The headlines — “Horse Meat Scandal Rocks the EU” or “Feds Indict Four in Salmonella Outbreak” — demonstrate it clearly: Food safety and quality issues and the responses to them are at an all-time high.

Many people, including those involved in food production, farming, processing and manufacturing are asking themselves, “Why now?”

All one has to do is follow the history of foodborne illness and regulatory investigations to know that part of the current environment is a result of the ability to:

  • rapidly identify pathogenic bacteria in food products utilizing new innovative laboratory methods and genetic attribution,
  • rapidly transmit and disseminate investigative information across a very wide network; locally, nationally and internationally.

That network is a strong one, consisting of advocacy groups who are watching the food sector closely and taking actions to create significant changes in regulations and the accountability of food-production companies and individuals.

When you consider all of these things, it becomes obvious that there are many variables coming together at the same time, creating significant changes for those involved in food production at all levels; from farm to fork, as the saying goes, and from the CEO to the hourly production employees.

Over the past 20 years, technological advances coupled with better infrastructure for disease monitoring, reporting and investigation have stimulated a revolution in public-health initiatives. The upside is that this process and paradigm shift has created a number of benefits, including:

  • better public-health awareness
  • safer food products
  • a more structured regulatory environment focused on the issues
  • increased worldwide food consumption and distribution
  • and jobs — lots and lots of jobs!

There are a wide variety of companies involved in food production and processing, and along with that a wide variety of individuals employed in these processes. Given the current challenges — economic, legal and regulatory — it seems that there are monumental challenges to tackle and solve in order to stay competitive.


The culture of quality and food safety

Over the years companies have embraced quality control and quality assurance as a necessary evil, in many cases, just to keep up with the required programs, policies and documentation. It goes without saying that some companies are better than others and have a far more progressive approach to quality and food safety within their organizations.

However, there are many companies that continue to approach food safety and regulatory responsibilities using an approach that has been discounted since the 1980s: the craft concept. This concept relies on the delegation of the quality functions to a department. In this structure there is a trained subject-matter expert, who delegates much of the managing of quality to the craftsmen, subject to inspection by said trained expert.

This approach has been shown to progressively remove upper management from managing for quality. The results, at times, have produced profound negative effects on quality, including product performance falling short of customer expectations and the associated costs of poor quality. All these failures translate to poor economic performance.

Progressive food-manufacturing companies, however, are those that place quality and food safety at the top of their priorities. The responsibility for managing these issues is assigned to the upper managers of the organization. This is an approach that parallels the way companies manage for finance. They utilize a “trilogy” approach — planning, controlling and improving. This style is referred to as a Companywide Quality Management system.

This type of approach has served companies well, and case histories of those successes include some of the most respected manufacturing organizations in the world — Xerox, Ford Motor Co., IBM, Westinghouse, Hewlett Packard and Jack in the Box are all still in business today because they embraced the Companywide Quality Management system approach. Quality became “Job One” for Ford and “Leadership through Quality” for Xerox.

These companies transformed themselves and focused on customer satisfaction, regulatory compliance and continuous improvement through knowledge and innovation. They utilize metrics in every facet of their organizations to drive improvements, thus driving customer satisfaction and improving their economic performance. As stated by the Strategic Planning Institute, “ One factor above all others — quality — drives market share, and when superior quality and large market share are both present, profitability is virtually guaranteed” .

Given that analysis, why are companies not embracing this approach and the opportunities that go along with it: a long term, viable, profitable and progressive company?

The answer to this question lies in the structure and culture of the organization. Organizational culture is one of the most overlooked issues facing any company trying to be competitive and successful in the marketplace today. Organizational culture is defined as “the collective behavior of humans who are part of an organization and the meanings that the people attach to their actions.”

Organizational cultures affect the way people interact within the organization, and with stakeholders, customers and clients. Organizational culture can and does have both positive and negative impacts on a company.

Organizations should strive to create a healthy organizational culture. This approach focuses on improved quality and increased productivity, which enhances customer satisfaction and reduces counterproductive behaviors and employee turnover. There are many factors that affect organizational culture including:

  • External forces in the marketplace
  • The industry in which the company operates
  • The size and complexity of the business processes
  • The size and complexity of the workforce
  • The structure and functions of assigned responsibilities
  • The history and ownership of the company


    Also, there are a variety of characteristics which describe a healthy organization structure including :

  • Acceptance and appreciation for diversity
  • Regard for and fair treatment of each employee, as well as respect for each employee’s contribution to the company
  • Employee pride and enthusiasm for the organization and the work performed
  • Equal opportunity for each employee to realize their full potential within the company
  • Strong communication with all employees regarding policies and company issues
  • Strong company leaders with a strong sense of direction and purpose
  • Ability to compete in industry innovation and customer service, as well as price
  • Lower-than-average turnover rates (perpetuated by a healthy culture)
  • Investment in learning, training, and employee knowledge

Organizations with these culture types have been proven to perform better than those with non-adaptive cultures. These companies embrace changes and strive to create an environment where employees work together in teams, rather than as individuals. Teams and individuals are encouraged to be in communication with other employees, other teams and upper management continuously.

These companies encourage employee growth and involvement, which creates a positive work environment. The results are higher morale, increased personal motivation and job satisfaction, and better employee communication and teamwork. The benefits are better service and product quality, and enhanced sales growth. This type of an organizational culture truly supports better economic performance and the potential for long-term successful business operations.

When organizations do not possess a healthy organizational culture it may be necessary to change the culture in order to reduce negative impacts and achieve company goals and objectives. This process can be a daunting task because it may require a complete shift in the company’s focus. However, when a company has deteriorating performance and an unhealthy work environment, it is time for a cultural shift in order for the company to survive and succeed.


Changing culture

Changing organizational culture may mean changing the organizational chart. This approach puts the customer at the top of an inverted chart, followed by front line supervisors and employees. These are the people who actually deliver quality to the customer!

This approach alters the organizational leaders’ roles but does not alter their authority. The job then revolves around facilitating and coaching, with a focus on removing barriers that prevent the front line supervisors and employees from doing their jobs. The roles of middle managers and other top managers are the same as the leader. Quality and food safety now become the responsibility of all company employees, and the duties are not assigned to a department. This approach has been used successfully in many organizations.

There are other approaches and each company must assess where they are before they can develop a systematic approach to improvements. The responsibility of performing this assessment should be done at the very top. However, if it doesn’t happen at the top, then the department and the individual assigned responsibility for quality and food safety must take on the task.

There are many highly trained, competent individuals who have been technically trained to manage quality and food safety. There is one thing in common among all of those individuals: They understand they cannot manage quality and food safety within a department.

To be successful in the food industry you have to have everyone focused on these as the top priorities. The challenge is how you use company culture to actually get it done.