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Food Safety at U.S. Foodservice Is Job Specific

The concept, devised by Jorge Hernandez, vice president of food safety and quality assurance, has also resulted in an intricate system of checks and balances that assures its supply chain partners that the food safety principles the company espouses are actually being practiced 24/7.

"This year we developed food safety training programs that are specific for each job, including sales and drivers. It is particular to their jobs and what they do. The programs are also different from one another," Hernandez said during a recent interview with ID Access.

"I'm trying to implement something that will be long lasting. What we call sustainability."
Hernandez justified his approach, explaining that each person's job and responsibilities are different and require unique efforts and knowledge. Additional obligations, if abruptly thrust upon them, could complicate the worker's schedule and inadvertently cause him or her to execute the new task poorly, sometimes causing more damage. The skills that are taught are meant to be implemented only by that the worker who learns them.

"You really have to think through not only the theoretical part of food safety, how good or important it is, but how you are going to imbed it into what they are going to do," Hernandez said, noting that food safety training and awareness are going to make big differences in their routines.

Studying the dissimilar work done everyday by DSRs – or territory managers as USF refers to them, warehouse personnel, drivers, managers and executives, Hernandez took those differences into consideration when designing training programs because "they're going to look at it with their own spin, what does it mean to me, why do I have to do it, and will it change for the better what I do."

For example, drivers learn skills that they could carry out as soon as they leave the classroom, while managers or supervisors learn procedures that not only they could immediately implement but also how to measure subordinates' accomplishments.

Ultimately, Hernandez, who was vice president of food safety, risk management and regulatory relations for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, Chicago, before taking this job 10 months ago, said his goal is to have all U.S. Foodservice employees maintain food safety standards everyday that they're on the job.

"What is very important for me is that workers don't carry this out for one day, one week or one month. I'm trying to implement something will be long lasting. What we call sustainability. You have to make it part of their jobs and goals. That is a huge challenge," he said.

Hernandez said the single most important ingredient of this formula is the unequivocal support of the distributor's top management.

"Your leadership not only must be able to talk about food safety but must put the resources behind what you're doing. If you don't have that, you're dead in the water," he warned.

Hernandez said support includes designating one person, with the appropriate title and authority, to oversee all aspects of food safety.

"That's the only way that you're going to show the prominence and importance of this topic. You cannot make it a part-time job of someone who already has a dozen things to do. You have to make it a priority," he advised.

Hernandez instituted a multi-tiered checking system to assure, as he called it, sustainability.

After training all of the employees as well as managers and supervisors, who will additionally monitor compliance, a third-party independent auditor verifies that the entire company adheres to the procedures that have been established. The importance of a third-part verification, which looks at good manufacturing practices, the buildings, pest control, cleaning and sanitation, among other areas, Hernandez said, is that it provides unbiased assessment of the fulfillment.

"On top of that we instituted a process to verify the particular way that we receive and deliver products," he continued.

The third step is for corporate executives to inspect everything that the auditors found, though, he emphasized, their mission is not to hunt for errors but rather solutions.

"After all of this we developed a measuring device, a scorecard, that allows us to determine where we are and the progress that we're making, division by division, center by center, as a region and as a company, to see which things are working and which aren't and be able to make adjustments," Hernandez said.

Commenting on industry compliance, Hernandez said that more operators are interested in maintaining pathogen-free cooking and eating environments, ask intelligent questions and look for good advice than in the past.

"They're asking for verification. They are telling their suppliers, 'Don't tell me you are doing food safety, show me what you're doing for food safety.' There are many smarter operators today than in the past. Also many of them receive deliveries with thermometers in their hands and that makes me very happy because that's what we teach in ServSafe," he said.

"Food safety awareness and training require continuous efforts if we are to maintain the safest food supply in the world."
Moreover, he sees operators working closely with their DSRs and he's making sure that their food safety relationship develops even further. To be sure, Hernandez recognizes that there still are sales reps who are interested in only selling as much as possible, without considering the broader foodservice picture. These DSRs are perilously wrong to assume that food safety issues are not important to their sales, he said.

"Our mentality, when it comes to our clients, is that we want to be there for them not just to sell them products but also to engage and help them with everything else that they need. We want to make sure that we have the safest and best quality products that we can deliver to their back doors. While there, we want to know what else we can do to help them," Hernandez observed. "One of the programs that we're supporting is the training and certification of operators' managers because we see that as an asset to the whole organization. It's a win-win situation for everyone."

While this year's food safety theme – hand washing – is important, especially to operators, U.S. Foodservice, the second largest distributorship in the country, is focusing on cold-chain management and cross contamination.

"We are putting together a food safety awareness campaign to coincide with National Food Safety Education Month, which reinforces the messages that we have been trained, measured and audited against. I feel that we're living by the spirit of the National Food Safety Education Month but we're tailoring it to our needs," he said.

With the growth in international food trade, maintaining safe food practices will become more challenging, Hernandez noted, requiring on-going training and sharing of best practices along the supply chain.

"It's not enough to say 'I was trained and certified once, I know everything there is to know about food safety.' Food safety awareness and training require continuous efforts if we are to maintain the safest food supply in the world," he advised.

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