Memories of a 34-year Career in Food Safety and Quality Management

Departments - From the Plant Floor

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February 8, 2018
BRUCE FERRERE, Senior Quality Assurance Manager, HP Hood

I’ve recently decided to retire from the daily work in a food manufacturing environment. The food safety and quality management jobs have been challenging, enriching, and rewarding. As is typical for a retiring person. I’ve taken a look back to see what has changed — what’s better and worse, and to ask if I’ve had an impact. So here are my thoughts on what has happened since I left college to start work in the industry in 1983.

TECHNOLOGY. The most noticeable change is that in 1983 there were no computers. The advent of this technology has truly changed the world. The ability to do large mathematics and statistics so quickly has revolutionized the food industry. For example, computers can now track each and every package weight during a production run, basing the determination of “fill” on the entire population, rather than purely on sample sets that estimate the population. Process capability is now easy to calculate, with hours rather than days spent pouring over raw data and sample set info. Computer stations at the worksite can accept lots of raw data; and process control charts are generated almost instantaneously.

From an operational standpoint, computer controls of operations have led to increasing efficiency. In-line testing, recording, then analysis of data can control a milk separator, so as to maintain the butterfat levels to extremely tight specification ranges. PLC data now controls much of a plant’s operation in most cases. If you have a youngster thinking about a career to pursue, electronics troubleshooting and repair will need a lot of good, knowledgeable workers.

MICROBIOLOGY. New microorganisms and rapid microbial testing are tandem items that have changed. Back in 1983, we didn’t even know the word Listeria, let alone what the organism could do. In foodservice settings there’s a new organism, norovirus, to be knowledgeable about and control. In addition to Salmonella and Botulinum, we now test routinely for Listeria and other organisms. Testing is not just of products, but also of the environment with a goal to assure you know where it is coming from and to find a way to eradicate it. Rapid micro testing was not known in industry — maybe in a contract or research lab, but not in manufacturing. Then came pre-poured petri plates, then dried media plates (thanks 3M!). And in today’s new world, sterility can be confirmed after pre-incubation using a sample of less than 0.5 ml in a time of less than four hours. Simply revolutionary and amazing. My microbiology professors are surely astounded.

AUDITS. There weren’t all that many audits being performed in 1983. Then major buyers and users started building better supplier programs, all of which required audits of supplier manufacturing sites. I remember that, in about 1995, I “worked” only four days a week. That fifth day each week was an audit, inspection, or customer visit of some sort. Yes, over 55 days that year were devoted to customer visits and reviews in just one year!

GFSI has certainly helped reduce that onerous load, but it is still not the only audit that manufacturers are receiving. Customers still visit to review the GFSI audit and to look at more specific programs that they require. But 2017 had only 18 days of audits — I like that!

More good news is that there are standards for quality management: ISO, and for food quality management: GFSI. Using these standards can help quality and food safety management newcomers create and manage better programs.

GLOBAL SUPPLY. Thinking back to 1983, the supply of ingredients was not as global as it is now. It was much more local. But 35 years later, many ingredients are sourced internationally. This can be a two-edged sword: Good in that we can get an ingredient that meets our needs and have it supplied in a very consistent manner from a location that has better access to the raw materials. Bad in that global trade makes traceability potentially more difficult and can be more costly.

Good things have happened as the developing world has developed processes and facilities that rivaled what we thought was our best. We can now get ingredients from a source in the tropics safely, rapidly, and in a cost-effective manner. We also have seen the bad from this when a few individuals were involved in the economically motivated addition of melamine to milk proteins. Now we even have a new catch-phrase, “economically motivated adulteration” (EMA).

Back in the day, the QC team was the police, looking for people doing things wrong and getting product put on hold until corrected.... Working with friends and partners is much better than policing the area and creating enemies.

QC TO QA. There has been a concerted push from quality control (QC) to quality assurance (QA) by all quality professionals since I started. Back in the day, the QC team was the police, looking for people doing things wrong and getting product put on hold until corrected. This created an “us and them” attitude. The goal was to get it past the inspector and make product move. Now the manufacturing world has more of a partnership with quality. Both quality and operations have found that it’s better to make product that can be sold than it is to make product that has to be re-handled. This cost-effective approach has led to a team that works to identify when things are beginning to go wrong and correct them before they cause a disruption, resulting in re-handling. I like this much better. Working with friends and partners is much better than policing the area and creating enemies.

Our FDA regulatory partners also have started taking the QC-to-QA approach. HACCP was taking shape in the early 80s. It was new for operations and regulators. Regulators mandated it for seafood and juices and meats in the 90s. Manufacturing embraced it as a preventive process that helped turn QC into QA as a partnership.

Now FSMA is taking food safety management through another regulatory phase. FSMA does have mandates, but it also allows individual plants to complete their own risk analysis. This is good and is bringing a change from local inspectors mandating which steps are CCPs, to regulators reviewing the risk analysis to understand why a particular step is a preventive control.

Of course, there will be differences of opinion, but that leads to discussions and even better understanding, and thus better programs for food safety.

CONSUMER EXPECTATIONS. U.S. consumer expectations also have changed. I call these new expectations “first-world” problems. They include the need to explain to consumers that the products we make are organic, non-GMO, free-trade certified, not processed, etc. As a curmudgeon on this topic, I don’t understand it.

Certainly, I want my food to be safe and of consistent quality. But as a food scientist, I want safe and consistent quality products to be readily available to the full world’s population. I’ve begun to believe that the migration to cities has resulted in people forgetting what it takes to get food from the country to those cities. If we’re going to live in cities, the food will always come from the country. As food scientists, our job is to get that food from its origin to its destination in a condition which is safe, nutritious, and sustainable. All these first-world problems are really just fluff because we can afford to worry about these things in our comfortable homes with our comfortable salaries.

NEXT 35. The overall theme of the changes I’ve seen seems to be partnerships. People coming together to work on problems instead of being antagonists. My hope is that in the next 35 years, we can come together and work on ways to ensure that all the people of the entire planet can have food every day that is safe, nutritious, and sustainable without the focus on “first-world” problems. Won’t we all be better off if we think about all of us and not focus on a single group?

Best wishes for a safe and healthy next 35 years.