The food industry is faced with a number of hygienic challenges. A lot could go wrong with such a sensitive product and nowadays complaints are heard easily and spread quickly. Quality assurance managers are tasked with the mission of keeping everything up to standard when it comes to creating the safest food products.
Seth, a quality assurance manager in a nationally known food factory, has agreed to meet with us and share his experiences from over 20 years in the field. He’s a gruff older gentleman, who’s overseen a crisis or two in his time and lived to tell the tale.
“Infections are the scariest things for factories when it comes to hygiene,” says Seth at the beginning of our conversation. “Tools can be infected, processes could be done incorrectly, the plumbing could be damaged, the equipment could have not been cleaned well, the proper temperature could be disrupted – there is so much that could go wrong.” Seth heaves a knowing sigh. This is clearly not a profession for the faint-hearted.
What do food factories do today to ensure a high level of hygiene inside their facilities?
“Well, that depends on each factory,” Seth explains. “There’s a pretty big consensus on washing hands before entering the workspace and we’re trying to make sure employees disinfect their hands throughout the workday.”
“There’s also been great advancement in the automation field, in an attempt to minimize contact with human hands so the food doesn’t get infected. Don’t get me wrong,” Seth laughs, “There are still opportunities for employees to handle the food and get it infected, but we try to involve as much machinery as we can to avoid it.”
“Using the right equipment is a major part of a functional food factory.” Seth frowns, listing on his withered fingers, “The right equipment should be used to keep the food at the right temperature, checking the equipment regularly needs to be standard protocol, and also buying your produce from suppliers you trust and know have been storing it correctly before it got here.”
What happens when a factory receives a report about unclean foods?
“The customer comes first – you have to give each customer an answer and help them feel seen and understood. Afterward, most factories start an investigation. Not every complaint warrants an investigation though,” Seth laughs shortly. “If one out of one million products came out slightly off, we won’t do too much about it.”
“But if it’s a severe complaint, it really only takes one.”
“I heard about a food factory that got complaints about the taste of petrol in their food. You know how the media is these days – it’s almost like they’re craving screw-ups just like that one. In the investigation, they realized that gas stations that sold their product would store it in a storage room, on the floor, where petrol would sometimes leak to. It leaked through the packaging and contaminated the food. That’s a prime example of a human error that caused a food factory a whole lot of trouble. If my factory got one complaint like that – it would be extremely urgent to deal with it. Of course, every customer is important to us, and every complaint is important, but if something turned toxic we have to deal with it right away.”
What’s your factory’s weak spot, hygiene wise?
“Well,” Seth purses his lips and rubs his stubble. “You know, I would say where our employees physically touch the product. So while weighing it in, and delivering it.”
Do your employees wash their hands well? Is there a way to make sure that they do?
“I think that they try to wash their hands as much as they should. There are work procedures, and it’s every manager’s job to make sure that they are upheld by their staff. The hygiene procedures are there for a reason, and everyone understands that. It’s to keep them safe and to keep the product safe.”
What can cause employees not to wash their hands as well or as many times as they should?
“We disinfect our hands with quite an abrasive reagent. I think that over time it can really hurt their hands and make it harder for them to stick with it. I would say that comfort is one of the major reasons. Either they’re lazy and don’t want to “waste time” on disinfecting their hands, or they are uncomfortable with the reagent we use, and so on. So yeah, it’s a matter of comfort for them.
What is a food factory stakeholder worried about, hygiene-wise?
“A factory owner doesn’t want any screw-ups,” Seth says simply. “They would want a sellable product, they don’t want to create negative media attention around their brand. You know, they just want to keep steadily producing good, safe products.”
Tell us a bit about the kind of quality assurance manager we can learn from or look up to.
Seth finally smiles wide, and his eyes twinkle, the skin around them crinkling. “Someone who cares. You can’t do this job right if you don’t care about the people, both the workers and those receiving the food. I’d say that’s the most important thing.”