Building Food Safety Leaders
By Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Fred Shank, a former CFSAN Center Director and my first boss at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), who showed me that to be a leader in Washington, DC, you need to be technically sound, do the right thing and have a thick skin.
Every chance I get, I ask people how they found their way into food safety. As a data-driven analytical thinker, maybe I’m looking for patterns. I’ve been trying to figure out what makes someone “great” at food safety. Like beauty, “greatness” is in the eye of the beholder. But just as we can all rattle off the types of foods that are “high risk” [even in the absence of a list from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)], there is some general recognition of the cream of the crop—those who are great and visible food safety leaders. But leadership—or at least the potential for leadership—exists at all levels, and this article seeks to explore how this potential can be cultivated for the betterment of food safety, given the challenges that lie ahead.
My interest in the food safety leaders of today is multifaceted. Selfishly, I want to learn from them. But as I look around at the food safety needs that we currently have in this industry, and look at the expertise required to move food safety to the next level (both in terms of regulatory compliance as well as building best-in-class systems), I also hope to play a small role in recognizing and cultivating a new crop of food safety leaders (see “Best Practices for Developing Young Food Safety Professionals,”).
Perhaps I am a wannabe academic. I’ve always had an interest in outreach and education. I was fortunate to contribute to these efforts while at IFT, and hope that my veteran interns, direct reports and coworkers would also attest to my interest in developing them, so that they can be the best they can be. As I spoke to people about this topic, the conversation often went off on tangents. How do we even get people into the food safety pipeline? What does “food safety” mean anyway? Does it include sanitation, operations, marketing? Have we defined roles and the behaviors we expect of these individuals doing these jobs? How do we develop global food safety expertise? This article will attempt to capture the conversation and key issues around each of these topics, but frankly, each of these questions could probably be explored as part of a dissertation.
As an advocate of “beginning with the end in mind,” I will start with the key points:
1) If you want to make a difference in food safety, surround yourself with people who make a difference, reach out to them and be open to learning from them.
2) If you notice someone who has the spark, passion and motivation to do great things, help him or her find opportunities to develop.
3) We need to do a better job communicating how awesome food safety is, so that leaders gravitate toward our profession.
The Need for Food Safety Leadership
The food safety landscape is ever changing. We are faced with some truly new risks (or perhaps they were always there, but we are just now recognizing them) such as Salmonella in low-moisture foods, Listeria monocytogenes in caramel apples and cantaloupe, heavy metals in agricultural products, allergens and other dietary sensitivities, and the long-term health impacts of food ingredients. We are faced with changes in technology: technology that can help us better assess and document our systems, technology that can more definitively link illness with a source and technology that allows information to be shared worldwide in an instant. The regulatory landscape, along with consumer pressures, is also changing at lightning speed. How can a food safety professional keep up? And given the myriad of issues: scientific, regulatory and political, how does one even define a food safety professional, let alone determine the attributes of a great one?
Several of the proposed rules being promulgated as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act will require decision making by “qualified individuals (QI).” Yes, FDA gives a formal definition for what constitutes a QI, and is developing, with the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (www.iit.edu/ifsh/alliance/), a standardized curriculum to develop training, but does a certificate on a wall translate into someone truly being “qualified?” And at the same time, the expectations of food safety inspectors (federal, state and local) will increase exponentially once the rules are finalized and they are inspecting facilities for compliance. People can be educated about facts, such as the temperature range for pathogen growth, but how can people be trained to make good decisions when circumstances fall outside the bounds of a textbook? And how can true leaders be recognized and encouraged, so that they can serve as a resource and coach within their own companies and, importantly, to the broader food safety community?
As I contemplated an article on developing food safety leaders, I thought the best (if not the most scientific) approach would be to reach out to a handful of people who I feel are great and find out what they think the ingredients to their success, and the success of their peers, are. The enthusiasm they displayed testifies to their passion for food safety, and I thank them for sharing their insights and perspective. But my sample size may not be statistically significant. I’ve had the great fortune of interacting with scores of gifted leaders, and those mentioned here represent the diversity of backgrounds and experiences to illustrate the many paths that lead to food safety leadership.
