Listeria and the controlling cavalry on the shop floor

The food safety scenario in South Africa has, by virtue of the sad consequences of the listeria outbreak, been given a violent shake-up. While much of the attention has been focussed on the companies potentially implicated it may also be helpful to consider the role played by the unseen cavalry which safeguards against such occurrences.

These role players are myriad in any production system and range from senior management to the person cleaning the floor. Every single employee in any food production and distribution facility has a role to play in ensuring the safety chain. More particularly, a critical part of these teams are the food scientists and technologists that we train here at CPUT and are employed by companies. They are key to implementing, managing and conducting internal audits of such systems. Obviously there are other auditing and verification layers but these staff members are where the rubber hits the road.

On a personal level, during my teaching career, I had always advised students about the fact that they are, in essence, the guardians of public health by ensuring that safe, nutritious food enters the consumption chain. The present disaster, for that is what it is, thus serves to illustrate this point. However, notwithstanding the crucial role played by such staff, they are sometimes not rewarded accordingly. My understanding of value for money in terms of a salary is that you are paid based on the risks that presents itself in meeting your job requirements. Ensuring such safety practices in this environment does carry many risks, with failure leading ultimately to that we are reading about today.

When engaging in casual or formal talks with many different role players, it does not seem as if this is always taken into account, and recognized as such, by all companies, both large and small. In fact, in instances, the quality management and control teams are sometimes deemed a necessary nuisance and are treated as such. Similarly with salaries paid. Young food technology graduates are place in positions with a large responsibility at minimal salaries to appease the gods of food safety while minimizing the payroll. On occasion, based on adverts I see and feedback from alumni, in some smaller companies especially, employees are kept on a short-term contract immediately prior to audits to fix a system and then dispensed with soon after the audit. And one could expand on this in detail were there space for it.

I have two problems with this:
a. By devaluing the crucial role played by such persons based on an inappropriate salary certainly has implications for food safety. The incumbent feels this lack of appreciation of their role and it may, especially for younger personnel, lead to stress and demoralization. This in turn could lead to shoddy workmanship.
b. Furthermore, fellow staff may also view the position of such an incumbent as being of lower value, concomitantly affecting adherence to standard operating procedures.

We need to ensure that personnel employed in such quality assurance and control positions must be made to feel valued, encouraging scrupulous attention to food safety detail. The reward is a better internal food safety system and better compliance with good manufacturing practice.

Furthermore, some form of certification or accreditation is needed to place additional value on such positions and qualifications of the personnel involved. This needs to go beyond the tertiary qualifications needed by such personnel, akin to registration of engineers with the Engineering Council of South Africa. One avenue that may be followed, but is not yet valued by the food industry, is registration with the South African Council of Natural Scientific Professions.

In terms of the bigger picture, a valued and happy workforce will inevitably lead to better outputs, including that of food safety. Recognize your personnel involved in this crucial role or else you may have to ‘fess up one day, heaven forbid!

Larry Dolley
Head of Department: Food Technology at CPUT

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