Raise Performance With A Food Safety Program

Originally printed in the July 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Most produce companies don’t volunteer to put food safety programs in place. This was certainly true of our company. We did not enlist; we were drafted by customer demands.

Our first program was the USDA Good Handling Practices Food Safety Audit — a sort of “gateway” audit. The USDA program challenges your company to establish basic procedures and provide documentation that you are following those procedures. Reading through the process, I realized it was an impossible project. So I assigned it to Adam Desmond, one of our younger sales team members. With youthful exuberance, he dug in and got it done. We all learned from that experience, and we found that a basic food safety program wasn’t all that difficult to manage.

The USDA certification was enough, until key customers began to require more broadly based audit plans that dug deeper into our processes and product traceability. Before Adam left to pursue a new sales opportunity, he moved us into a PrimusLabs.com Packinghouse program. The PrimusLabs.com program was better suited to a repack operation, and our broad liner foodservice customers demanded it. Food safety as a part-time task then fell to salesman Dan Vena.

As our business grew, we needed a full-time safety leader, and Bob Hughes joined our team. We planned to implement the sort of safety initiatives used in our packing room across all departments. Adding automated packaging machinery needed for finished products that included allergens presented another level of complexity. Our new director of production, Dave Milakeve, assumed responsibility for our food safety team and moved our program to one administered by the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQF). Hughes moved to packing house manager, and Nora Schmidt took the role of food safety and quality assurance manager. Nora’s education and prior work experience have allowed her to step in and take over our safety initiatives. With the support of the production team, Nora has successfully created and is implementing proper food safety practices for all of our teams. Earlier this year, a new business opportunity required John Vena, Inc. to obtain an organic handling certification. Nora and her team understood the process requirements, and we were able to achieve that certification in a very reasonable time.

Properly run, food safety starts by focusing on a company’s internal processes. The basic record-keeping protocols force you to look at each one of your everyday practices. … You quickly learn you can’t just follow a program for a week or two before the auditor arrives; you have to live it every day.

Conversations on the topic of food safety are often centered on getting the certificate, but the conversations should be about the improvements you make to processes, documentation, operations, finished products and services before you even get that certificate. At its root, food safety is about managing risk. Training staff, improving handling procedures and maintaining a clean, safe facility are the keys to controlling risk. The certificate is just a tool that allows customers and suppliers to evaluate a company’s practices. It gives key constituents confidence in the steps you have taken to safeguard your products.

Properly run, food safety starts by focusing on a company’s internal processes. The basic record-keeping protocols force you to look at each one of your everyday practices. You must review sanitation, storage temperature, shipping and receiving routines, lot rotation, cooler maintenance and you must review your suppliers to ensure they are doing what is required to instill confidence in their products. You quickly learn you can’t just follow a program for a week or two before the auditor arrives; you have to live it every day.

For John Vena, Inc., the unplanned benefits of our food safety programs have been surprising. New habits are being formed by the required housekeeping, log entries and product-handling requirements, especially for iced product, allergens and organics, and these will carry over into all our tasks. Led by Joe Gallagher, our chief financial officer, we are rewriting our standard operating procedures in an effort to provide a solid base for training current and new staff. From receiving to order fulfillment, all processes will be documented and trained from a written curriculum.

Food safety training sessions have become a useful and successful tool, and other departmental leaders are following suit and scheduling training sessions on a variety of topics such as product lines, management techniques and cross training of tasks. Workers really do like to learn new skills and will be more engaged and therefore more valuable employees.

Successful companies in all industries develop or adapt processes and best practices to their needs. Often these processes are built for a department or team and guide the team’s work.

We have found food safety programs, when properly executed, reach across the whole company, engaging every employee. At the core, it is all about process improvement, documentation and recordkeeping. These elements will enhance your company’s performance, differentiate you from the competition and help you build for the future.


John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.

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