Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Minimizing food waste through your food safety tactics

One of the most attractive features of my job with We R Food Safety! is the fact that we aid in the reduction of food waste within the United States.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) states that food waste is roughly 30-40 percent of the food supply within the nation. We have people with “food insecurities” (the political way of saying that those people are starving) across the country, yet there are people within walking distance of those with food insecurities who throw out food, often unnecessarily. This just does not sit well with me, and that’s why there are certain aspects of this job that I love so much. 

One of the main ways my colleagues and I aid in reduction of food waste is by running “deviation reports” for our clients, nationwide. If a processor’s product does not quite meet its lethality or stabilization temperature, or a cooler has gone out and we have recorded product temperatures at certain times, we are able to review numerous databases, scientific support pieces, etc., to determine whether the product in question truly is still safe or not. I couldn’t even hazard a guess of how many pounds of product We R Food Safety! has saved for our clients, but the number of pounds saved isn’t the point. The point is: We made sure 1) product was not wasted, 2) product was still safe to consume, and 3) our clients made money on product that would have been discarded and wasted a decade ago due to lack of data and knowledge. That is what matters and helps me sleep happily at night. 

Another way in which we prevent food waste is helping clients navigate the different product outcomes for corrective actions due to their food safety system record-keeping failures or regulatory non-compliances. What I mean by this is, if there is a corrective action related to regulation that isn’t necessarily a food safety issue, the product isn’t doomed to be discarded if we can help identify the difference between paper non-conformities and a true food safety concern. Again, product that is proven to be safe isn’t unnecessarily wasted.

We have a lot of hurdles daily as an industry to overcome, with food waste being a significant one. The industry has made some changes to do its part, but it can do more. The above-mentioned examples are two ways We R Food Safety! staff helps minimize food waste at the processing level. But there’s more work to do. The next hurdle I would like to see tackled as an industry: development and feasibility of biodegradable packaging with emphasis first on raw meat products. 

— Abbey Davidson, Food Safety Consultant, Abbey@wrfs.pro

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

MEATOUT, Meat on the Menu proclamations? Who cares, it’s all grandstanding

A couple weeks ago, it began: Yet another war of words, proclamations and stupid political and media grandstanding over whether consumers should eat meat or not. I’m growing seriously weary of these headlines crossing my news and social media feeds.

I’m also getting tired of saying the same things over and over on this, but please, spare yourself the increased blood pressure, and simply ignore the stupidity. On both sides. All sides, should there be more than two.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared March 20, 2021, “MEATOUT DAY” in Colorado. So what?

Colorado State Sen. Jerry Sonnenburg came out strong against the attack on the agriculture industry in response. SO WHAT?

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts then countered his neighboring state’s move by declaring a “Meat on the Menu Day” in Nebraska. SO WHAT?!?!?!?

Did any of these announcements truly move the needle either direction for or against meat production in either of these states, let alone the country? I say, “Not likely.”

For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been telling the readers of The National Provisioner that there simply is too large a silent majority of meat eaters out there who don’t care what the activists have to say or what the activists do to try and convince them to ditch the animal protein. That’s nationwide, in my opinion: from the conservative small-town and rural ag people, to those darned “lib-ruhls” in the urban areas who’ve never been on a farm. Not a single one of this silent majority would trade his or her pork chops for a new pickup or Porterhouse for a Prius, even if you think they would.

Furthermore, how many people listen to the government about what to eat, when or how? How many people cook their meats properly because the government says that’s the safest move? Does anyone even care about the Food Pyramid or whatever the government might be suggesting for daily intake of foods? Coloradans who loved the “MEATOUT” proclamation likely were already eating less meat, and Nebraskans who loved the “Meat on the Menu” proclamation likely had a big steak ready for dinner that day already.

Let’s remember that, although our form of government means we need politicians in order to represent us, they don’t always do that. And when they don’t represent you individually, you need to measure the gravity of the situation properly.

These proclamations were nothing more than grandstanding for the media and political donors  both left-wing and right-wing outlets (depending on which proclamation, of course). Nothing more, nothing less.

Carry on with your processing  whether that’s meat, poultry or other food product  and when the news starts talking about these dumb proclamations, remember that anyone can request proclamations, at least in most states.

Then, remind yourself that the quality and safety of your own product has much more bearing on whether your customers come back than what your governor says about meat or food in general.

