A Strong Food Safety Culture Can’t Drive Success Without Company-Wide Commitment

May 15, 2024
Industry veteran Sharon Beals discusses why building a food safety culture can help set the tone for a safe food supply — but also how it alone cannot create an atmosphere in which food safety is truly the top priority.

Sharon Beals has led food safety and quality assurance for numerous big-time meat and poultry processors and foodservice companies over the better part of the last 40 years. Today, she owns SKKB LLC and devotes extensive time to furthering the education of the next generation of industry leaders with the American Meat Science Association and the Women’s Meat Industry Network.

Beals sat down with me at the Food Safety Summit in Rosemont, Ill., last week to discuss her thoughts on the idea of food safety culture within a company, and why development of such a strategy is important — but it alone cannot create an atmosphere in which food safety is truly the top priority.


Food Processing: Sharon, thanks so much for joining me and catching up. It’s been a long time since we’ve talked, and we’ve had a long relationship — a lot of good times, good stories, good content over the years. We’re here at the Food Safety Summit 2024, and we’re going to talk a little bit about the realities of food safety culture and how it plays against corporate culture: some of the inner workings of food safety culture and what companies really need to worry about when it comes to that. So again, thanks for joining me.

Sharon Beals: Andy, it’s good to catch up. It has been a long time, so I appreciate you having me do this podcast. So, you know, food safety culture has been a buzzword now for several years, and candidly, it’s an offshoot of company culture. It’s the old adage of, how do you behave when no one’s watching or how do you act when no one’s watching? It’s not just about food safety, it’s about personal safety, it’s about quality, it’s about how you conduct business regardless of who is watching. One of the great things about being here at the Summit this year, as I look out into the audience at all the various sessions, there’s a lot of younger people, new to the industry — new-ish to the industry — and I just want to make sure they understand that food safety culture doesn’t exist without a solid company culture. Otherwise it’s compliance to a GFSI standard, doing the surveys, making sure that you’re improving. Again, it’s not just food safety. If you have a solid company culture, then food safety and personal safety and all those other things follow right along with it. It’s not a standalone.

FP: In some senses, it’s almost like, we hear companies coming up with their sustainability goals and things like that, right? But if the corporate people from the top don’t buy into it, it’s just words. Do you see that sometimes with food safety culture? You might send your FSQ manager or senior vice president to the Food Safety Summit, but if the rest of the company, both up and down the chain aren’t bought in, is it really happening?

SB: Actions speak louder than words. During the panel I had yesterday, Larry Keener asked the question, ‘How many people in the room are from manufacturing?’ A lot of hands went up. Now there could be operations along with the food safety/quality types. But, you know, if you’re not sending your folks to these types of meetings that are outside of the food safety/quality team … we talked earlier, go to IPPE and you’ve got all the maintenance types, plant managers, but are those folks bringing along the technical people, so as they are looking at a new piece of equipment, who’s pointing out the sanitary design or some of the other potential issues that could exist with that equipment? Conversely, the Food Safety Summit, send your operations people, send your maintenance people, send your sanitarians, and not just the folks at the top. But when you send those middle managers here, when they come back and they’re full of fresh ideas of how we need to do things differently, it’s got to be embraced. Because if you don’t embrace it at the top and fully support it, that’s when frustration sets in, and it has the absolute opposite impact of telling people you’re going to invest and you want them to learn, you want them to come back. But if you don’t, if you ignore everything they brought back, man, you’ve done yourself a greater disservice than not sending them at all.

FP: You’ve been with several companies over the years, around other companies and in the industry for a while. The companies that have done this whole “food safety culture” right — and I say that in quotes — what kind of company requirements overall, outside the food safety team, have you seen that have been successful?

