CHICAGO — Put a bunch of company safety professionals in a room and you’ll hear theories, facts and hopes. Invariably the discussions boil down to two main challenges.

Building a food safety culture across all levels of an operation and getting CEO’s to literally buy into changes that cost money up front are the challenges repeated by presenters and attendees at events like the Food Safety Summit.

Dane Bernard, left, and John Zimmermann answer audience questions during a session Tuesday at the 20th annual Food Safety Summit.

An interactive session on the first day of the 20th annual Summit, titled “How to Get and Maintain Cooperation Between Departments,” initially sounded a bit like another chorus of the same old song: No one takes this seriously and the top boss doesn’t think it’s worth the money. But, the panel and audience Tuesday discussed specific and proven strategies to change that tune. 

When it comes to CEO’s and other members of the so called C Suite, one tactic some food safety managers said they have used successfully is to fill those awkwardly quiet elevator rides with the “suits.” The concept of the elevator speech isn’t new, but it’s traditionally been used by middle managers to as a first step to climbing the corporate ladder. 

In the food safety arena, it can take quite a lot of prep time to develop an elevator speech, said Gary Ades, panel moderator. Ades is president of G&L Consulting Group, but he worked for Wal-Mart, Foster Farms and other food companies before moving into the advice arena. He asked an audience member known for her elevator speeches to describe the process.

Sharon Wood, director of quality assurance, for H-E-B Co. of San Antonio, TX, said even though every food company has unique personalities in their corner offices, they are more alike than they are different.

“People are people at the end of the day. We all really do put our pants on one leg at a time,” Wood said. Capitalizing on that fact when seeking capital expenditures on food safety programs can be extremely effective — when self editing and a finely tuned message are applied.

“You’ve got two or three seconds to grab their attention,” Wood said. “You need to know what you’re going to say when you have the chance.”

Wood said a concise message and a key tagline are the hallmarks of a good elevator speech.

Ades said one of his favorites was the food safety manager who wrapped both of those elements into a one-liner that he saved for an opportune moment. When he found himself in the elevator and the big boss asked him what his job was, he seized the moment.

“I’m the person who keeps you out of jail,” he said.

The seminar room reverberated with gasps that turned into nervous chuckles and then to ahhh’s of comprehension. No one needed to mention the prison sentences imposed on corporate officials when in the aftermath of outbreaks traced to eggs and peanut butter products. Those stories are well known in the food safety arena. 

More importantly, corporate types whose titles begin with “Chief” — CEO, CFO, COO, etc. — are all too aware of those federal criminal prosecutions.

The 20th annual Food Safety Summit continues through Thursday. The keynote presentation by Amazon’s Carletta Ooton is being broadcast live at 9:15 this morning. To register to watch free of charge, click here.

In addition to keeping the suits out of jail, the panelists discussed the concept known as “a food safety culture” in food companies. It’s traditionally been tough for seminar presenters to put a fine point on what exactly that means. Ades cut through the rhetoric.

“Culture is what people do when nobody is watching,” he said.

Dane Bernard, managing director of the consulting company Bold Bear Food Safety, said during his 40-plus years in food safety he has made a career out of good ideas from other people. He said he made “about as many mistakes as you can.” One of those was thinking that the pursuit of a food safety culture wouldn’t be that difficult in America.

“I expected cultural and language differences when working with people from other countries,” Bernard said. “What I didn’t expect was to find that there are those kinds of differences among people in the United States. “… Culture is about individual people.”

Bernard recalled a critical mistake he made when he was hired into a vice president’s position. He thought his business card with the VP title would give him open access to all offices, divisions and production areas. He was met with closed doors and questions about who had cleared him to enter.

“I should have gone to the head of each division first and listened to them before I did anything else,” Bernard said.

But Bernard doesn’t believe in treating troublesome staff with kid gloves. If front-line managers don’t buy into food safety programs, it’s time to take a hard look. Sometimes such managers actually undo what food safety officers have implemented. When that happens, there are few options.

“Staff may be undoing what you need done,” he said. “If they don’t change, it’s time to weed your garden.”

John Zimmermann of First Watch Restaurants said the company faces a different kind of personnel problem that disrupts the development of a food safety culture. He said First Watch has an 80 percent turnover rate among its hourly employees. That makes food safety particularly difficult.

“Food safety is not happening enough in foodservice,” Zimmermann said. “It’s a little bit caveman-like.”

Ongoing training, accountability and incentives are vital to maintaining food safety standards in such an environment, he said. But, if food safety officers aren’t allowed to track execution of policies and protocols, their jobs are nearly impossible.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Zimmermann said. 

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