 Andy Hanacek, vice president of Communications, andyh@werfoodsafety.com

Friday, March 19, 2021

Salmonellosis outbreak from ’95 does NOT support humidity as a critical parameter in jerky processing

I just had a rather enlightening conversation with a senior USDA-FSIS official about the need for humidity during jerky manufacturing.

I asked, “How does humidity destroy pathogens?”

The official really didn’t know the answer, but he did state that, without humidity, pathogens can become heat-resistant, and Salmonella can grow and survive normal lethality.

When I asked for the studies that backed up these statements, the official pointed to the same studies they always do. I then explained how those studies didn’t actually take product to lethality (i.e., what was surviving was only surviving longer than the non-treated Salmonella). The official countered by citing the salmonellosis outbreak from 1995 in New Mexico — as is typical of this conversation.

Here, too, the problem with citing that case is lethality, as the product implicated in that outbreak should be considered a raw beef jerky, not fully cooked.

Per the published outbreak report by the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00039423.htm), partially frozen product was placed on racks and was pushed into a drying room. The chamber temperature (not the product’s internal temperature) was set at 140 F for three hours, then reduced to 115 F for approximately 19 hours. Therefore, the product was never exposed to a lethality treatment, and hence, by definition, it was a raw product. The report also states that no product temperatures were ever recorded.  

I promised to send the official the CDC report to remind them (or make them aware) that the production technique that was used resulted in a raw product that clearly wasn’t ready to eat (and that doesn’t even factor in other inputs or lack of them, such as sanitation, equipment, plant elevation, etc.).

It’s a shame this conversation even needed to happen, and that we have to point this out about a case more than 25 years in the past. However, it’s not the only time we’ve had these conversations lately — we have been seeing more and more actions by USDA-FSIS around humidity requirements based on these incorrect assumptions and faulty arguments. When we bring up actual science around heat resistance and pathogen growth, little discussion occurs, and FSIS inevitably falls back on the New Mexico outbreak as their “final answer” for why humidity is needed in jerky processing.

Is humidity during processing a control factor? Yes, as it assists in heat transfer. When you are measuring the internal temperature of a product, you are, in fact, measuring the transfer of energy into the product. One way to increase the rate of transfer is to increase the humidity in your cooking vessel.  At home, when you boil something, it cooks faster than it would if you cooked it in a pan, given the same energy input. But that doesn’t make humidity a critical parameter, it makes it a supporting parameter. The critical parameter is the rapid transfer of energy into the product to denature the proteins of the pathogens, rendering them non-viable (killing them). You measure this energy transfer by using internal product temperature monitoring devices.  

The entire paradigm of “chamber” temperature and “chamber” humidity now falls on a very niche part of the industry (who implement and know their process — and make some great products!). It doesn’t apply to the vast majority of the industry making jerky or other shelf-stable products.

HACCP is about analyzing for hazards, not creating a plan and then making products. Know your process and apply your controls, and you’ll be in great shape.

However, unless you want to spend a lot of time arguing with regulators, point to the sentence in the 1999 version of Appendix A, which allows you to rely on a sealed oven during cooking as the evidence of how you deal with heat transfer. I promise you that it will be a lot less frustrating!

 Andrew Lorenz, president, We R Food Safety!, andrew@werfoodsafety.com

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Meat quality starts on the farm … and takes hard work!

Hi, my name is April Wolf. I have been with We R Food Safety! for almost six years. I started as a data input specialist, then moved on to new client management; now I am mostly involved in the accounting side of things.

My background is not food safety. However, my husband is a herd manager for a 2,000-plus dairy farm, my kids show animals for our 4-H club and we have our own show cattle business, Pure Pride Show Cattle, so I know the hard work and dedication it takes to produce cattle at the top of the line. My husband, Deric, is the brains of the operation, as the cattle business is his passion. Mating, diet rations, cattle comfort and care — this is what he does (and he does it all) to produce the best quality cattle. I am simply along for the ride and to help in the barn. 

I have come a long way from the girl that did not grow up on a farm. Who knew cattle needed baths, haircuts, manicures and hair drying? Or a cup of this grain, not that grain — and not just hay? How about straw, sand or sawdust for bedding, not just the ground? Take them for walks? That definitely sounds silly, but it really is what our show cattle business is about.

