Taking a shortcut is not always worth the risk – especially when it comes to food safety practices.
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Shortcuts. Don’t you just love shortcuts? I’m sure we’ve all used them at some point in our lives. Shortcuts are amazing; why wouldn’t we take advantage of one that’s available? It’s almost instinctive and expected today that we want things to be easier, faster, and better. But shortcuts don’t guarantee success. Quite the reverse in fact. When we take shortcuts we tend to get careless and place more emphasis on efficiency than on quality. Is it worth the risk to take a shortcut when applying food safety practices?

Shortcuts are generally derived from indolence in an attempt to perform a job with the most minimal effort required. This creates the opportunity for negative results and possibly severe consequences.

Let’s say you’re at home preparing a snack of fresh strawberries. After preparing and cleaning them you take them to the table, but a few berries fall to the floor along the way. You decide to go ahead and eat them. In this scenario, your decision to take the shortcut and not rewash the berries only affects you as the consumer – you’re assuming the risk of any consequences that may result.

Now let’s change it up a little bit. Let’s say you’re hosting a kid’s party with several in attendance. Deciding to not rewash the berries in this situation has the potential to negatively affect several children. Is the shortcut still worth the risk when others’ well-being is at stake?

The safety of the foods we consume relies on the everyday decisions of food processing handlers. One poor decision can potentially affect millions of consumers. Shortcuts can be taken at any point in time, but they tend to be more prevalent when someone feels no one will see them not following the proper procedures. As a result, this feeling of anonymity can create a false sense of security where an employee may believe it’s acceptable to take a shortcut. Many dangers can be presented as a result of taking shortcuts in regard to food safety.

LACK OF UNDERSTANDING. The lack of understanding can be a catalyst for many shortcuts. Frequently, this is the result of insufficient training that didn’t fully assure trainees understood the content. As a result, employees may believe they’ve discovered a shortcut that in actuality could be detrimental. For example, simply instructing employees that all egg-containing ingredients are handled with yellow containers and utensils would not be adequate unless they truly understand why these procedures are critical to preventing cross contact and the potential of injury or death to consumers.

If we don’t adequately address the why, what will stop employees from thinking they’ve come up with a brilliant new idea to use the blue containers and utensils (that are used for non-allergen products) instead of the required yellow ones? Ensuring that your employees understand why a specific procedure needs to be followed will likely improve overall conformance and inhibit shortcuts.

For successful understanding, develop and implement a comprehensive training program to ensure the delivery of training and education on prerequisite and food safety programs and procedures is provided to all personnel. Experience has demonstrated that many trainings take the approach of just stating what needs to be done rather than demonstrating the why and the associated consequences.

Comprehension of the provided training should be assured and can be accomplished through several methods such as testing with defined satisfactory criteria, on-the-job interviews, direct task observation, etc. Employees should be able to satisfactorily demonstrate that they understand their job requirements in relation to function and level of responsibility. In addition, supervision should routinely verify employee job performance to ensure procedures are being followed and enforced.

LESS WORK. The attempt to implement an approach that requires the least amount of work results in employees taking shortcuts. Ironically, when this happens the “shortcut” that was taken often results in more work and effort from others to correct the problems created from not following the outlined procedures. When it comes to food safety, there is no room for deviation from established procedures. Shortcuts are typically methods of doing something more quickly, but often not as thoroughly, as the ordinary procedures.

For example, let’s say an employee responsible for testing a metal detector has a test piece that isn’t identified and rejected by the device while performing the required check. Instead of implementing the required corrective actions, the employee decides to just pass the test piece through one more time. When it is not detected on the second attempt, the employee considers it to be acceptable and doesn’t believe corrective actions are necessary.

In this situation, the metal detector failed to detect a potentially hazardous piece of metal. This presents an opportunity for product contaminated with metal to proceed down the line and into finished packaging before or after this incident since no corrective actions were taken. Consequently, consumers may receive contaminated product that could result in serious health consequences or even death because the employee wanted to apply the least amount of work and, therefore, deviated from the established procedures.

