Our award-winning columnist, Jeff Dearduff, advises that plant personnel go below the surface and take a more proactive role in cleaning their facilities.


There sure is a lot of talk these days about the cleanliness of food plants - or the lack thereof.
In fact, the minimal amount of food safety initiatives is what’s forcing some industry execs into the “Big House.” These folks, who pull their britches up one leg at a time like the rest of us, are now, or soon will be, sliding uncomfortably into their orange jumpsuits instead of their white smocks.

Who ever thought an American could serve time for sanitation issues in a food plant?

Don’t get me wrong, these bakers and snack producers are headed to the lockup not just because they ran unsanitary food plants - they also “resolved” their food safety issues in unethical ways.

Think back to the Peanut Corp. of America recall, for example.

An insider for the Blakely, Ga.-based facility, which has since shut down, admitted that the company knowingly produced contaminated products as far back as January 2007.

On the other hand, if these higher-ups were running sanitary food plants where employees followed the rules, they wouldn’t have to compromise their ethics, right?

This is a true case where other people’s problems become someone else’s fortune. These ill-timed circumstances are a wakeup call to the industry, as they set the stage for bakers and snack producers alike to take a deeper look into the cleanliness of their plants, and review the processes and procedures in place.

What’s more concerning is that Congress has taken an intense role in this subject and is now spending time on trying to fix other companies’ problems versus resolving our own nation’s issues. The interest shown by our elected officials will likely result in stiffer regulations that will eventually produce new marching orders and force regulators to re-stuff their accounts with freshly printed $20 bills.

This industry will see audits and inspections like it’s never seen before.

As a result, bakers, equipment manufacturers and ingredient providers should stay abreast of the news and keep up-to-date on the debates taking place in D.C. For example, get connected to groups such as the American Bakers Association (ABA) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). News stations such as CNN, FOX and MSNBC have nothing on these groups when it comes to communicating the right information to bakers at the right time. While the ABA and GMA are only two of the many food-related organizations that keep the interest of such categories at heart, these are the two most historically proactive organizations and are known for sharing their findings in a timely manner.
If you don’t have a connection in D.C., get one.

Industry personnel also should take a more proactive dive in, around and under their processes, procedures, equipment and buildings to ensure that there aren’t any unwanted critters hanging out.

Everyone needs to get involved.

Walking around a plant everyday with the same set of eyes can lead to varied levels of complacency. For instance, internal auditing teams may see some shiny stainless steel, a well-swept floor and some dapperly dressed employees, thus producing a positive report on the company’s sanitation efforts. Couple that scene with a wall full of above-average ratings plaques and flags from third party auditors, and it’s easy to get a good night’s sleep.

The root of the problem though is really what lies beneath.

So how do companies get below the surface in such complex production systems and buildings? This may sound bizarre, but try to mentally miniaturize yourself. Hold on there, I don’t mean dumb yourself down, but rather visualize you’re a tiny being that could crawl into minuscule cracks and crevices.

Plant employees are continuously running around with a caulking gun trying to seal up those gaps, and it seems like every time, new ones appear. We need to start thinking about what we are sealing “in.” Simply covering something up with caulk, even in the newest of plants, will most likely seal something into the void that shouldn’t be there. Therefore, our practices may need some work.

Take a stroll through a food plant or a production line that’s being torn down to learn how bad stuff hides really well.

Over the years, I have walked through a laundry list of plants as they were taken apart and have even helped remove machines from their long time moorings. It’s this type of environment where miniaturizing yourself isn’t necessary because everything is out in the open. But if you’re planning on staying put, as many manufacturers are these days, you may want to invest in taking off the blinders and really “look” for what can be hiding.

Companies may not be losing sleep now over their plant’s cleanliness. However, when the impending regulations launch alongside the continued media hype with a side order of the occasional news story reporting further salmonella cases, employees are going to begin lunging for theLunesta and aching for theAmbien.

This will be a wide eye-opening experience for everyone who is forced to face the fear of what might be lying beneath the surface.

Remember to “clean as you go” and don’t let sani-cause you any grief. It’s the lack thereof part that should be of concern.

Jeff Dearduff