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Thursday, 27 February 2014

Common Assumptions about Food Safety and Quality Management:

Food safety and quality management is not a terminable project. 
. . . 
We can be forgiven for not continuing to try only when we have died.
. . . 

But what is the highest food safety and quality achievement to which a food business should aspire?

What gives a food company the confidence that its product will not hurt anyone? 

These questions pre-suppose that food businesses care and are doing everything possible to ensure food safety and quality. It may seem simple enough to state what the highest achievement should be. However, what is sometimes described as achievements center around the secondary or even tertiary focus, and success is measured in virtual terms. For example: Assessing how well a company meets the requirements of a food safety and quality management system or scheme is not the same thing as assessing the validity and effectiveness of the system or scheme.
The ultimate purpose for doing anything must first of all be the right purpose. This forms the basis for assessing the level of success achieved. Assessing against anything else other than the right purpose as a measure of success is misleading. Where motives are wrong, the metrics are bound to be wrong. This also applies to assessing the success of food safety assurance initiatives, programs or regulations.

Assessing how product safety is managed is different from examining the results and consistency of the effort. After a company has ensured that its reactive and proactive food safety management commitment is in place, it needs the quantified results of safe food produced to confirm that it has done and is doing the right things.

        The  Scheme Grading Scale
  • If the food safety and quality assurance scheme to which a company subscribes is so complicated that the company is finding it difficult to make any measurable progress in the actual safety of its products, that scheme is not helpful.
  • If, under the guise of being proactive, it makes a company implement solutions for improbable problems, it is wastefully using up the company's resources.
  • If it ignores operational efficiency considerations, it is of no value.
  • If its  requirements hurt more than they help, the scheme is counter-productive. 
  • If a company, after passing several audits under a scheme, still has many day-to-day product quality issues, the scheme is not helping the company at all.
  • If a company does not see a substantial and permanent reduction in the level of quality failure incidents after a reasonable period of subscribing to a scheme, that scheme should be dicarded.
  • If the scheme makes a company go through fanciful antics to gain certification but offers no provisions for measuring the actual gains in the safety of food; regulatory compliance; and consumer safety & satisfaction; it is useless to the company.
  • If newer versions of the scheme only increase the paperwork burden for the company and offer no reduction strategy, they robs the company of useful time.
The primary focus (or goal) of any food safety and quality management initiative should be the actual safety and quality of the products delivered to consumers. The means, methods and programs for achieving this primary goal are very important but secondary. Where the primary goal is not achieved, the secondary focus must necessarily be re-oriented towards the desired primary goal. Audits (assessments of the effectiveness of what is done to accomplish the primary goal) are also important but tertiary. Passing audits is not the goal. The goal is to produce products that are safer and are of higher quality with real data to confirm its achievement. The achievement of this goal must also be supported with measured evidence of steady improvement (i.e. measured improvements must be greater in each subsequent year and never lower than any previous year). 

As I read various company and agency announcements about food safety accomplishments, I find a lot said about what has been done with good intentions (but of secondary importance). The assessment is also sometimes based on how well a referee says the business is doing which is good (but of tertiary importance). I read about elaborate programs that are implemented with very impressive desk-top testimonies but I do not see much said about what has been achieved through all that has been done. In fact, everyday occurrences (reported or unreported) have shown that what is achieved in reality is often less rosy than what is published as accomplishments by the various organizations and individuals. Such published accomplishments may fool some customers and consumers but that era is coming to an end. We are approaching the era that is very well explained in the colloquial phrase: “Show me the money”.

A bar set higher on the basis of wrong metrics leads only to frustrated and wasted efforts.

The Litmus Test

Does or has your operation actually evaluated the performance of the food safety and quality certification scheme to which it subscribes against these parameters? What does your chart show? Are the trends similar to as projected in this chart?
If the return on investment is as shown, should you not be doing something about that? 

The Most Critical, Efficient and Punishing Evaluator of a Company's Performance in Product Safety and Quality Management: 

The consumer really does not care about any flowery presentations about what a business is doing, the flashiness of awards or corroborating certificates from external assessment programs. The consumer simply wants the real experience of being safe and satisfied as he or she uses the products. What the consumer is told may conjure some assurance but not in the same way that the actual experience of using the product assures the consumer. In many instances, companies do not know when they are punished as unsatisfied consumers defect to other products. Eventually companies catch on when they notice their sales dropping.  
As a demonstration of where the common assumptions are today, you may take a look at this example of an industry award nominations announcement for 2014: This has very little, if anything, to do with what consumers actually experience as they use the products.

A clear divergence exists between the reality and this or similar achievement awards. The listed qualifications for nominees and criteria for the award may appear impressive. The lists accurately represent today’s common assumptions about food safety and quality achievements with a disturbing lack of depth. By including the requirement for documentation to support the effectiveness of the effort, the criteria for nominations come close to addressing the question about the highest food safety and quality management achievement by a food business. I cannot help but wonder how what is submitted is going to be verified since very rosy pictures with dazzling historical and statistical data can easily be painted in such supporting documentation. The real story with consumers may be quite different and is often different.

Before writing this article, I posted the question about the highest food safety and quality management achievement by a food business to the LinkedIn group: Some of the comments posted to date explain the kind of evidence that should be considered in determining the food safety and quality management achievement of a food business. An unmistakable and significant difference is clearly seen in some of the comments versus the list of qualifications and criteria in the above achievement award example.  

A second consideration pertaining to the question of true accomplishments by food businesses has to do with the people or solution providers employed. Many professionals are able to boast about their accomplishments in terms of academic credentials, published papers, accredited professional certifications, industry recognition awards, extensive experience in the industry, etc. How much do these matter to the consumer? Let's look at this easily verifiable reality:

The Apparent Professional versus Consumer Dichotomy:

 Food Safety News
As an industry professional, I may look at certain things to assess a company’s food safety and quality management performance. As a consumer, I look at that which I may also look at as a professional. However, many things that I look at as a professional with highly rated importance mean very little to me as a consumer when deciding what and where to buy food. For example, as a professional, I may have a high regard for a business that has implemented a theoretical HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) program if I look at the documentation and records that have been consistently maintained. As a consumer, however, such HACCP program matters very little to me if the product from this business that I am about to consume smells funny. . . . Food Safety News

In Conclusion:
What is often missing from the seemingly impressive achievements of organizations and individual professionals is the veritable evidence of any sustained achievement as experienced by the consumers on the street. This evidence is too readily treated in virtual terms. How can your company move away from the virtual to the actual? You can start by not treating your financing of food safety and quality initiatives as “PAYING for INSURANCE” with the expectation of only VIRTUAL SUCCESS. You should treat food safety and quality management initiatives as “PAYING for a PRODUCT” and you need to SEE the PRODUCT. The PRODUCTS of food safety and quality management initiatives are the ACTUAL SAFETY and ACTUAL QUALITY of the products delivered to consumers. Since such evidence is usually ignored in the common assumptions and in the measurement of achievements, the most likely question from many of those reading this would be: How can you measure that sort of thing? But it can be measured. You may ask me how if you wish. Meanwhile, I would say you should always ensure that you are mounting a solid SSQA-D ATTACK against the root-causes of product safety and quality failures.
Make food safety a reality with actual consumer protection mindset.

 Posted By Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is the current Food Sector Chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection

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