There are hundreds if not thousands of food safety leaders, in varying stages of career development out there, and I hope we can continue to connect with one another. The safety of the food supply depends on food safety professionals, and a theme in our discussions that rang out loud and clear is that we need to work together.
After a preliminary round of input, some themes began to emerge. There are two components inherent in developing food safety leaders: scientific and technical competency, and the people skills associated with leadership.
Leadership in General
A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times points to a shift in schools from a focus on intelligence to the development of personality traits associated with success. KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a network of public schools serving underserved communities, has rallied around these seven character strengths:
• Social intelligence
Great leaders—of all sorts—arguably have all or most of these traits. But are they innate? Can they be taught? Dr. Frank Busta, professor emeritus of food microbiology at the University of Minnesota, who has trained some very notable food safety leaders, wouldn’t take credit for the successes of his students. Rather, he sees that he gave them opportunities to do well—but it was up to the students to work hard and do it. Thus, mentors can help cultivate and hone these leadership attributes, but it is up to the budding food safety leader to pursue opportunities to further develop them.
Stephen Covey, in the well-known book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, cites these seven habits:
1) Be proactive
2) Begin with the end in mind
3) Put first things first
4) Think win-win
5) Seek first to understand, then to be understood
7) Sharpen the saw (continuous improvement, but meant outside the context of food safety in a facility; continuous improvement of ourselves)
People with these skills and traits can be charismatic and inspiring. They can rally people to take action and embrace a cause. I think we can all see how being effective at improving food safety requires the regular implementation of these habits. But the general literature on leadership is not specific for food safety. Just because someone has great character traits and is highly effective, does this make one great at food safety?
Shawn Stevens, an attorney at Food Industry Counsel, LLC, states that there are three Cs in food safety: compassion, commitment and culture. As he describes it, a food safety leader must “truly believe that food safety is important for the right reasons—not marketability and not profit.” Courtney Bidney, who leads global regulatory affairs at General Mills, adds that “food safety leaders must feel a personal responsibility for taking care of the consumer and the corporation.”
The importance of food safety culture noted by Stevens was reiterated by Bidney and was recently discussed in Food Safety Magazine. Leaders need to set the example to develop and continue to promote a strong culture of food safety. But who are these leaders? Are general leadership skills enough? What other attributes define one as a “food safety leader?”
I would add one more “C” to the list of food safety leadership prerequisites: competency. It is great to have the right intent and back it up with commitment, but you need to have the background to make decisions supported by science. There are some technical competencies and foundational knowledge that provide a solid platform on which food safety leaders grow.
Dr. Jim Gorny, vice president for food safety and technology at the Produce Marketing Association, notes that most people working in food safety are trained as scientists. We are not trained to manage people. And yet, many career paths require these leadership and managerial skills, including communication skills, in addition to the technical areas in which we’ve been trained.
What Food Safety Leaders Say
The major themes that emerged from discussions with food safety leaders are loosely aligned with the character traits and habits listed above. The bottom line is that there are some common characteristics displayed by most food safety leaders.
There is no tried-and-true path to become a great food safety leader.
There is no magical formula. Look around at the most visible food safety leaders. They come from a variety of backgrounds and have had a host of varied experiences. There is no one-size-fits-all. Lone Jespersen, director of food safety and operations learning at Maple Leaf Foods, identifies three possible paths by which someone finds their way into food safety:
1) Academic study, training programs, etc.
2) Growth from floor/production environment
3) Transfer from another career (as she did)
The bad news is that someone aspiring to greatness can’t simply follow a few steps and be guaranteed success. The good news is that there are no preconceived notions around the background one has to have to develop oneself and make a positive impact on the world of food safety. However, being great in food safety means you need to know something about food safety.
An academic degree is not an indicator of success or failure, but you’ve got to think like a scientist.