Training and education discourage the minimal effort approach and play a key role in preventing blatant disregard for policies and procedures. When employees fully understand the implications of their job responsibilities they’re less likely to take shortcuts. Thorough screening and hiring practices, routine verification of job performance, and accountability may also discourage insubordination. In addition, be open to suggestions and feedback from your employees as they understand the true application of their jobs better than anyone and may have ideas for improvements that truly present a best answer to a situation.

HABIT FORMING. Shortcuts may eventually create bad habits. It may begin innocently enough, but it can quickly become extremely detrimental to consumers, yourself, and your company.

Let’s say we have a chocolate manufacturer whose nightshift production has run past the forecasted finish time. Sanitation is scheduled to be conducted upon completion of production, but now their allotted time for cleaning has been reduced if day shift wants to start on time. To further complicate matters, the sanitation crew is short-staffed and there’s pressure to get production started on time. As a result, some sanitation shortcuts are taken to speed up the process: equipment that is difficult to dismantle for cleaning is skipped, a less intensive pre-operational inspection is conducted, and equipment swabbing is not performed for verification. Let’s also assume that no immediate negative impact is readily noted, so the shortcuts start to occur more frequently because nothing bad happened the first time. The procedures have now become habit, and slowly the entire sanitation program begins to deteriorate.

How long do you think these habits can continue before the large-scale impacts begin to take effect? One positive pathogen result on a finished product? Two? Four reported illnesses? Twenty reported illnesses? Death of a consumer? Death of a child? How far does it have to go before we understand the impact that a single shortcut can have on food safety?

This scenario presents a multi-faceted approach for prevention. Again, training and education is important as well as hiring, verification, and accountability. However, it also appears that there may be an opportunity to improve equipment design to facilitate cleaning. The easier it is to dismantle a piece of equipment, the less likely employees will try to find shortcuts.

This is also an opportunity to solicit input from operators, sanitarians, and maintenance personnel to find a solution that works for all involved. Sometimes searching for a shortcut can require more work than simply following the procedure, especially if it causes problems requiring corrections by additional staff. Wouldn’t you prefer that your employees collaboratively focus on finding an agreeable solution that is not only a shortcut, but the best answer? There needs to be an organization-wide understanding and commitment to food safety that prioritizes these practices above operational efficiency and outputs.

How far does it have to go before we understand the impact that a single shortcut can have on food safety?
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Implementation of shortcuts has been observed across multiple disciplines, departments, shifts, etc. Frequently nightshift operations get a bad reputation for being the most likely offenders, and it is generally assumed that this is the result of fewer employees, less oversight by upper management, and time constraints. But shortcuts that could lead to hazardous consequences can occur anytime, anywhere, by anyone.

SANITARY DESIGN. Sanitary design practices can be greatly impacted if established procedures are not followed and, as a result, can directly affect whether shortcuts are likely to occur. For example, in a food processing environment, smooth, complete welds are desired; however, tack welding may be performed if personnel are short-staffed and trying to perform a quick fix (shortcut) to get production back up and running. The tack welds create harborage points between the welds allowing food product/residues to accumulate and presenting a conducive environment for insect development and microbial growth.

Equal consideration should be provided for maintenance and food safety when performing maintenance tasks. The following sanitary design practices should be adhered to and shortcuts avoided to maintain a sanitary food production environment:

  • Layout. The facility should be sized and constructed to allow sanitary operation. Size and layout should be predetermined, as such pre-planning will assist in the maintenance of a food-safe environment; prevent expensive modifications, adaptations and excess labor; and minimize other costs associated with poor planning and construction. The layout should provide efficient process flows and allow adequate space between equipment and structures for access for cleaning, inspection, and IPM activities. Also consider providing additional space for equipment dismantling, such as for extruder augurs or mixing shafts. It’s also encouraged that process flow in relation to layout is assessed for practices that may increase the likelihood of employees taking shortcuts (e.g., ingredient containers are required to be washed after every use, but the only wash station is located on the other side of the facility).
  • Foundation. It’s important to know the construction of your building. Block walls have hollow cores that are ideal for pest harborage and travel. Concrete walls are solid and generally have fewer challenges, but must be maintained to prevent damage and cracks. In addition, the foundation must be designed to facilitate drainage and prevent ground water from accumulating.
  • Floors. Floors must be suitable for the product environment, easy to clean, and able to withstand the anticipated traffic load and the cleaning products used. The floors must be maintained to allow drainage and prevent deterioration as damaged floors allow water and debris to accumulate, especially along floor/wall junctions and corners. Damaged floors cannot be adequately cleaned and can, therefore, lead to pests and microbial development. Avoid performing temporary repairs with incorrect materials that may lead to further damage.
  • Walls. Similar to floors, walls must be able to withstand the intended production environment. They must be easy to clean and prevent dirt accumulation and pest or microbial harborage. Avoid performing quick fixes such as simply filling wall cracks with foam, especially in wet-processing environments.
  • Ceilings and overhead structures. Ceilings and overhead structures also should be made of materials that are capable of being easily cleaned and maintained. Minimize overhead structures that contain harborage points and excess piping to facilitate cleaning practices. Ceilings and overheads should be maintained to prevent leaks and condensation.