SB: Yes, I have worked around the industry. And I did have the opportunity to work with Maple Leaf Foods. Now, they had a crisis in 2008, as the industry well knows. And Michael McCain took full responsibility, took full charge. So there’s an organization that not only made food safety their priority from the top down, but it spilled over into health and safety, environmental safety, all those other aspects, too, to corporate sustainability. You look at what they’ve been able to build up there, but it started from a foundation of personal accountability at the very top. When I got up there, they were still doing something called “The 8:30 Call” where, if there was a positive, it was discussed on The 8:30 Call and Michael McCain was on those calls. That sends such an incredible message. If it’s important to the person at the top, you’re darn sure it’s going to be important to everybody else throughout the organization.

FP: You mentioned Maple Leaf, and I think that’s one of the first times we met was when I featured them for another publication not long after the overall commitment to food safety really took hold, and it’s interesting, we talk about the various outbreaks and things like that. Yes, that was a Canadian issue, but still, I think Maple Leaf should get more credit as a case study of how to do it right, in my opinion. It’s unfortunate that what caused that greater emphasis was the deaths and the outbreak. But certainly since then, I’ve seen Maple Leaf do it the right way for the reasons you mentioned.

SB: In a lot of different areas, and that’s why I say it’s not food safety culture. It is the company’s culture of doing things right — and doing things right when no one’s looking. I’ve worked a lot of other places and I’ve seen the maturity level because of the emphasis on food safety culture. The smart organizations have figured out it’s not standalone and therefore it has to spill over into all other aspects — and it can’t just be lip service to make sure you pass your GFSI audit. That’s when it genuinely does shine through. When I walk to a plant and the folks on the floor are making eye contact and they’re asking me questions or stopping me because I’ve got the wrong color frock on … and it’s happened to me in one place and I thank them for doing so — those are the types of facilities and operations that really do get it from a culture standpoint. But it permeates across everything. They’re cognizant of personal safety, they’re cognizant of quality, they’re cognizant of potential foreign material happening within their facility. It’s a much broader focus than just food safety culture.

FP: So, you know, we’ve talked a little bit and hinted at some of the answer to this, but more so going up the organizational chain. So, how do you make food safety the priority down to the floor workers, the hourlies, instead of just saying that it’s a priority?

SB: Well, it starts at the top, it absolutely starts at the top. Then depending upon what the bonus structure, the other financial impact is to folks, you have to hit them in the pocketbook and you have to take draconian action. So, in a previous place of employment, we had an issue in one of our smaller facilities, and the VP of operations took the plant down. We got everybody together in the room. I bought Golden Books of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and we went through “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” because the story is, if you see something, you say something. You don’t wait for the two little boys at the end of the parade to go, “Hey, the emperor is naked.” And we told them, we want to hear from you. If you see something, speak up. If you see one of your fellow employees doing something wrong and you’re not comfortable pointing it out to them, talk to your supervisor. But, you know, we’re all people and we’re going to have to learn how to do things differently, and it’s going to take some time to make that the new norm. So, give people space and grace, but understand, we’re making food for people. And what we do is critically important because my family eats product out of this facility, your family eats product out of this facility. But the fact that the VP of operations took the plant down, said we’re not running for three days until we talk to everybody, make sure everyone truly understands the criticality of what we’re doing, that spoke volumes — absolutely spoke volumes. So that’s how you get down to that very “top to bottom and everyone in between.”

FP: Not every food safety issue is immediately obvious, right, as to what has caused the problem? Talk about the importance of having not just champions of the food safety program, but experienced people who know how to get to the root of these issues and having them also be champions, in a sense, for what’s going on when things do go wrong.