Only after reaching out to a host of people did I realize the variety of degrees they held: bachelor’s, master’s of science, Ph.D. (some in food science, another in general microbiology), a medical doctor, a lawyer…and yet they all show a passion for food safety and have the requisite technical knowledge to command the respect of others in the food safety arena.
Why do we see such a variety of degrees and backgrounds? Jim Gorny postulates that it’s because there really aren’t many degree offerings, especially at the undergraduate level, in “food safety.” He acknowledges that the breadth of food safety requires a solid background in biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, general microbiology and other courses that likely consume the 4 years most students are willing to invest to get a bachelor’s degree. Frank Busta recollects advising food microbiology students that they needed to know everything a microbiology major knew, plus aspects of food science, to understand why they were doing what they were doing.
Dr. Courtney Parker, senior vice president, salad quality and global food safety at Chiquita, notes that in order to be successful, you’ve got to have an understanding of science and be a strong analytical thinker. It’s critical that food safety professionals understand hazards from a technical perspective, adds Jim Gorny, but just as important is understanding risk assessment, a sentiment echoed by Sarah Geisert, who recently retired as senior director, global product safety and regulatory affairs at General Mills. The presence of a hazard does not mean that a product is dangerous. Understanding the science, the concept of risk and being able to communicate that degree of risk is critical.
Dr. Don Schaffner, distinguished professor at Rutgers University, does feel that an advanced degree is helpful, but also notes the value of experience, sharing that it took him 10 years as a professor before he felt like he knew what he was doing “most of the time.”
Everyone I spoke with cites the need to continue to learn. This has led to nontraditional approaches to delivering formal education. Distance learning has become commonplace, with many universities offering courses online for credit. An early example of an entire food safety-oriented degree program offered by a university is the Michigan State University master’s in food safety, which targets veterinarians, food and health specialists who want to gain a deeper technical understanding of food safety-related issues. Melanie Neumann, who began her career as an intellectual property and food law attorney, and is now a vice president at The Acheson Group, raves about her experience in this program, which she describes as an “excellent option for busy professionals seeking a focused curriculum on food safety” that offers “rigorous courses in toxicology, epidemiology, international food regulations, as well as your per se food safety regulations to provide students with an extremely well-rounded, robust and practical food safety education.”
The conclusion? There is no specific academic degree that guarantees a path of food safety greatness. Rather, it’s the ability to apply that information to real-life situations that is required.
Food safety leaders are practical problem solvers.
Practical. Several people mentioned this word. Learning is one thing. Applying those learnings is something else.
Studying food safety theory does not adequately prepare one for these tough calls. It is the “boots on the ground” experience, combined with the ability to systematically think through a problem, as well as guidance from mentors who’ve been down similar paths, that culminates in professionals who improve food safety.
Sarah Geisert likens “academics to teaching swimming strokes on ground versus in the water. You can teach the basics, but until you have to actually perform, you will not understand what is really involved.”
This sentiment was shared by Courtney Parker, who adds that “all the books in the world can provide one with a basis for food safety management, but with the range of situations that one may face in an actual operational environment, the hands-on problem solving that comes with those situations can potentially be the best training tool out there.”
Frank Busta adds that, from the academic side, he found tremendous value in building relationships to understand what was really happening—not just what was appearing in the published literature—in order to build useful research programs.
The “scale, scope and speed at which food industry works” can be “mind-boggling” according to Jim Gorny, who reiterates the difference between what you read in a textbook and what happens in real life.
But Frank Busta comments that in the academic arena, the short-term vision that requires immediate application of research is ultimately destructive to fundamental research. That said, he also notes that some of the current basic science research is so tightly focused that it may not find long-term applications. He has worked on both “problem solving” as well as fundamental research, but acknowledges that this combination is difficult to achieve in academia today.
Imagine the great things that would happen if we brought together the right individuals to solve problems? Not only might we move the needle, but as Don Schaffner points out, a side benefit could be creating mentoring opportunities.
Food safety leaders can make tough decisions.
