March 22, 2017

Food Safety Regulations Now the ‘Low Bar’ for GFSC 2017 Attendees

By Matt Goodman

Food safety regulations might be relaxing in the US as the Trump administration promises less “red tape” for businesses of all sorts. But for the 1,200 food safety experts from 54 countries who attended the Global Food Safety Conference this month in Houston, one thing is abundantly clear: That won’t make much difference to most food manufacturers or suppliers. 

Why? Because the overwhelming majority of presenters indicate they consider that bar—the minimum legal compliance required—to be ridiculously low in an era where a handful of contamination incidents can wreck a brand. The general attitude in the industry is that safety is “table stakes,” something everyone is expected to do well, and that the real objective for most companies is high quality.

And as another presenter pointed out, anyone who tried to compete on food safety issues could raise doubts in consumers’ minds about its safety, rather than impress them with their vigilance. The consensus is that it’s far better to focus on food safety as one aspect of quality, and compete on overall quality.

The upside, for people making careers out of food safety, is that the C-suites of many global companies “get” the implications of a brand—such as Chipotle’s—ravaged by claims of unsafe food.

When asked how he “sells” upgrades and new investment in food safety, a food company executive told the audience that it’s not a problem. “Our board knows that we are a company of brands, and food safety is imperative to the brands,” he said.

Building Safe, Transparent Food Supply Chains

Many of the presentations focused on supply chain transparency and on building relationships with reliable suppliers.  Presenters repeatedly emphasized that having good, timely data helps them manage long, complex supply chains.

But while many speakers talked about the importance of technologies such as sensor technology and the Internet of Things for everything from supply chain management to rat control, some participants said it’s more important to develop durable, compatible systems that can grow and change with business and quality demands.

Be Wary of Investing in Perishable Technology

But at least one speaker advised not getting carried away by current technological trends—and taking a broader, long-term view of proposed innovation. 

 “I don’t invest in technology; it’s too perishable,” says Mike Robach, VP for Food Safety, Quality and Regulatory Affairs at Cargill. 

“I invest in platforms and ecosystems,” he told GFSC participants in a panel discussion, emphasizing that chasing a new technology fad without knowing how it will fit into an organization and its strategy is unlikely to be successful in today’s competitive landscape.

That’s certainly been the experience of many ICIX customers, who say that they left a platform they’d outgrown for our ICIX cloud platform, because they no longer want to use niche platforms for managing quality and food safety. They’d much rather elevate quality and safety to a higher level with ICIX—which is the only major solution for the food industry that’s built 100% Native on the Salesforce cloud platform. This means that information can be shared across enterprises to further strategic goals, and across companies to create a global supply chain of trusted trading partners. 

Some companies are even exploring how to use the information they gather—on organic sourcing, animal-friendly production techniques, and above all, documented quality claims—to market their products. All of that becomes much easier when key risk management components—like the ICIX Active TransparencyTM solution—are engineered for a common platform such as Salesforce.

Creating a culture of compliance is hard

Creating a culture of compliance is also a high priority across the industry, and something that many ICIX customers tell us is a big focus in their companies. 

But as Hershey’s VP for quality and regulatory compliance, Hugo Gutierrez, told the GFSC audience, culture change is hard. Guttierez undertook such a program, chronicled in the GFSC audience presentation and in several books by Frank Yiannis. Changing Hershey’s global culture (and its suppliers’) required several years, was really difficult, and still takes continued work and vigilance to preserve the hard work that has already been done. 

That’s probably why interest was so high in professor Gert Jan Hofstede’s talk on creating a culture of food safety and compliance. First, says Hofstede, associate professor in organizational and social psychology and anthropology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, companies have to consider cultural norms and attitudes in each country as a whole. Everyone wants to eat safe food, but countries have varying attitudes toward hierarchy, individual responsibility, risk and other factors that can have a dramatic influence on how to create effective programs and safe supply chains.

For example, Hofstede said he often surveys people in different countries, and asks questions like, “If your boss proposed a food safety plan, and you knew it wouldn’t  work, would you tell him or her?” 

Hofstede says the answers people give vary radically depending on how their culture feels about hierarchy and individuals’ roles in society. In some cultures, the idea of telling a superior that his plan is unworkable is culturally still very frowned upon, even if the subordinate is objectively probably right.

That’s why Hofstede says it’s important to take culture into account in any environment where food safety is a goal, particularly in supply chains that span countries and cultures.

Another speaker related an anecdote about how European consumers reacted to a food company’s use of “beard snoods,” which are like hairnets for men’s beards, in public-facing jobs. Despite the fact that they are used to keep facial hair out of food and promote food safety, many consumers thought they looked quite odd. Lots of the wearers weren’t happy, either. “We’re still trying to arrive on a solution,” she admitted gingerly to sympathetic attendee laughter.

Some cultural changes take longer than others, apparently. 

Learn more about Active TransparencyTM and food safety compliance here.

About the authors: Lisa Stapleton is a consultant with a Santa Clara University MBA that includes concentrations in marketing, international business and food safety. Matthew Goodman is a senior enterprise account executive at ICIX. They attended GFSC and wrote this blog for ICIX.

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Matt Goodman

​Matt Goodman is a services and solution sales leader with experience selling enterprise, midmarket and small business.

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