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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Zero Tolerance – A Misrepresentation of a Desirable Attitude in Food Safety Assurance

The idea of “Zero Tolerance” represents a desirable attitude but it can be misleading and disruptive to the cause of food safety assurance if it is misapplied. First of all, who is tolerating whom or what?

In place of a “Zero Tolerance” mandate, what you will find permeating the GCSE-Food & Health Protection dialogue or narrative is “Demonstrated Determination”. Unlike “Zero Tolerance” that can be measured by looking for zeros but, admittedly, cannot be achieved; genuine determination can be achieved, observed and measured in all instances. Some people may be able to show fake determination that deceives observers, especially where superficial means such as compliance checklists are employed to assess commitment.

Some who object to the idea of zero tolerance base their objection on the common claim that “absolute perfection is not achievable”. Therefore they propose leniency or the relaxation of expectations. This is not the case with the GCSE-Food & Health Protection stance with "Zero Tolerance". In fact, GCSE-FHP proposes the opposite of relaxed expectations. It proposes the proper understanding and application of the "Zero Tolerance" principle and attitude.

The claim that absolute perfection is not achievable is true. However, this sentiment almost always leads to some sort of resignation that asks: Why bother, since we cannot achieve an absolute state? This kind of sentiment is foreign to operators with an attitude of a genuine and consistent determination to do better. The attitude of unyielding determination produces a continuing positive challenge. It also provides greater (not perfect) comfort to those served by the people who demonstrate such determination.

A zero tolerance stance that expects no instance of failure in companies run by humans is an alien stance. Moments of failure are inevitable in all human endeavours but failure is never acceptable. In that sense, and according to the famous quote attributed to Gene Kranz in the Apollo 13 movie: “Failure is not an option.” This does not mean that absolute human perfection with zero instance of failure is possible. This may be the case in a movie setting. In real life, the quote calls for a continuing failure mitigation effort. In the spirit of continuous improvement, the effort to mitigate instances of failure knows no end. This is equally true for the continuous improvement effort in food safety assurance. 

For operators with unyielding determination, a “Zero Tolerance” stance motivates them to constantly aim for the sky. When failure occurs due to inevitable human imperfections, they end up no lower than the top of the trees, and they keep on trying. Yielding operators, on the other hand, may aim for the top of the trees from where they come crashing to the ground due to the same inevitable imperfections, and they quit trying.

Operators with a truly "demonstrated determination to assure food safety" have the persistent Safety, Security & Quality Assurance (SSQA) attitude that "more can be done". They therefore do not rest satisfied with "near enough", “about right", “we have done everything that is humanly possible” or we are “certified by so and so”.

A “Zero tolerance” mandate should not be something that external bodies impose and enforce. In an environment where genuine determination is the routine, the idea of “zero tolerance” is naturally self-imposed as an attitude. In an environment of unyielding determination, the "zero" in "zero tolerance" is a driving commitment. It is not an achievable failure count through the journey. "Zero" failure is the avowed destination of an unyielding determination. It should never need to be a mandatory destination imposed by an outside party. Such is the environment that is sustained through the implementation of SSQA [view the introduction video). The actual mechanism within SSQA for ensuring the practical application of the"zero tolerance" attitude is provided in Step 5 of its implementation - Failure Analysis and Control Tracking System (Section 2.5 of the Implementation Manual) with the continuous improvement support of Step 6 -Continuing Analysis of Realized Effectiveness and Efficiencies (Section 2.6 of the Manual).

Posted by Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is currently the chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection, and a sworn SSQA advocate.

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