Our heifers get different bedding depending on the weather. They have special diets after they are weaned from milk to help their bodies develop in certain ways so when they are on the show floor, they show the best. Our heifers get washed (baths), clipped (haircuts), hoof trimming (manicures) and blow outs (hair drying) during show season and picture days. Yes … they get professional pictures taken. And yes, they are put on halters and taken for walks. Not like a dog on a leash, but they are walked in the yard so they get comfortable outside of the barn and learn how to walk and set up on a halter for show days. It really all circles back to cow care and comfort so they can be the best of their breed.

My three boys show beef and swine for 4-H, and this is the exact process they follow with their show animals. Some people think it is crazy, and I did too, when I first met Deric. But these same animals shown at the fairs are purchased there and processed at local slaughter businesses, after which they fill up your freezer and taste delicious because they had excellent care during their lives.

— April Wolf, april.wolf@werfoodsafety.com

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

File loading ... loading ... the cost of buying cheap computers, unfit for their roles

Think about your typical workday. Do you work with spreadsheets a lot? How about doing research on Web sites? Do you work with databases? How about PDF files? How do your employees use their computers?

“Back in the day” (truthfully, not that far back … think just 25 to 30 years), computer access may have been something that many people in a company didn’t have — depending on the industry, of course. Today, nearly everyone works on a computer for part of their job — heck, we carry computers with us everywhere we go! Computers have become a necessary tool for business.

One thing that always strikes me as funny, however: Although most of us consider computers to be important tools, many still purchase them as though they were a commodity asset or an afterthought. Small operators typically run down to Walmart or over to Best Buy and pick up the cheapest one they can find. Larger companies try to strike a deal on volume. In both cases, though, rarely has anyone considered the tasks the computer will perform and purchased appropriate systems. Is it a lack of knowledge or time?

We R Food Safety! is a typical small company, one in which our people wear a lot of different hats. Yet, we all have bedrock responsibilities around which we try to offer the proper tools. To be efficient and successful, each employee — whether a programmer, consultant, sales representative, office staff, etc. — needs the right computer with appropriate power and software.

Let’s take the programming team for example. When we first started the company, we fell into the trap many new companies fall into and purchased the cheapest computers we could, in order to save money. Our programmers compiled code about three times a day, each time taking 20 minutes, and rendering the low-power processing system unusable during that time. For approximately 60 total minutes each day, they couldn’t do anything else on the computer because it was compiling code.

One day, I had brought in my home computer because my laptop had broken, and we ended up compiling code on that more powerful system. It took less than two minutes to compile, and the computer was strong enough to handle me doing other work at the same time. By purchasing and using the cheaper computing alternative, we lost led to a monthly loss of approximately $800.00 (assuming four weeks in a month at a $40/hour rate). Suffice to say, we went out and bought better systems for approximately $1,200, which paid for themselves in approximately six weeks. Those units lasted approximately three years before being replaced by even better systems over the three-year lifespan of primary use, each unit saved approximately $30,000 in lost productivity. But this is an extreme example.

Here’s another example of how idle time adds up. Our office team processes a lot of spreadsheets. Some of these spreadsheets are quite large: Opening, saving, and closing them takes a fair amount of computer processor resources. I was curious, so I did a very unscientific study comparing an Intel Core i3 unit to an Intel Core i7 unit — neither one considered by me to be top-of-the-line computers. The i3 cost approximately $399, and the i7 approximately $899.

The i7 can open my business projections spreadsheet in less than two seconds; the i3 took eight seconds. That six-second difference piled up over a day’s worth of opening similar spreadsheets balloons to approximately four minutes a day of lost time for spreadsheets alone. Again, while not scientific by any means, I then tried to extrapolate how much additional time I would lose over the course of a day using the i3 vs. the i7 on other files, and I figured I’d lose approximately 10 minutes per day. I then attempted to estimate the time lost opening Microsoft Outlook, rendering Web pages, etc., and came up with a rough total of 20 minutes per day waiting on the slower CPU. That further equates to roughly 6.5 hours per month of lost productivity, or about seven months to recoup my investment in the i7. Over a roughly three-year lifespan, the i7 would save $3,770 in lost productivity.