SB: I just sat through the keynote here this morning, and listening to Mary from Yum talk about how they have a food safety group, but it’s extended into operations and into marketing and into all these different areas. You need to build your network before the crisis or before you’ve got the fire. You have that network already in place so that there’s already trust. That’s critically important to making sure that when something does happen, everyone knows what their roles are and to be proactive about it. So, I worked for a man at IBP named Jim Lochner, who once made signs for all of us and said, “I don’t want problem solvers, I want problem preventers. Look at your data. Be out walking the floor. If you see something you think is going to be a problem, take action now because anybody can solve a problem. But I want people that are actually preventing those problems.” That’s who you look for. Larry Keener talked about hazard analysis, and it’s really important that you have that cross-functional team as part of your hazard analysis. You can’t have your HACCP coordinator doing it up in his or her office going from memory of what the floor looks like. You go out to the floor. I’ve got a new process. What are the potential downfalls? You know, I don’t want to pick on a previous employer, but we lost a very large account because the hazard analysis was done in a vacuum. Fortunately, it was not a critical food safety issue that went wrong, but it could have been prevented just by having that cross-functional maintenance, sanitation, operations — everybody looking at the process and what could go wrong, and then how do we prevent it?

FP: What about the importance of “see something, say something” if someone’s doing something off, but “see something, say something” when someone does something right? Talk about the importance of rewarding employees and acknowledging when they’ve done a great job.

SB: Everybody likes to hear “thank you,” and we don’t say thank you enough. We don’t put the spotlight on people enough for having done the right thing. As long as it’s sincere, you can’t ever say thank you enough to people. Great job. It doesn’t even have to be monetary. It could be just recognition at a lunch or, you know, “atta boy, atta girl,” or name up on a bulletin board. Everyone likes positive recognition. You know, it’s that old, you praise in public and you correct somebody in private. But it just helps reinforce, because everybody wants it, “Hey, I want my name on the bulletin board next time. So I’m going to make sure that they catch me doing something right.” And more importantly, I’m going to help the people around me to do things right. I was at the session for Women in Food Safety, and we talk about women helping other women and making sure that you’re uplifting them and straightening their crowns and all that good stuff that you hear. We really do have to support each other because what we do every day and in plants, it’s hard work. And you know what? You’re doing something eight, 10 hours a day. You get a little barn blind every now and again, and you need somebody next to you in line going, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re starting to slip here a little bit,” in a kind and compassionate way. But we all need to get that reinforcement from our teams and from recognition from above.

FP: And to your point, you know, if you’re doing the same thing for, you know, hours on end, but you’re not slipping, getting that acknowledged is motivation to keep going.

SB: Absolutely.

FP: OK, well, “thank you” for doing the podcast, Sharon. I appreciate it. Was there anything else that we didn’t cover that you wanted to add?

SB: Well, you know, as I looked out at the audience here, one of my biggest fears, having been in this industry for over four decades, is … I think about “The cow that stole Christmas.” I think about some of these major events like the Conagra recall, with my boss calling me saying, “Where are you? Because this day, you have to remember where you were this day.” Well, I was actually on Navy Pier in Chicago, going to the child’s museum with my kids. Those big events, making sure that we haven’t forgotten them. And so maybe a future podcast is talking about, how do we make sure that the mistakes of the past that we’ve learned from, we don’t forget them? Because, you know, right now AI is huge, and what is its impact on the beef sector? And, you know, do we have to worry about pork next? I happened to be in Canada during the whole PEDv [porcine epidemic diarrhea virus] situation, and we saw what happened down in the U.S. and took some very draconian measures: trucks running through sanitizing baths, and it was a less impact. Now, pigs are more spread out in Canada than they are in the U.S. But how do we make sure that the folks coming up — because some of us are starting to peel off out of the industry — understand what’s happened in the past and that we don’t have to repeat things? And more importantly, how do we connect dots from previous events and apply them to the future?

FP: And do it in a way that it’s not just words in a book, right?

SB: Absolutely. You know, Kim Rice and I were talking earlier today, not war stories but just storytelling. I told the group yesterday, “I could stand up here and read to you and be dull as dirt, but hopefully you’ll remember more of what I’ve said because it’s been a little animated, it’s been a little fun, and I’ve picked on people in the audience.” But I try to share those stories that really help. To me, that helps bring it home and really makes some of these situations relatable.

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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