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How do we ensure temporary workers with high attrition rates commit to safe food handling practices? How do we educate a culturally diverse workforce with language barriers and differing beliefs in hygienic practices to follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs)? How do we instill a food safety culture throughout an organization from the C-suite down to line workers on the plant floor?

These are questions often raised when companies begin to put food safety culture into practice at the operational level. While it is generally accepted that development of a mature food safety culture begins with commitment from senior management, the heart of a vibrant food safety culture beats at the operational level among the operators and practitioners.

Safe food begins with a solid food safety plan prepared by a qualified team of employees who can evaluate and manage the steps outlined within. In any manufacturing facility, however, production of safe and high-quality food ultimately depends on workers who not only know how to follow instructions and operate equipment, but also understand the critical role that their job functions play in making sure that the food produced is free of hazards.

Poor management practices and inadequately trained operators are just some of the ingredients that contribute to foodborne illness outbreaks. These incidents negatively affect brand image and ultimately impact a company’s bottom line. So, how do companies ensure that their employees are following GMPs and correctly operating equipment? Training.

TRAINING. For line workers, training should focus on experiential, hands-on learning that produces specific measurable outcomes, supported by appropriate incentives and enhanced awareness regarding the consequences from both a personal and public health perspective (i.e., impact on consumers). Operators and practitioners need to appreciate that what they do matters and they each make contributions to the quality and safety of the final product.

Well-designed and implemented training programs help employees gain knowledge and drive behavior change. Food manufacturers with a mature food safety culture invest considerable amounts of resources into designing, developing, and delivering training to their plant-level employees supported by mentoring, coaching, and positive reinforcement of peer support and oversight. Larger brands can invest in their own training programs and in-house academies supported by learning management systems, while smaller manufacturers often rely on consultants, land grant universities, and trade associations for training.

While the manufacturing processes may differ from brand to brand, job-task analyses of food companies indicate that operational skill sets are generally shared across the industry. With metal detectors, for example, the principles of calibration, operation, and maintenance are reasonably straightforward. Their use is ubiquitous across the food industry as one method of preventing metal shards from ending up in the final product. Does it make sense then for each brand to develop its own metal detector training? Can this training not be standardized across the industry? Not only will this reduce the cost of training development and implementation for individual brands, but a larger data set (workers who receive the training) across the sector can aid in the evaluation of the training in imparting knowledge and driving behavior change.

TRAINING PROGRAMS. The GMA Science and Education Foundation (SEF) is actively working on practitioner level training that can be harmonized across the industry. Supported by several multinational companies, SEF has established the Food Safety Learning Alliance (FSLA). FSLA members make annual investments to a central fund which is used to develop practitioner-level training that they have collectively identified as critical to their respective operations. With the FSLA belief that a well-trained workforce, irrespective of their companies, will benefit the industry and lead to reduced risk for food safety incidents, the programs are available to FSLA members, their supply chains and the industry at large.

One such program is the metal-detector training, consisting of a set of four modules created and evaluated by industry subject matter experts in partnership with instructional design specialists. Participants learn how metal detectors work and the important role they play in protecting consumers and brand reputations. Each module includes interactive questions throughout to gauge participant understanding as they go through the content and exercises.

For line workers, training should focus on experiential, hands-on learning that produces specific measurable outcomes.

The training is designed to help employees make the right decisions as they calibrate and operate metal detectors. Additionally, all FSLA programs are compliant with the web-based e-learning standard Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which enables them to be compatible with any learning management system.

This fall, the FSLA and GMA SEF will offer Industrial Food Safety: Cleaning and Sanitizing Equipment and Faculties. With 20 modules, the course is intended to provide front-line workers with a comprehensive overview of what is needed to clean and sanitize food manufacturing equipment and facilities to ensure safe food production. At the end of the course, participants will be able to describe and perform cleaning and sanitizing of food manufacturing production lines, equipment, or facilities. It also will have a train-the-trainer component, with training on adult learning principles and ways to effect behavioral change.

FSLA also is beginning to develop a comprehensive suite of applied training modules for allergen control, the mitigation of which begins at the floor level in a food enterprise. With the primary reason for recalls being due to product mislabeling, a good place to begin allergen training with plant employees is on label verification, use of tools such as barcode scanners, inspection, and response to a failed check.

FSLA training programs are designed with input from FSLA subject matter experts, GMA industry specialists, and instructional design specialists to ensure they fundamentally effect behavioral change to drive food safety culture. The GMA SEF is also exploring virtual reality technology to enhance the training as well as translations (e.g., Spanish and Chinese) for use in the United States and internationally.

The author is GMA SEF Director of Foundation Operations.