So, which benchmarks should you use to determine the right computer for the right job? We have found that the i3 is a great single-task unit, used strictly as a testing unit for a probe solution we have developed. i5 units are decent for run-of-the-mill tasks like basic reception work or research online. For any heavier workload beyond those tasks, we use the basic i7. Note, we are performing tasks on some AMD units, but the office jury is still out on them. Although thin clients and remote desktops are great for controlling security, they are costing you in productivity.

The key to any of this is pinpointing the tasks you want the new computer to perform, and then investing in the best one for the job. You don’t ask your sales team to make calls in a bus or tractor trailer, and by the same token, you don’t ship product in a Corvette.

More apropos, you wouldn’t negatively impact your processing operation by short-changing your investment or using technology ill-equipped to handle the task at hand.

Don’t do it with your back-of-the-house computing systems either.

— Andrew Lorenz, president, We R Food Safety!




Monday, February 15, 2021

Seek out uncomfortable challenges, solve them and succeed

As this is my first blog post — and I’m one of the newest members of the We R Food Safety! team — allow me to introduce myself! My name is Sam Bibbs, and I’m going to tell you, becoming a member of this team has challenged me in ways I did not expect! However, it also has given me countless opportunities already.

Last May, I put an immense amount of pressure on myself to graduate with a job offer. My dream always was to work for a food company on its research and development (R&D) team. I found thrilling the idea of seeing a product I created on the shelf at the store. In most cases, however, the COVID-19 pandemic presented too many unknowns in the forecast for food companies to add to their R&D teams.

I was devastated but pressed on in my search, ultimately accepting a job as a microbiology lab technician in New Ulm, Minn., near my family, and in a field I enjoyed during my college courses. I quickly learned a variety of testing methods and knew what to expect from my days; so the job became comfortable, but to the point that I did not feel challenged or as if I were using my talents to their fullest extent.

I began looking for a bigger challenge and stumbled upon a Food Safety Consultant position here at We R Food Safety! As the company is growing quickly, I had to also move quickly. It would be an understatement to say that the thought of packing up my life, moving away from my family again, and starting over at a new job made me uncomfortable.

But many of us likely have heard this from someone before — and for me, it was one of my high school teachers: If something does not make you uncomfortable, then it is not challenging you. I made the move to We R Food Safety!, and so far, I think this was the right decision.

Food processors should take my example as a strong reminder of that ages-old advice. Too often it becomes easy for a business to stay comfortable and do what works now, not seeing the future and what could be changed, uncomfortable as it might seem. That might mean adding a product or equipment or employee to your plant. It may not be necessary to succeed now, and it might be met with opposition in the moment, often in the form of another old adage: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

However, without constant assessment and adaptation, you will fall behind — especially in the food industry, where there are new regulations and changes seemingly every day.

The pandemic and all that it brought shows how essential it is for processors and businesses of all types to stay aware and stay on their toes. Those who could not easily adapt to unprecedented changes fell behind and often fell apart. Those who looked ahead and then made necessary and often uncomfortable changes — stayed ahead and saw record sales.

When times are great and companies are comfortably cruising along, unchallenged, this can be a fun industry in which to work. During crazy times such as these, it can still be fun, but that requires flexibility to address challenges in ways that might make your business uncomfortable.

— Sam Bibbs, Food Safety Consultant, sam@werfoodsafety.com

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Beyond Meat’s ambitions have always been beyond reality

Some years ago, I spoke with the owner of the company that makes the Beyond Burger, and I asked him whom the target audience was for his product. Although I cannot remember his exact words, it truly can be summarized really easily in one word. He said, basically, “everyone” is the target audience for the Beyond Burger.

Now, I personally enjoy a big personality, so I just let that response ride, no problem. I can’t fault a person who truly believes in his product and his mission — heck, anybody would have to in order to dedicate their life to such a mission. It was the next statement, though, that stunned me.

Again, the exact words escape me after so many years — and because I was focused on keeping control of my eyes, which were trying desperately to roll — but he followed up by saying he wanted to take over the meat industry. See, there go my eyes, rolling again at that sort of ambition, which is, frankly, Napoleonic.