A key differentiator between a general “leader” and a food safety leader is that food safety leaders need to solve problems and sometimes make tough decisions that impact business operations. As Jim Gorny notes, food companies “need to recover on invested capital.” Food safety leaders may not always win a company’s popularity contest.
Sarah Geisert reflects that you need to work to understand others and build a culture where everyone understands that they are on the same team. If you establish that trust and good intent, “when, in those rare instances, you need to call a third strike on the home team, they may not be happy, but will understand,” she notes.
Know your strengths and weaknesses: build on the strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
We can’t all know everything, and we can’t all do everything. And it’s clear that in the corporate world, one person alone can’t carry the torch for food safety. Just as it “takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a team to cultivate strong food safety programs. But not all team members have the same role, and we are not interchangeable. Different people have different strengths, and the best-functioning teams comprise a diversity of individuals with well-defined roles, each of whom excels at his or her individual function.
Don Schaffner says it best: “I suppose natural ability plays some role, but we all start with different abilities. I think the key is to figure out what you are good at and then seek out opportunities where you can express that natural ability.”
Frank Busta succinctly adds, “There are places I have strengths, and places where I don’t.”
Leaders continue to learn.
We have many opportunities to learn outside a traditional classroom. Professional meetings, training seminars, webinars, journal articles…but who has time to keep up? Food safety leaders find a way. Sarah Geisert comments that “having that personal interest and passion makes you more likely to seek out ways to learn and grow.”
And learning is never done, given the nature of scientific advances and society’s ever-changing demands. We need to continue to adapt to new circumstances. Jim Gorny notes that the food industry has undergone dramatic changes, and what was learned in school decades ago may not be current.
The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) was an oft-cited source of information for food safety professionals, providing a wealth of current information.
The food industry is a relatively small and tightly knit field. We tend to see the same faces in meetings and hear the same voices on calls. But there may be an additional explanation as to why food safety leaders tend to hang out with each other. In Sarah Geisert’s opinion, it is the receptivity to sharing knowledge—good and bad—that makes leaders gravitate toward each other. Food safety leaders know they have a lot they can learn from one another.
Great leaders ask questions and know how to change their minds.
A few years ago, I was having lunch with a well-known, respected food safety leader who shared with me a challenge he was facing and his proposed approach to address it. I thought there was a better approach, and I told him so. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I thought, “What did I just say?! How dare I disagree with this food safety icon?” He thought for a minute and essentially agreed with my proposed strategy. It was only in hindsight that I realized that this openness to new ideas is precisely what makes him great.
Scientists are trained to ask questions, conduct research and ask new questions based on the research findings. It would follow then, that scientists are accustomed to keeping an open mind and are ready to analyze new data. Unfortunately, this might be idealistic, because scientists are people too, and people don’t generally like to find that their ideas are wrong.
Frank Busta shares that his wife views his continued skepticism and questioning as being “negative.” But he sees a real need to encourage food safety professionals to ask “why:” Why is that occurring? Why are we doing it? If we do something else, what are the unintended consequences? Busta points out that today we generate more data, and have more technology to analyze data, than ever before. However, looking beyond the auto-generated conclusions and continuing to ask questions is an attribute food safety leaders need.
The greatest scientists, including those in food safety, are able to understand when new information comes in, assimilate it, contemplate it and change their minds. Further, great leaders then communicate that change, and the reason for it, according to Sarah Geisert.
Leaders give credit to their mentors and mentor others.
Speaking personally, I can credit at least 100 people who very actively showed me the ropes, held my hand and occasionally slapped my wrist. “Good mentors are very different from bosses and/or sponsors,” says Sarah Geisert.
As a student, I was assigned a mentor, Dr. Cathy Cutter, now at Penn State University, through the IFT Food Microbiology Division. This was an “official” mentoring program, and I highly encourage participation in these because both the mentor and mentee participate voluntarily, which is a sign that each has a genuine interest in connecting, learning and sharing. But in my experience, most mentoring relationships happen more organically and transiently.