REDUCE THE TEMPTATION. The following design measures touch on the many ways in which sanitation practices can be improved and demonstrate how appropriate sanitary design can discourage employees from taking shortcuts that may have negative implications.

    1. Always consider steps to make cleaning easier, such as using quick-release fasteners and couplings instead of bolts and screws that take considerable time to dismantle. Appropriate equipment design will also discourage shortcuts to cleaning methods.
    2. Product zones should be nonabsorbent, nontoxic, and corrosion-free. All surfaces should be smooth and free of pits, cracks, and spot or tack welds.
    3. Non-product zone surfaces should be maintained in a similar manner as product zones. Joints should be smoothly sealed and consideration should be provided for any loose parts or debris (such as equipment safety labels or nameplates) that could fall into product zones.
    4. Construction materials should always be considered for potential contamination risks such as glass, brittle plastics, and ceramics. These materials should not be used except when essential and no alternative exists. If these materials must be used, then adequate controls must be implemented to contain pieces in the event of breakage such as reinforced or safety-coated glass.
    5. Supporting framework should be installed so as to eliminate hard-to-clean crevices and hollow areas. There should be no open-ended structures or access to hollow areas. Fill voids where possible and raise equipment to appropriate levels to allow thorough cleaning on the underside of structures.
    6. Inspect equipment for potential harborage points such as rolled-under edges and beams with edges that can collect product; take action to eliminate them.
    7. Identify and eliminate dead-ends by filling and sealing the pockets or recesses or installing quick-release access points for cleaning. Equipment junctions should be smooth and flush with no seams or cracks that can harbor food products.
    8. Equipment and drain covers should be capable of being easily removed for cleaning. Special consideration should be provided for tanks where only half the cover opens, because residues frequently accumulate on the non-removable underside. Adjust the design to allow full access for cleaning.
    9. Drive guards should be able to be easily inspected and removed for cleaning. Consider designs with a semi-open bottom to allow debris to fall out or transparent covers to facilitate inspection without requiring removal.
    10. Equipment food and non-food contact surfaces should be maintained to prevent flaking paint and rust. Painted surfaces and those prone to rust should be properly treated as appropriate to the materials used and should be inspected routinely for chipping, peeling, and bonding characteristics.
    11. Equipment should be secured and sealed to the floor or elevated to permit cleaning. Caulking can be used to secure equipment mounting pads to the floor, followed by bolting of the equipment to the floor.
    12. Catwalks, access platforms, and bridges crossing over product zones should not have an open-grate design to prevent contaminants and debris from shoes falling on or into product, and to facilitate cleaning. Deck plates should be solid with no holes and, ideally, the joints should be continuously welded. The decks should be equipped with kick plates approximately four inches high that are either coved or continuously welded to the deck.

SUMMARY. When it comes to food safety, there is no gray area. Taking a shortcut is not worth the risk when it comes to food safety practices. If workers have suggestions that they believe would constitute best practices, they should discuss them with their supervisor; supervisors should encourage direct reports to share their ideas with them. It’s best to review and discuss rather than having someone individually deciding to try a new shortcut that could have hazardous consequences.

How far can food safety be sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, production operations, and daily quotas? Food safety should never be sacrificed. When it comes to food safety, a true shortcut is not the fastest way to complete a task, but rather the fastest way to do it right and in a manner that doesn’t result in product contamination.

The author is project manager, product development, AIB International.