My background is food safety and security. I am a Midwesterner, which I like to think means I am a little more practical than our less-fortunate coastal cousins. A very important and practical part of food security is being able to obtain food (often, you hear about “food insecurity” in the news). Food security can take on many forms. I can raise and slaughter livestock. I can also grab my compound bow, head out to the stand and pull down a year supply of venison. That’s good ol’ traditional food security that people in heavily urban and suburban locales cannot possibly obtain, let alone understand. Our monstrous, efficient food supply chain makes it possible for many people to experience food security without raising or hunting for animals. The meat industry supplies enough product to meet that demand without blinking an eye.

Could everyone hunt for their meat or raise their meat in their backyard? Certainly not to the extent of the supply needed today — and that further illustrates why Beyond Burger’s desire to take over the meat industry is beyond reality. You see, I can sustain my own demand for animal protein easily enough, but not even I can raise a field of yellow peas, process them and run them through a half-million-dollar extruder the size of a Greyhound bus if I wanted a Beyond Burger. Are they planning to put a pea field in every yard or just make us dependent on the company and its pea producers? Even if I had a bazillion acres at my disposal here in the Midwest, the climate kind of gets in the way of those Napoleonic dreams. And that doesn’t even get me started on the environmental reasons why Beyond wants to take over the meat industry. My eyes are rolling again. This Missouri girl is not falling for it.

Now, I’ll say this: The Beyond Burger is not bad. They are better after a couple of stiff drinks and some mood lighting. Also, I cannot blame a guy for having big dreams. That is one of the best things about being an American. But the other thing that’s great about being an American is the fact that this Missouri girl can look at reality and tell him he can kiss her 100%-Vegan grits.

He will take over the meat industry when pigs fly.

— Martha Gore, Food Safety Consultant, martha@werfoodsafety.com

Monday, February 1, 2021

The challenges of beef production/processing from the eyes of a family farmer

Hello, my name is Nancee Emmerich, and I am relatively new to the We R Food Safety! team, having started in November as Food Safety and Quality Program Coordinator. My business career has revolved around customer service and client relations, but my life skills have been honed by helping my husband, Steve, with the ownership and operation of our Wisconsin family farm. In my contribution to this blog, I’d like to tell you about our family farm and how the daily focus on details, quality assurance and food safety parallel the vision and mission at We R Food Safety. I may not always write about the farm, but I hope the insights I can bring to you from the producer side of the equation will help you perform better in your business.

Steve Emmerich (Nancee's husband) displays a small 
gold calf gift that was sent to the family by a visitor 
from India who was impressed with the cattle operation 
at Emmerich Family Farms.
Emmerich Family Farms, Inc. was founded in 1873 by my husband’s great-great-great-grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Germany, like so many in this area of central Wisconsin. Our youngest son is the 6th generation of Emmerichs who learned many life lessons on the farm and as a member of our local 4-H club by showing steers and goats at the county fair.

Through the years, our farm has evolved from a dairy farm to a significantly diversified operation featuring a 500-head cattle feedlot, a purebred Angus herd, corn and soybean acreage and also a maple syrup sugar bush with 5,000 trees.

Of course, animal welfare and quality assurance are crucial to our operation and ultimately the meat and food we produce. For us, food safety begins on the farm with proper animal-welfare practices. We keep our animals clean and calm, and always use veterinarian-prescribed vaccinations and treatments; and we administer these products at the correct sites on the animal.

Once the animals are ready for processing, however, we face additional challenges. Finding custom-processing plants — let alone facilities that do a high-quality job we can trust — to handle our direct-to-consumer beef sales is a big challenge, because a very large number of custom processors have gone out of business or been acquired in the last five years. As a result, we currently have to schedule animals for harvest at least 12 to 18 months in advance.

The maple syrup processing operation at Emmerich Family Farms.
There are always challenges to be met on the farm. High capital and labor costs, market uncertainty and low profit margins along with unpredictable weather all add up to a high-risk adventure. But it is an adventure that we love!

By paying attention to the details and always striving for the highest quality product, whether it be market steers or maple syrup, we hope to sustain the farm for the next generation.

— Nancee Emmerich, Food Safety and Quality Program Coordinator, nancee@werfoodsafety.com

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Sundae surprise: How a puppy has tested my trust in certain brands

This weekend, I had my own personal revelation about my inherent trust in the safety of the U.S. food supply, and the very real feelings and beliefs that come from that trust being challenged. This epic story revolves not around the humans living in our house and their food, but instead around our beloved family dog, Sundae.