An example of a form of mentoring and growth development that was shared by Courtney Parker is a process by which “major plant food safety and quality decisions are required to be run through experienced corporate staff to ensure the situations are assessed from a multidisciplinary standpoint and the right decisions are made. This provides an opportunity to build mentoring relationships within internal quality staff and develops future food safety leaders’ abilities to understand facts, analyze the situation and make the right risk-based decisions.”
An anecdotal observation is that great leaders often associate with other great people. Thus, each relationship that is established opens the door to meeting a network of other fantastic individuals.
But how do you find a mentor? If there is an opportunity to participate in a formal program, go for it! In the absence of such a program, be active. Sit in on a committee meeting of a professional society or trade association. If you feel a little shy or intimidated, follow up with an e-mail to the chair, expressing your ideas or your support. Volunteer for activities. If you read an article and have a question or comment, reach out to the author. Don Schaffner agrees, identifying expert committees, professional activities, coworkers and peers in the industry as pools of mentors. And if you have the desire to learn and improve, chances are that mentors will find you.
Jim Gorny recommends contacting food safety leaders and icons. You’d be surprised at the willingness many have to connect with those who show initiative. A few months ago, I was contacted by a graduate student looking for guidance on a project related to Salmonella that was more in the realm of infectious disease. Being no medical doctor, I suggested that she contact a pretty senior official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service with the appropriate background to assist her, noting that it might be a “long shot.” She wrote me back a few days later, saying he had agreed to help.
The Effect of Food Safety Leadership
What impact do food safety leaders have? Leaders effect change. People listen to and respect food safety leaders. As Shawn Stevens points out, you can care as much as you want and talk the talk, but food safety leaders take action to truly accomplish food safety goals. That commitment to the cause, combined with the communication of that commitment and passion for food safety, serves as the example employees need to embrace food safety too, he says. Jim Gorny sums it up nicely: “Leaders can persuade people to do the right thing.”
Leadership within Key Stakeholders
It would be inefficient for each food company to individually spearhead efforts to fully develop leaders. That said, most larger and even some smaller and midsize companies do support their employees. Sarah Geisert shares that in General Mills, there is an academy that helps on-board and develop talent as well as transfer knowledge when a critical person is leaving. Courtney Bidney also points to a practice I’ve observed in other leading companies: “taking a personal responsibility to train our suppliers and copackers across the globe,” in her words, using audits and supplier schools to extend learning through the supply chain.
But it can be difficult for emerging food safety leaders within smaller companies to get the support they need. As Jim Gorny points out, there may only be one person in a company assigned to a food safety role!
But true leaders turn these types of challenges into opportunities. According to Shawn Stevens, in smaller companies, “it is the lower-level food safety and quality employees (as opposed to the company owners) who have developed all of the true expertise as it relates to food safety, regulatory compliance and internal risk management. As a result, it is these employees who are, in reality, training the upper management or company ownership. This creates an incredible opportunity for those employees to leverage their expertise and warn the company leadership about the consequences of a failure to comply with new regulations, the increased regulatory risk the company faces as a result and the potential personal criminal exposure the corporate leadership faces if food safety is not made a priority. If this message is communicated properly, these employees can not only better distinguish themselves as the true food safety experts, but they can actually begin to assume a more active leadership role and influence substantial change.”
As we look at the long-term, industrywide need for leadership development, there are examples of associations providing strategic coordination of talent development. One such example is the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), which, through its foundation, provides a number of programs that support professional growth at all career levels. As Jim Gorny explains, you don’t really get a degree in produce. This is why the PMA created programs tailored for entry, midcareer and executive levels, as well as a women’s leadership program.
The need for continued development and for providing people with a path toward excellence extends beyond the food industry itself. A strong partnership between industry and regulators is critical. The International Food Protection Training Institute is developing multiple tracks to develop leadership and competency within regulatory laboratories.
Given the global nature of our food supply, it’s clear that food safety expertise is needed worldwide. When we look at the needs that exist within the developed world, it may seem overwhelming to figure out how to tackle similar—or greater—needs for food safety capacity in developing economies. At the same time, we have opportunities to learn from the different technologies and approaches that have been developed by our global food safety partners. What is the best way to embrace different cultures and respect leaders in their knowledge and insights in other parts of the world?
