I include this statement in each of my food safety training sessions to remind people that there are lessons to be learned from the past and that much—if not all—of our food safety, quality, and sanitation systems are built on learnings and hard lessons. The Salmonella outbreak attributed to Schwann’s ice cream products in 1994 taught the industry two lessons. The first was the importance of ensuring that tankers are cleaned and properly sanitized prior to being used. This message also led to the establishment of validation procedures for tanker wash facilities. The second lesson was more subtle but extremely important: Quickly acknowledge and react to a food safety problem. Schwann’s quickly initiated the necessary recalls, acknowledged the problems, and took care of people who had problems.
The 2006 outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 associated with spinach sickened more than 200 and resulted in some deaths. The true cause of the outbreak was never confirmed, but the produce industry got a bit of a “black eye” because they were unable to promptly and quickly track the source of the suspect spinach. This was one of the incidents that prompted the enactment of FSMA and underscored the importance of rugged tracking and traceability programs.
It is also important to seek continual improvement. Consider a quote from Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall”: “I think a relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.” When people accept the status quo and do not strive to improve, people or other companies pass them by. One of my favorite lines when talking about building food quality, food safety, and sanitation programs is, “Develop, document, implement, and maintain.” Maintenance may be the hardest of those elements because it involves constant vigilance. Companies and the people involved in these programs may let their guard down simply because they feel that everything is working as planned. This is why programs such as third-party audits, internal audit programs, and management reviews are so important. They not only serve to verify that programs are working through an independent set of eyes, but they encourage managers of the different elements that make up the food safety management system to continuously improve what they are doing. Each and every manager should come to a management review meeting with improvement plans aimed at enhancing operations; these plans should include how the program could be improved, along with timelines, budget information, and details on who will manage the program.
So, look to the past to establish programs that help ensure production of safe and wholesome foods, but be sure that you fully understand that part of maintenance is constant verification and a need to seek out more ways to make your programs more effective and efficient. Don’t be like that shark that forgets to keep moving forward and sinks to the bottom of the sea.