Management Commitment & the Food Safety Manager

In a recent thread on the IFSQN forum a brave member posted her disappointment at having failed their initial SQF certification audit. The post highlighted for me the often hidden reality for many food safety professionals, quality managers and food technologists who are responsible for the implementation and maintenance of food safety systems. Systems which are the first and last line of defence for ensuring the protection of public health, valuable retailer brands and the viability of the food companies. The post also highlighted the human aspect of food safety management where senior level management is not sufficient to achieve certification. It is a valuable lesson. Even where a competent food safety manager is put in place, without senior management commitment, this person’s dedication is not enough. I suppose it is not by accident that Management Commitment as a requirement is found on page one, chapter one of almost every food safety standard.

For the local quality manager who attempts to bridge this gap in management commitment the impacts can be both personally and professionally devastating. This is something many of us know all too well and can defy all our definitions of reasonable logic. Why should the owners and managers of a food company not take food safety seriously? Why should they not invest in their business to ensure best practice is implemented and maintained? Surely it is in their interests to do so leaving them free to get on with the business of making money without worrying about food safety issues? Are we missing something here that explains this apparent lack of business logic? These are important questions for the food industry and over the years I have developed my own perspective and for me two issues are central to understanding this situation.

Management Commitment

As already mentioned, almost all food safety standards open with the requirement for management commitment. Some even try to define what this looks like. In truth it can be a very subjective thing for an auditor to tick this box. There are certain objective items of evidence which can be relied upon to help determine the level of management commitment including the existence of a policy, defined improvement objectives, management reviews and the application of human and financial resources. However it is possible for these requirements to be met while management commitment is lacking. The application of sufficient human and financial resources can depend on who you ask. What is sufficient for one person may be insufficient for another. The auditor ultimately has to depend on other data and a more holistic assessment of the food safety systems.

It is also possible for senior management to be fully committed but simply not know what is required to obtain and maintain full compliance. They are normally not food technologists with no training or in depth understanding of food safety or legislation. They are aware requirements exist but no more than that. In short senior management simply may not get it! This can led to major difficulties in the business with middle management struggling to gain the necessary support to implement the required systems. There is little doubt that poor management commitment results in internal difficulties, poor audit outcomes and compliance failures. But this is not the full story. There is I believe a more fundamental question related we need to consider – the Food Safety Manager.

The Food Safety Manager

It is now typical to find a Food Safety Manager in almost all food companies. They go by a wide range of titles including Quality Manager, Food Technologist, Hygiene Manager and Technical Manager to name a few. They are usually graduates from various food science and technology courses and are fundamentally scientists in training, education and nature. After leaving college they take up these positions in industry and find themselves responsible for the Food Safety Management system. They quickly realise the four years spent studying covered little if any content on Food Safety Management. What has any of this got to do with Management Commitment you may ask? Well, surprisingly a lot. Let me explain.

As a young graduate I took up a position as a laboratory technician in a dairy processing plant. I was a junior member of the laboratory team. We occupied our time testing milk, cream and cheese for various bugs and product constitutions. Nice work for an inexperienced food technologist just out of college and back in the days when food safety control was exercised through analysis after the product was made. Then one day the senior technical manager appeared in the laboratory and announced we needed to implement something called HACCP.

‘What is HACCP?’ we asked. ‘I don’t know’, he replied, ‘but we need to put it in place. Anyone want to volunteer?’ More through my youthful naivety than any superior knowledge on the subject I was given the job. I guessed it had to beat butterfat and somatic cell count analysis eight hours a day… It turned out to be a great experience but one not without its difficulties. The reason was that senior management simply did not get it. This was a great company which never refused to invest in quality and food safety but it was in the early days of HACCP and so the level of consciousness was low. I was also a junior member of the team and lacked the skills required to educate senior members. The job got done but it took time.

In later years I went into business as a consultant and again quickly found that many of my clients while wanting to obtain certification and customer listings, either lacked the desire or knowledge to put in the required work. I had the option of putting it all down to a lack of management commitment and in some cases this was true. However as a consultant depending on the daily charge out fee to earn my living I needed to effect change in these companies one way or another. Otherwise it was back to the day job. I came to understand that my role was not simply to put in place HACCP but also to educate, develop awareness, persuade and cajole senior management to support and commit to the requirements. This is the core issue. Food Safety Management is exactly that – Management. The question arises is a lack of management commitment always the cause or is lack of management skills among our food safety managers the issue?

During my time as a Quality Manager in a large multinational food company, I had the opportunity to sit at management meetings and observe the behaviour of my fellow managers. These included the Operations Manager, Financial Controller, Human Resources Manager, Purchasing Manager and Sales Director. Over time I began to see one interesting fact. These were Managers, while I was a Technologist! They never took for granted that resources would be provided to them simply because they wanted them. They had to argue and convince the senior management first. More interestingly, they were completely fine with this. They saw it as their job. Some battles they won and some they lost. The key difference was they were trained managers where I was not. I understood that if I was to achieve my objectives as a food safety manager I would need to become a manager first and a technologist second. Ask any consultant what they see as their most important skill and they will not tell you the seven principles of HACCP. They will tell you it is their ability to communicate, challenge, develop and change the culture of senior management. This allows them to get the job done, earn a living and provide the client with a valuable service and usually in spite of the managements’ conscious wishes.

Food Safety Management – A profession in waiting

If we are to call our profession a profession we must also seek and demand that we produce graduates who possess all the skills necessary to manage food safety and that includes the ability to bring along those senior managers who do not get it.

In my other work as a lecturer on food safety management I see every year graduates who lack the basic management skills required. Communication skills, financial skills, negotiation skills, project management, human resources management – all these are as important as HACCP if not more so. They drive our effectiveness as a manager. It is not the technologists fault. They are very good, competent and committed professionals in their own right but we put them into positions without the necessary skills and this needs to change. At undergraduate level we need to equip our future food safety managers with the skills of a manager!

Poor management commitment exists but a more prevalent problem is poor management consciousness. The most effective tool to address this is the development of our profession to produce not just technologists but competent managers who can deliver this knowledge in the context of a commercial business with finite resources. Our colleges need to produce Food Safety Managers in the truest sense of the word. The industry needs it, senior management need it and more importantly the dedicated and often overwhelmed food safety manager needs it. This is the support and commitment they need most.