IAFP has increasingly emphasized the “international” aspect of its name and hosts or collaborates to offer food safety events in various parts of the world. Additionally, the association offers “professional development groups” where like-minded individuals can network and collaborate. Part of the role of the professional development groups is to identify potential session topics for the annual meeting. For example, the 2015 meeting (July 25–28 in Portland, OR) will include a session called “Sustaining Our Legacy through the Food Safety Professionals of Tomorrow” to discuss the global skills gap in the industry; how industry can come into the classroom; what skills future food safety professionals will need; and how to recruit/train millennials.
Individual countries have also undertaken programs to build food safety capacity and leadership. In India, the passage of the Food Safety and Standards Act required the government to retrain regulators. Several government agencies collaborated to develop a five-module training curriculum. However, the authors note that resource limitations hinder the ability to fully deploy the program.
Canadian food safety leaders also see a need to develop a collaborative, coordinated approach to the cultivation of food safety expertise, and have recently launched a group, Safe Food Canada – The Learning Partnership,8 to “facilitate collaboration across the food sector and academia to:
• define food safety tasks and the competencies required to perform those functions, and quantify labor market needs for food safety workers;
• identify and foster development of courses and programs providing the needed competencies;
• establish and maintain a learning inventory of educational programs, courses, products and tools that have gone through a quality-review process to confirm they result in acquisition of the needed competencies;
• facilitate outreach and partnerships to support small and medium-size businesses in meeting food safety requirements; and
• facilitate partnerships within the food sector and with academia to support learning and best practices in food safety.”
Food safety needs more people—from all types of backgrounds and at all career levels—to aim for greatness. We need to attract more people to this wonderful field. Food safety professionals, according to Shawn Stevens, “Assume this awesome responsibility for the health of a nation and the world.” As Lone Jespersen points out, this is a noble field. We feed people! We need to do a better job communicating the opportunities in food safety, not just the traditional positions, but those that are also critical to ensuring safe food production: sanitation, product development, operations and many others.
Once it is generally recognized that a career in food safety is attractive, great people will gravitate toward it. The development of future food safety leaders requires investment and commitment from both those who wish to pursue this field, as well as from those of us who have already benefited from it.
Sarah Geisert adds, “It is a key responsibility, or should be, for any leader and/or employee to develop others. We do not work for our own good, we work for a collective good. If a leader does not have this as job #1, they should reconsider their priorities. My legacy will not be the issues navigated…it will be the talent and people coming behind me. It is my greatest area of satisfaction–seeing the talent developed and having confidence that they will do the job better than me.”
Dr. Fred Shank, to whom this article is dedicated, demonstrated his leadership in many ways. He was often “gruff and no-nonsense,” as Dr. Bill Sperber, of The Friendly Microbiologist LLC, puts it. “We saw some great advances in food safety and nutrition during Fred’s leadership at the FDA,” according to Gale Prince, retired from The Kroger Co. Shank’s approach to developing and supporting his staff was nontraditional, perhaps, but fostered positive results. But graduate students at the University of Maryland Department of Nutrition and Food Science can now benefit from the Dr. Fred Ross Shank Memorial Endowment scholarship. What better way to continue as a leader and help develop new ones?
Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., is vice president, science operations, at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. She strives to be an “emerging leader” within the Washington, DC, scene.
3. Stevens, S. 2014. Compassion, commitment and culture. Blog on www.meatingplace.com posted 3/20/14. Last accessed 1/26/15.
6. Kaml, C, et al. 2014. Developing a competency framework for U.S. state food and feed testing laboratory personnel. J AOAC Int 97(3):768–772.
7. Thippaiah, A, KP Allagh and GV Murthy. 2014. Challenges in developing a competency-based training curriculum for food safety regulators in India. Indian J Community Med 39(3):147–155.
Categories: Management: Best Practices, Training