Saving the world is…complicated, and what small role will you play?

There’s a food lawyer named Shawn Stevens who likes to begin talks with a brief statement that (at food safety conferences), most of us in the room consider ourselves “good people” who are trying to do what’s within our power to make food as safe as possible.

I like it, but perhaps a better term is “people with good intentions”. Determining whether the decisions we’ve made were the “good” ones is unfortunately only knowable by future-us. I do think it’s fair to assume that most food safety professionals are doing the best we can to make things better within the knowledge we have and the power we’re willing to use.

I often reflect on the zeal with which I pursued my various causes as an undergraduate (my blog’s archive is occasionally a bit cringe-inducing for me), and among them all I see a common thread where I set out to change the world. The thing is, I never put much thought into the actual methods by which I would effect change, but rather just thought I should have the right values and work my way into a position where I could turn them into actions.

Good intentions

So lets talk about making safer food for all. Once the decision is made that, for you, food safety is a cause worth caring about, it’s worth thinking long and hard not just only what your values are and the vision you want to work for, but what are the methods you will use to contribute towards that vision? The key word here is contribute. No movement, world problem, societal change, garage band, or dance party happens through the will of one person alone, it takes leaders and followers, teachers and learners, content creators and enthusiastic supporters.

I often think about those working towards the vision of safer food in two categories, risk assessors and risk managers. Risk assessors are those who look at food in the abstract and see what needs to be done, risk managers are the ones in the positions to do it.

Risk Assessors

Risk assessors are wonderful, and it’s a wonderful position to be in. Risk assessors are university professors, public health officials, food lawyers, bloggers, and definitely students. Risk assessors disseminate the information needed for everyone to work towards the vision.

  • University researchers and teachers are constantly performing new research about how to improve food handling practices, how to eliminate pathogens or know where they hide/survive, what circumstances lead to contaminated food, you name it, they’re studying it.
  • Public health officials are constantly creating legislation and legal structure to encourage or enforce safer practices through laws, licensing, fines, inspection etc. FDA/USDA/EPA/CDC performs surveillance testing to determine public health risks for a variety of threats and makes the data available to help us evaluate risk.
  • Food lawyers/litigators support the public that has been harmed by food and shine a light on companies who failed to act and add another incentive structure.
  • Bloggers and students make observations about the industry or other research to share how everyone can improve and work towards the vision.

These are all very important tasks, and play a major role in working towards safer food for everyone. Here’s the added beauty of the risk assessor: you (almost) always get to be right. You can publish the ideal way to cook hamburgers in all settings, make clear that X technology has the best chance at safe food, outline all of the points in which things should be disposed for reduced risk, explain how a single-whistleblower could have prevented an outbreak, or state that companies that didn’t install enough air curtains should be shut down. Whatever the necessary task is, you get to embrace the high ground and require what is necessary for the safest food possible.

Have a HUGE Impact!

The other amazing thing about being a risk assessor is that your reach and impact can be huge! Instead of standing in one spot to ensure a single restaurant employee washes their hands one day, you instead could be providing the data necessary for juice manufacturers across the country or the world lower their patulin levels. Maybe you work to pass a law that requires farm-to-table traceability of produce, decreasing outbreak source discovery times from never to two weeks. Perhaps you inspect 100 food manufacturers and you get half of them to eliminate pests from their facility. Think of the first validated cooking times for chicken and their impact on foodborne illnesses in the home from uncooked foods!

The risk assessor assesses the risk and helps everyone make things safer by finding solutions to problems, but they themselves are rarely asked to accept any risk. I always like to tell other QA managers that during an inspection there are two people whom are supposed to know the law well, the FSQA person and the inspector enforcing it. The problem is, the penalty for the FSQA person not knowing the law is either an increased chance of making someone sick or having their business shut down/fined. The penalty for the inspector not knowing the law is….well their supervisor might be annoyed if they receive a complaint.

You see where I’m going with the other group:

Risk Managers

Risk managers are the boots-on-the-ground people making the decisions every day as to what we are able to do to make safer food.  Risk managers are industry QA personnel, investigator/enforcement officials, cooks/farmers/food handlers, and us – every time we make a meal for ourselves or someone else.

As a risk manager the final decision comes down to you, in the moment, without the ability to magically make the situation better.

  • Every extraneous touch while preparing a meal, is it worth treating as a cross-contamination event?
  • I just dropped this raw chicken breast on a dirty plate in my sink, can I just rinse it off and cook it?
  • The micro results are hazy and within the confidence interval…is it meaningful?
  • I saw a truck driver not wash her hands in the bathroom, should she be fired?
  • My operator swears he did the checks but they aren’t on the paperwork…is it a CCP failure?
  • I have to use the restroom but I’m stuck on this combine and it looks like rain…what should I do?
  • The electrician has tears in his shirt, am I really prepared to send him away when the equipment needs to be fixed?
  • This mom-and-pop’s refrigerator was two degrees to warm, but they said they don’t normally store things in there for more than 2 hours, am I prepared to shut them down?

All of these questions have answers that the risk assessors have provided, however the nature of their position means that they never personally interact with any of the consequences. The scope of a risk manager is small, all you can do is make decisions day-to-day that either raise or lower the food safety risk of the foods made, but each decision may have prevented an illness.

Risk managers never get to know whether your decision made the difference or it would have been fine. Heck, you may not find out for years if it went the other way and your foods were making someone sick.

However, the flip-side is that this is the hard work that needs to be done. An election is ultimately determined by multitudes of voters, not a single campaign speech. Over on IFSQN, we hear a lot of stories of food safety employees struggling with industry environments that don’t hold food safety as a value, or don’t hold it high enough. They fight with poor food safety culture, a boss that doesn’t wear their hair net, a willingness to run on dirty equipment, a belief that the HACCP plan is just a sheet of paper, or any other combination of practices that ultimately increase food safety risk.

So, what’s an employee who values food safety to do?

Career-wise the answer is simple: leave, and go somewhere where your skill set is valued. But if you want to change the world, who has more impact, the food safety manager who goes to the immaculately clean company? One where the biggest challenges they’re facing are what type of wash solution should be used in the new forklift steering wheel sanitation schedule? Or the manager who stays, and saves their political capital at the company not to bark about hairnets above the ears, but to make sure that they actually throw away that soy nut butter that was recalled instead of selling it through discount outlets.

It’s not a unique pickle, no different from talented teachers choosing superb or struggling school districts, or police officers working in struggling vs. affluent neighborhoods. The point is, as a food-grad, you’re going to have to make decisions for both your values and your career. Whether you’re a risk assessor or a risk manager, or you bring talents to save a struggling group or excel with the elite, you need to think about the methods by which you will use your talents to change the world. Figure out how to turn those good intentions into one fewer illness.

Austin BouckAuthor: Austin Bouck is a quality assurance manager at a regional beverage company in Oregon, USA. When he’s not at work solving technical quality challenges, he continues to ponder food safety issues on his blog, Fur, Farm, and Fork, which helps him stay sharp and share his knowledge with other professionals and the public.

In my articles on FoodGrads I’ll talk about different roles in food quality and what makes a good candidate, as well as some hard questions about the ethics of the decisions we make when quality and business needs are both on the table, or how to make your personal impact on public health.

I look forward to hearing what sorts of additional topics readers want to see here on the subject of food safety and quality, and excited to be a part of FoodGrads!


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