Ishan Palit, President & CEO, TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific, one of the world’s leading providers of integrated testing, inspection and certification services to the food industry, discusses why urgent action is required to change human behaviour in the food packaging industry.
In recent years, the number of food-borne disease outbreaks reported around the world has increased at an alarming rate. Today it stands at a worrying 1.5 billion cases per year, resulting in approximately 3 million deaths (source: Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore) and countless food producers, suppliers and packaging firms with reputations and bottom lines in tatters. Food safety has subsequently been thrust into the global spotlight, nowhere more so than in Asia against the backdrop of recent outbreaks where the fallout has been far-reaching and severe. Subsequently, consumer vigilance in quality control has skyrocketed, dramatically affecting purchasing habits and once again highlighting the necessity for immediate meaningful action.
But how do food packaging firms get to the bottom of food safety issues? Many have countless pieces of equipment and apparatus in place to improve hygiene. So where are they going wrong? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Outbreaks can happen for an incalculable number of reasons at any point in the food packaging process.
One imperative preventive action is the implementation of a food packaging safety management system that is structured according to internationally recognised food safety standards, such as ISO 22000, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and the British Retail Consortium's Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials. Such systems provide the first level of defence against the vast majority of contamination risks that may occur at the packaging stage – many of which are often overlooked because the emphasis on food safety usually lies in the preparation of the food itself. Certification by an independent third party also demonstrates compliance to international food safety standards and affords better transparency across the value chain, which inherently enhances customer confidence in their services.
As testament to the importance of food safety management systems in the packaging industry, some of the world’s largest Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies, including Sara Lee, General Mills, and Kraft Foods, have joined forces to form the Food Safety Alliance for Packaging (FSAP). The initiative has already developed HACCP models for packaging materials in the categories of cartons, rigid plastics, cut and stack labels and composite cans. Details of these systems are housed on the FSAP’s website.
Food safety management systems, however, can only take protection so far. So how do food packaging manufacturers and suppliers shore up their defences to the umpteenth degree? From our experience at TÜV SÜD, there is one seemingly simple yet pertinent issue in the industry that is all too often overlooked ? the human factor.
Bad behaviour is more common than you think
I would like to highlight my point by referencing a recent study in 2010 from North Carolina State University, which set out to see how closely employees in the food supply chain comply with food safety guidelines. In order to get firsthand data on related practices, researchers placed several small video cameras in inconspicuous areas that involved interaction with food. To my knowledge, this was the first time such an experiment has been carried out. The results were staggering.
Unlike previous studies I have seen on the subject, which based findings on inspection results and self-reporting by employees, this research found that cross-contamination errors are rife – far more than management or even the employees themselves would ever imagine. To be more precise, the study found approximately one cross-contamination event per employee per hour. This means that the average worker committed eight cross-contamination errors that have the potential to lead to severe illnesses in the course of just one eight-hour shift. These results were not specific to the packaging industry as the research was carried out in kitchens, but I have no doubt the same issue exists.
Help them help you
Improving the behaviour of food packaging manufacturers and suppliers in the supply chain can be undertaken in many ways. First and foremost, food packaging manufacturers and suppliers must make sure that anyone that interacts with food and/or its packaging is well-equipped with knowledge of best practices, including personal hygiene, washing, and the sanitisation of equipment, utensils and surfaces, and an understanding of the consequences of malpractice. From TÜV SÜD’s experience, customised training that is tailored to the individual company and its employees, and takes into account the unique risk context it operates under, is the best means of achieving this.
At the individual level, basic training on food packaging hygiene for all new staff after employment and annual refresher courses are essential. In addition, international food safety standard awareness training, for example HACCP, for identified staff managing critical and control points, provide another level of safeguard. At the broader level, health and infection control of employees must be conducted regularly as it covers the provision of medical examinations on employment and renewal of health certificates. Regular microbiological tests and clear sickness policies must also underpin an approach of constant vigilance and alertness.
For training to be effective, however, food packagers must apply what they have learnt as a matter of routine and constant visual observation (by supervisors and peers) reinforces the adherence of proper sanitation and hygienic practices. Clayton, Griffith, Price and Peters (2002), for example, found that 63% of food workers admitted they did not always carry out the food safety behaviours that they knew they should. As John Ruskin once said, “what we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.” Imparting knowledge on your workforce is therefore a critical component of improving food safety but by no means the only component.
Enabling good behaviour
Whilst at first it is easy to presume your workforce’s ability to carry out best practice procedures is down to their desire to carry them out, often, however, this is not the case. Food producers and suppliers must also provide their workforce with an environment that enables good behaviour to flourish within the constraints of their working day. Tools such as hand sanitizer units, for example, must be placed in convenient and easily accessible areas of the workplace. Rearranging the location of such tools to improve the workplace ergonomics can have a profound effect on reducing the likelihood of transfer of pathogens and contaminants, especially during busy periods when time is of the essence and most mistakes are made.
My final recommendation would be to instil trust and a sense of collegiality in your workforce. Having an open door can go a long way to achieving this but I would also suggest encouraging staff to work in teams and incentivising good behaviour. You are, after all, working towards the same end goal. This philosophy will also encourage employees to offer support and suggestions for improving safety, quality and hygiene to management. Such suggestions are invaluable as it is the packaging personnel alone that fully understand the barriers that inhibit their ability to fully safeguard the supply chain, company and customers from disaster. Put simply, employees are as valuable an asset as the food itself. Looking after them and enhancing their ability to perform must therefore be of utmost priority.
TÜV SÜD Group:
TÜV SÜD is a leading international service organization catering to the strategic business segments INDUSTRY, MOBILITY and CERTIFICATION. Over 16,000 employees are represented at more than 600 locations throughout the world. Optimizing technology, systems and know-how, the interdisciplinary specialist teams act as process partners to strengthen their customers' competitiveness.
Article contributed by: TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific Pte Ltd