raw to processed to ready to eat. Each hall is completely closed off from the others, maintains its own required temperature, and has positive airflow for when doors are opened. Employee RFID badges control entry, and fresh garb is donned and boot/hand sanitation conducted prior to entry of each.
Having the correct badge for an area is the only way to gain entry. And employee badges enable entry only into the area to which they are assigned. Even the locker rooms and breakrooms are separated, and garb varies in intensity by whether the area processes raw or ready-to-eat meat.
At Smithfield, one is not simply told to wash hands to the tune of “Happy Birthday” and step through some foam for entry. Rather the instruction was: “Follow the light.” Once a person is booted, gowned, hairnetted, and gloved, he or she keeps an eye on the red/green lights – sliding booted feet through the foamed roller system, placing hands (naked or gloved depending on the area) into a wash machine and then into the sanitizing system; then grabbing a paper towel or two, pushes through the turnstile … which locks if all was not done correctly. (And I have to say, it took this intrepid editor a few entries to get it right!)
Once in a hall, it’s time to start the process:
- Boneless hams. The hams go through a five-phase process, explained Supervisor Scott Burcham. They are pre-cooked in 140oF water for an hour, then at 175oF for two to three hours. After these time-controlled phases, the hams go into a temperature-controlled phase – cooked until they reach the regulation-required internal temperature of 148oF. Once cooked, the hams are slowly chilled, easing the temperature down for 30 minutes, then chilling the water to 32oF for complete cooling.
- Slicing Hall. Encased deli ham logs are loaded onto one of five slicing lines or two deli ham lines. The casing is not removed until after the log is sanitized and ready to go into the slicer. The hams also are visually inspected to ensure all the casing is removed and no foreign material goes into the process.
- Hot Dogs. The hot dog line is highly automated, with no hands touching the cooked product until the consumer takes it out of its package. Even once in its vacuum package, it is a robot that picks them up and packs them into their boxes. But such automation does not make the food safety focus any less important. In fact, Hanigan said, it may be even more important because automation can make people complacent. “You can use technology to make the product safer, but don’t let it be the weak link. Just because your process is automated doesn’t mean you don’t need to train the employees.”
- Bone-in Hams. In addition to all standard garb, plastic aprons and sleeve guards are required in the bone-in ham room, where the shank is separated from the butt and the center cuts removed. It also was in this area that we witnessed the pre-shift huddle.
CORDS AND COLORS. Giving workers authority to stop the line has little impact if they are not given the means. At Smithfield, it is made easy, with a red cord running the length of the tank. A simple pull on the cord will stop the line immediately.
Color is an important food-safety control at Smithfield, with helmet color signifying role. Workers wear blue helmets; crew leaders wear brown; and supervisors wear white. To make QA members easy to identify if one has a quality question or concern, they wear gold helmets. Additionally, housekeeping workers wear red aprons, signifying they are the only ones who can sweep, remove trash, etc.
Similarly, equipment and its maintenance is considered to be a food safety control. Every piece of equipment is purchased with sanitary design in mind, and before it is used, testing is conducted to ensure food safety. Then, Peterson said, for the first three days of production, food is tagged and held. “There is a very robust program that occurs,” he said. It is a program that continues as long as equipment is in use, with the maintenance program, shop, and workers considered to be just as critical a component of the food safety program as any in-process area.
BUILDING THE CULTURE. So … How do you build a food safety culture in a food or beverage processing plant? If you follow the example of Smithfield Foods, you give food safety the highest priority ensuring that top management walks the talk; fully empower every employee creating a culture of accountability; focus food safety controls to each application individually; consider your most valuable ROI to be your people; and maintain this culture every day, year after year after year.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.