Sundae at roughly five months old
Sundae just turned eight months old on Jan. 25. We rescued him from an organization when he was just two months old, back in August. Sundae has been your typical nose-oriented puppy: sniffing around, rambunctious, curious, vocal, stubborn, and super-quick at picking things up, running away from us and eating them. Sundae has been on a figurative (and frequently literal) short leash because of his puppy mischievousness.

Last Thursday evening, Sundae started to show signs of lethargy and his eyelids looked a little puffy — I thought he was having a small allergic episode to a new treat I gave him that morning (more on that below) or maybe was developing a “doggie cold,” so I began monitoring him. His condition was worsening, so I took him to our veterinarian Saturday morning. By then, he was drooling and shivering a bit, and vomited at the vet’s office. The vet took a blood test, and then told me Sundae needed to go to the emergency vet’s office, as his liver enzyme levels were as much as nine times higher than they should have been.

After a stressful weekend with Sundae hospitalized (made worse by COVID preventing us from being able to see him), I can tell you that Sundae is much better today; his liver values have crept back down; and we will be able to bring him home today. He’ll still be working whatever it is out of his system, but we’ve at least ruled out a foreign body and much more serious diseases.

Some of you smart readers will have already figured out where I’m going with this. Sundae’s ordeal has basically been settled to: “It was something he ate.” That’s where my trust has been tested, and I have responded in what I would call a “typical consumer” fashion.

I didn’t suspect his dog food, made by a major-brand manufacturer. My default belief was, “I will check, but I bet it isn’t the food. They’re a legacy company with a good record.” Even the vet said to me what I was thinking: That manufacturer does a great job and has a great, clean history, but let’s check just in case. All that based on the brand alone.

We moved to the treats, focused on one particular bag of treats, because it was the only new type of treat he’d received in the last month or two. The brand? Don’t know that brand from Adam — I’d never heard of it, and I’d only bought the treats because Sundae seemed to love them during our puppy training sessions weeks ago.

I dug around for recall information, and so did the vet, and we didn’t see anything.

On request from my colleague here at We R Food Safety!, I sent photos of the packaging and treats to him, and he had issues with the labeling, description of the treats, and the actual formulation of the treats as well. Upon looking at the package myself, I was able to find some confusing wording, some misleading phrases and such — things that I didn’t notice when I bought them because I trusted the store that sold them to me.

And here’s the revelation. Despite 15 years around this industry, I’ve reacted as a standard consumer might. Here are some “typical” feelings and beliefs I’ve gone through this weekend:

  1. I trust the heck out of that major international dog food brand, because I’ve never had or heard of an issue with them before.
  2. I don’t know that treat manufacturer’s brand, so I suspect them as the issue, since they’re the newest experience I’ve had.
  3. I had doubts about the actual treats, so now I’m going to take it out on that entire treat segment for the potential outcome of one experience.
  4. I also had doubts about the big-box retailer who sold me those treats, and I will likely avoid shopping at that big-box retailer for the time being, whenever possible.
  5. Even if I should be able to somehow prove that Sundae maybe picked up a wayward pill or piece of chocolate or sugar-free gum, I’m still down on those treats and that brand. The damage is done and will be difficult to repair.

Are these feelings and beliefs fair? Nope, many of them likely are not.

However, they are REAL, and they are likely a very good example of what any consumer goes through when their inherent trust is challenged or broken.

Our food supply is the safest in the world because of processors and producers like you.  You legitimately care and take the time to keep it safe. Whether you’re a big, multi-national brand or a small-town shop, you have dedicated customers who trust you and your brand. Don’t ever do anything to jeopardize that trust!

I recommend that you take it a step further and let your customers know what you are doing around food safety that helps assure them and their families that you are selling them safe and wholesome food.

While you may not have a lot of time on your schedule to do these types of things it is critical to make time to communicate with your customers about how you are keeping them safe.  If you don’t, you may find yourself in a spot where you have nothing but free time because you have a shuttered business.

— Andy Hanacek, vice president of Communications, andyh@werfoodsafety.com

Monday, January 18, 2021

Train properly, document thoroughly to capitalize on prime opportunities

Flexibility: It’s the primary aspect of small businesses that keeps them relevant through difficult periods, such as the one we are attempting to emerge from now (COVID-19). The ability of small meat processors to move quickly to meet specific consumer demands makes them indispensable. The ability to quickly adjust pro
ducts or processes to accommodate the consumer is truly a premium-value asset that opens opportunities and can benefit the bottom line.

