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Monday, 6 August 2018

Game of Thrones: The Food Safety and Quality Assurance Version

GAME OF THRONES: With its plots, perversions and power struggles as reported by commentators, one would almost think that GOT casts a spell on its enthusiasts except that an equally, if not more enthralling, reality exists in the food industry worldwide. The global food industry landscape bears many similarities to GOT’s Westeros

I have heard, read and learned enough about this TV series from enough sources, and I now wonder if I should be glad for not watching any episode. Unfortunately, I do not have the same freedom of choice with respect to my involvement in the food industry. I work in it as a food safety and quality assurance specialist. You and I, inevitably, are also consumers and I am getting increasingly appalled by what is happening in the industry.

It has been said that everybody in GOT's Westeros fights everyone else to gain control in a persistent struggle for power. In the food industry, the quest for more money drives the fight among food titans and stakeholders with an almost palpable air of distrust. At the same time, complicity enshrouds the various interactions. Fierce competition and contentions rage among those who wish to gain money-thrones in an expanding game of hoax (or game of fraud, if you wish)The food safety and quality assurance sector stands out as one of the arenas where opportunists are busy doing "food safety" through various schemes  and tactics to get more money. Individuals, businesses and organizations, as part of a money-grab complicity, contest or conquest, are either patting or stabbing each other on the back without improving the quality of food, or making it safe.

No argument or excuse diminishes the urgency: The food industry desperately needs to be liberated from the ferocious money-grab contentions. The highly damaging complicity must be stopped. Otherwise, fake food safety and quality assurance solution providers will continue to stand proud with the display of their concoctions for sale.

Commercialized Complicity:
Many of the institutionalized systems or enterprises that are said to be helpful for the industry actually thrive on the repeating failures of food operations. I have elected to describe this disappointing state of affairs as "commercialized complicity". It involves no direct conspiracy or collusion. Those engaging in the complicity have no formal agreements or contracts to do so. 
Who are the actual participants?
What identifies them? 
With whom or what are they complicit? 
Do we have any need to pay attention? 
How much damage has or can this complicity cause?

The Participants:
Among some obvious players in the complicity, the industry has seen:
  1. Complicit scholars who conduct studies to support claims that are made by industry partners purely for commercial interests; 
  2. Complicit "experts" who, for some self-serving purposes, say the media exaggerates reports about food contamination and make them look like these have increased. They argue that food contamination only appears to have increased because detection methods have improved;
  3. Complicit food safety and quality assurance solution or service providers who, for the sole purpose of making money, merely sell solutions to industry that tend to conceal reality from consumers and/or customers.
Many of the participants, as a matter of principle, would not buy the solutions that they sell, or would not pay for the services that they provide. Yet, they proceed heartily because "there is money in it".

A number of opportunists (audit scheme owners, certification bodies, consultants, trainers, etc.), in competition against others, remain committed to expanding their sale of food safety and quality management solutions that they may not, in good conscience, support, except blindly. Through various manipulative means, they have captured the loyalty of naïve subscribers, although the solutions or services offered do not live up to the implied promises. Even as you read this, more food operations are falling victims to the tricks of cut-and-paste consulting services; rushed superficial training, and the allure of certification schemes.

With whom or what are the participants complicit?
By and large, effective solutions for most of the causes of food safety and quality failures are known. Yet, reported catastrophic food safety and quality failures stand as the undeniable evidence of the sector's boisterous but mostly fruitless activities. The news media has long been reporting preventable food safety failures. Meanwhile, the immediate question of why these failures persist and even appear to be spreading remain superficially addressed by those who claim to be offering solutions. In spite of the large numbers of so-called food safety consultants and trainers that are supposedly providing food safety and quality management solutions to countless operators, the industry continues to suffer huge losses due to failures. Could it be that they do not wish to provide real solutions in order to keep the victimized coming back to buy more of their solutions? Could this be part of the commercialized complicity? "Something smells fishy", as I've heard someone say. Clearly, in their search for real solutions, a good number of food operators are starving because of the ravaging effects of the insidiously expanding complicity to exploit them.

Like Westeros Vultures:
Providers of irrelevant, ineffective and inefficient solutions openly suggest that assuring the safety and quality of food is a difficult undertaking. They say: “Bad things happen” so that, when their spurious solutions fail, they point back and say: “We told you so, that bad things happen.” Meanwhile, they devise cunning ways of enticing solution seekers to pay substantial amounts of money for their concocted solutions. 

They cleverly make you and/or your operations do all the work. Some, under the guise of "neutrality rules", would not even tell you how to do the work that is necessary because it would be “conflict of interest consulting”. However, when you succeed through your own efforts, they quickly point to your success and attribute it to the efficacy of their solutions.

Every smart manager can and must see the vultures: Paying any amount of money for these concoctions must be avoided. Otherwise, these providers of bogus or ambiguous solutions will continue to overrun the industry, enticing and financially enslaving food businesses. With their cleverly devised tricks in this environment of commercialized complicity, they openly exploit individuals and operations that do not deploy the right vulture-repelling safeguards. 

The exploitation is not all that hidden in the certification arena where enslaved food operations are cleverly enlisted to do the dirty work of enslaving other food businesses. They are required, as part of subscribing to the schemes, to force their suppliers to subscribe, who must also force their suppliers to subscribe in an unending chain of forced subscriptions. It has been a very clever scheme really. Some major industry titans (corporate customers if you wish) are first convinced to demand certificates. Intimidated by the giants, small to medium food businesses feel powerless to defend their positions.
There's money to be made for sure. Several of the solution providers only pretend to care about you making money in your business. Sadly, it is only so you could pass on to them as much of it as they could swindle you into giving to them. 

Have you ever wondered why there are so many extra "modules" or "addendums" tagged on to the main certification schemes? Do you know why auditors and food businesses have to pay for scheme version-specific training every time there is a change? Must the audit frequency be every year to no end? 

These provide very good vehicles for making you pay more money out to the complicit scheme merchants.You give, they take in their proposed "give-and-take" game. You will hear them say: "It is your cost of doing business" - your cost; their gain.

Path to Sustained Success:
The games of hoax or thrones must go if the food safety and quality assurance sector hopes to have sustained success in dealing with the real enemies of food safety and quality assurance. Food businesses must take drastic steps against hoax enterprises in this sector.

Food businesses of all sizes must abandon, at least avoid, pursuits that do not present a flattering picture of the collective intelligence of proposers, predators, participants or defenders. Wherever or in whatever the imaginary Westeros kinds of plots become realities within the food industry, food business operators must mount effective safeguards against all forms of exploitation and exercise their obligations to protect consumers against all threats that their products could pose.

Much effectiveness and efficiency in the assurance of safe food could be almost instantaneously gained if solution providers were to be held legally accountable and liable where the solutions provided are found to have failed to deliver what they explicitly or implicitly promised.
Posted by Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is currently the chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection, and a sworn SSQA advocate.

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