The Food Industry: Then and Now

Features - Feature

Two professionals, with a collective 77 years of food industry experience, discuss their perspectives on how the industry has changed since their careers began.

December 15, 2014

Ask anyone with a seasoned career in the food industry about how it has changed over the years and you’ll probably need to pull up a chair because they’ll likely have much to say. AIB caught up with two professionals, with a collective 77 years of food industry experience, to find out first hand their perspectives on how the industry has changed since their careers began:

  • Ron Durham, Director of Food Safety Operations—Zone Americas, Nestle Purina. Durham began his career as a sanitation team member and has held various positions in food plants over the past 42 years.
  • Jerry Heaps, Senior Quality Manager—International Development and Logistics, Land O’Lakes Corporation. Heaps began his career as a plant sanitarian more than 35 years ago.


1. What hot issues did you face in your early career, and are those same issues still key today or have they changed?

Both Durham and Heaps agree that pests were a hot issue when their careers began. From pest adulteration and insect activity to pesticide residues, most operations in the food industry were focused on how to manage their pest control programs. Today, the food industry is facing many new challenges that were not even on the radar 35 years ago. Heaps is seeing a lot of issues related to allergens, organics, package labeling, and GMOs. The primary issues that Durham sees today include foreign material and Salmonella contamination.

Durham: Customer and consumer complaints have changed; they have become extremely accurate and descriptive. The public is much more engaged with health issues both for their animals as well as their families. Consumers are driving the future of most products in the marketplace through this channel.

Heaps: From where I sit, compared to 30 years ago, there is very minimal concern about pest issues (maybe because we’re better at keeping them away?). The majority of today’s recalls or complaints are related to allergens or similar issues like micro contamination.

2. In terms of compliance, how have the consequences changed from then to now?

Durham: Consequences of compliance have changed drastically. The industry has been placed under a much more scrutinizing microscope than ever before—not only by regulatory requirements, but also due to a much less tolerant and well-versed public.

Heaps: Legislation continues to demand more and more documentation and enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels. It is very difficult to make a mistake and have no one find out about it. In the end, we’re all consumers and expect safe food. Technology has allowed this paradigm shift from 30 years ago. Detection of materials is much more advanced.

3. Speaking of technology, how has it influenced your roles over the years?

Heaps: Food safety technology has greatly changed how we identify, react to, and communicate issues. The Internet and social media have allowed an instant exchange of information, sometimes correct and sometimes not, which causes food companies to react accordingly. Contamination detection and lab work have gotten down to the parts per billion, so we’re chasing zero in trying to demand this or that not be allowed in food. With that said, in my specific area of expertise, pest management and sanitation, technology also has allowed us to do a better job of controlling pests with fewer toxic materials (fumigants excluded).

Durham: Technology has brought enhanced capacity to the validation and verification process, as well as lab capabilities to the operations floor level.

4. How have concerns about food defense changed since you started in the industry?

Durham: About 100%. When I began my career, food defense and bio-security were not even true categories. Our greatest concern was contamination through poor employee practices and lack of knowledge. Today, we must scrutinize every level of food manufacturing from the farm to the fork.

Heaps: A contamination threat could come from anyone or anything at any time. Threats may or may not have existed before, but the events of September 11, 2001, changed the way the food industry handled intentional contamination concerns. We are more vigilant now, but it is impossible to protect everything all the time when dealing with determined individuals.

5. Do you believe that the Food Safety Modernization Act will improve food safety?

Heaps: The trap is in believing laws or government can control food safety. Good legislation and enforcement is needed, but 24/7 food safety is an employee mindset … that’s what is needed. To know what you’re making, the risks involved, and how to be proactive versus reactive. It’s similar to the HACCP model. There will always be people trying to “beat” any law or system, so you have to plan for that by being able to detect issues with robust systems and processes.

Durham: I think it is too early to say because we haven’t had time to measure the impact FSMA has had on the industry. I do believe it is causing food companies to question operations and make needed improvements to their processes in preparation for reviews and alignment, which is a good thing.

6. Are you approaching food safety audits and inspections differently now than you did 10 years ago?

Durham: In my opinion, the word “audit” has outlived its usefulness in the industry. I like to think we do more assessments and verification/validation processes. Data retention and on-the-floor reviews that include tell me what you do, show me what you do, and show me the data and documentation completes the compliance process.

Heaps: There is much more focus today on process, documentation, verification, and validation. Audit schemes are more demanding, and there is a greater variety. The focus seems to have shifted from on-the-floor inspections to being more concerned with documentation. Years ago, what was happening in the plant mattered and the paperwork/SOPs could catch up as long as you knew the plant was running okay. In today’s industry, no paperwork equals no good!

7. The industry is changing, and so is the way we train employees. What is the most valuable training you’ve received in the last five years and how was it delivered?

Heaps: Webinars have allowed more access to training, especially those that are recorded and able to be viewed later.

Durham: The best training was delivered through one-on-one and hands-on instruction and interaction. We discussed operation levels and the dos and don’ts of the process. The expectations for all departments were laid out so that everyone knew their roles whether it included decision-making and planning or installing and implementing.


The author is Manager, Innovation Support, AIB International.