Large, multi-state supply chains often have issues getting solutions quickly to the final consumer. As most small slaughter facilities have already seen, production demand for halves and quarters of beef and hogs has skyrocketed as consumers have come directly to their shops and storefronts. While the increase in production demand has been an excellent opportunity for the bottom line, it’s important to note that it can, and often does, lead to other stresses.  

When adding production, we need to examine closely the changes we make to the process to be sure we are following the proper procedures and food safety protocol.  This ensures safety of the product and that we don’t create additional problems further down the line.

Stresses on employees, processes and facilities add up. The stress of employees who are now working overtime and the true ability of production to adjust to these changes can affect the long-term health of the organization. Some processors might need to consider hiring a contractor for cleaning and sanitation or limiting offerings for a period of time in order to handle the changes. Other processors may have a good core team to fight through the transitional period — a team that will then become essential for company growth after the stresses are relieved.

In tough times like these, you may need the help to get things done, and the crucial thing to remember is that time needs to be taken to train properly.  No matter how quickly you feel you need to move to take advantage of the new opportunity, you must keep that training process slow and steady, in order to be sure new team members understand the consequences of not following your processes and procedures, particularly when it comes to  food safety and hygiene, along with traceability. 

The last thing a processor wants is a recall or required additional handling. All these things cost money, which new hires may say they understand, but you must be sure they do. Ask them to repeat the consequences in their own words, giving you insight into any loss in translation between what you are saying and what they are hearing.

Poor training costs you money and business, and your employees their jobs, if you lose your business. Good training does not have to threaten or frighten them, but instead must help them understand the real-world consequences of not following protocols and endangering consumers’ lives. The costs of taking your time and training properly and thoroughly are easily absorbed into the efficiency of the process over time. 

Changes to your process or products also must be reflected in your HACCP plan, where applicable. Get input from your operators and employees to make sure the changes don’t lead to unintended consequences on other parts of the process or business. Traceability, sanitation and food safety issues could arise. 

Finally, make sure to document any changes so you do not have issues with food safety or regulatory compliance. 

With the proper approach to training and documentation — two items small processors can be particularly nimble on, given the size of their workforce — there’s no reason small processors shouldn’t be able to capitalize on any opportunity consumers throw their way.

— Matthew Bayer, sales representative, mattb@efspol.com

Friday, January 8, 2021

Vilsack nomination bad news for meat industry

It is strange to be writing about politics on a food safety blog, but that is the world we are in right now.

With the announcement in December that Tom Vilsack would be President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, many of us with first-hand knowledge of how he works were dismayed. Vilsack, as you likely know, served in the same role for eight years during Barack Obama’s two terms as President.

"USDA building" by brittreints is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Vilsack represents the “safe” choice in terms of party politics: Selecting either of the other two candidates for the position would have caused fighting within the Democratic party. So, President-elect Biden decided to avoid that conflict and nominated Vilsack, despite wide-ranging opposition to his selection from a variety of groups and individuals.

The grapevine talk says Vilsack was very good at raising money for the administration and will return to doing that again. Real-world history displays incidents few can forget: how he fired Shirley Sherrod; and a disdain for minorities, and small farmers and agriculture-related businesses that he was never able to hide. That disdain spilled over into FSIS rulemaking as well, with little to no consideration taken for the impacts on small and medium businesses.

The colossal disappearance of small plants during his last tenure set the industry up with a very weak fortress to use in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year. This time around, small processors should anticipate more of the same: a push for excessive regulation and oversight, which in turn will result in further erosion of their population.

Large processors will have a different experience with Vilsack in charge — if not an equally uncomfortable one. Processors “with money” should expect to see the FSIS undersecretary — with FSIS personnel in tow — knocking on their doors to solicit donations to the party at his behest. We can also expect him to negotiate settlements with the unions, who in turn make large donations to the party, and so forth. 

The key for everyone at this point is safety in numbers. I am recommending to all our clients that they become members of an applicable, national trade organization. It is going to be critical for everyone that our voices be heard. We R Food Safety! has been active in working with the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) and will continue to support AAMP; additionally, I have directed our team to reach out and become more involved with other trade organization partners as well. The goal is to strengthen and enhance proactive dialog with those in Washington. 

We R Food Safety! is not a lobbying group, and I don’t intend for us ever to become one. Nevertheless, we are going to take a much more active approach in supporting those that are working directly in Washington as a result of this Cabinet nomination.

During Vilsack’s first stint as Secretary of Agriculture, we did see evidence that he dislikes negative press intensely, as he offered to rehire Sherrod after the public outcry. With that in mind, while we hope we don’t have only negativity to discuss through Vilsack’s tenure, my team of experts and I will continue to write and advise on food safety through a variety of publications and outlets, with the goal of making sure that what comes out of Washington supports the industry and the American consumer.

Andrew Lorenz, president, andrew@werfoodsafety.com

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

From the entire We R Food Safety! team to you and yours, have a relaxing, happy Christmas extended weekend! Here's hoping you're all finding time to wind down and enjoy the holiday despite the insanity that has been the past year. And here's hoping that you're not missing many, if any, of those you love this holiday.

Happy Holidays to you all!

Monday, December 21, 2020

Holiday demand, cooling deviations and the snowball effect

As families finish their Christmas shopping this week, one item on their list is likely something for their table. In previous years, before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these families may have gone to their local supermarket to find the holiday ham, turkey, or roast that would become the center of their Christmas traditions. This year, with small businesses being among those hardest hit by the financial repercussions of the pandemic, consumers have given new life to the ‘shop local’ movement. 

"Christmas hams display - Woolworths QV" by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Rather than picking up their celebration’s main course at the nearest chain grocery store, consumers are choosing to support their neighborhood businesses. With demand in an upswing, many of our smaller clients are asking: How do we safely produce all this product before the holidays?

Following these tips will help processors avoid cooling deviations — and better deal with those that occur — during the high-volume period before the holidays. Consumer trends have changed — the pandemic has brought many shoppers to the local, small processor’s doors for the first time. Supplying them with a safe and delicious Christmas dinner could keep them coming back well after the pandemic is over.

One significant issue we see leading up to the holidays most years is an inability to keep product cold. While trying to fulfill the additional demand, businesses may feel pressured to overload their refrigerated storage areas. Unfortunately, cramming all that product in the coolers and freezers limits air flow in those spaces and raises the overall temperature. When this occurs, “Fully Cooked Not Shelf Stable” and “Heat Treated Not Fully Cooked Not Shelf Stable” product is unable to cool per the FSIS Appendix B Stabilization Guideline parameters, resulting in a cooling deviation.

Cooling deviations not only represent a potential food-safety hazard, they also typically snowball into further hardships for the processor. Deviated product likely will be placed on hold pending pathogen modeling, test results or other forms of analysis. This can last multiple days, during which the product cannot be further processed or sold. This slows inventory turnover rates and may force changes to the processing schedule, since cooler space is occupied by product that was originally intended to be sold/shipped. Once the snowball begins rolling down the hill, it becomes difficult for the processor to meet its processing goals.

Thankfully there are a few tricks that businesses can employ to keep their product cold and still take advantage of the uptick in holiday demand! First, as mentioned previously, load coolers and freezers only with the appropriate amount of product. Keep product well-spaced so that cold air can move throughout the refrigerated area easily. If refrigerated storage space is a limited resource within a facility, management may decide to utilize offsite refrigeration, such as refrigerated trucks or other close by processing facilities.

Second, anticipate that cooling deviations may increase during this season and take preventive measures to help to resolve deviations quickly. Whenever I am faced with analyzing a cooling deviation, I cross my fingers that there is an abundance of data. Automated temperature probes are a great way to collect large quantities of data, and I suggest that processors use them to monitor both the internal temperature of the product and the temperature of the refrigerated space. All this data helps processors be more confident that their decision to either test, recook, throw away, sell, etc., is the right one.

"Christmas Ham" by nforcr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Finally, processors can mitigate losses by segregating deviated product from non-deviated product immediately. By separating these batches, the facility can continue to fabricate, package and sell product that is safe for human consumption, and keep only possibly unsafe product on hold. This keeps the processing schedule on track so that there is minimal time loss caused by the deviation.

— Molly Linden, Food Safety Consultant, molly@werfoodsafety.com