The Four Ps of Food Safety

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Food safety is in the news, on the Web, and a frequent point of conversation. Scares and recalls are not uncommon. For the food processor, a well-publicized incident can mean major damage to its brand and its revenue—and maybe the end of the company. The greater a food company’s risk, the greater the need for a proactive food safety strategy. Food safety strategy can be summarized with “the four Ps.”

What’s the Risk?

When it comes to food safety, not all products are equal. Some products are inherently at greater risk than others. The raw material or ingredients represent one factor of risk. Leafy green vegetables (remember the spinach scare) are considered the highest risk, followed by seafood, then meats, as illustrated in the graphic below.

The other factor is how the product is processed. Whether spinach is highly processed (frozen creamed spinach) versus “bagged and shipped” means a big difference in the safety of the end product.

The risk correlates with the need for a proactive strategy to prevent an incident: the greater the risk, the greater the need for a proactive strategy.

The Four Ps of Food Safety
1. Prevention
We’ve all heard that the best defense is a good offense, and in food safety, that’s certainly true. Preventing a food safety incident is the absolute best way to protect your brand. While no one can guarantee that an incident will not take place, only taking proactive steps can minimize your risk. Some of the key initiatives of preventing an incident include:

  • Supplier certification
  • Sanitation
  • Quality control
  • Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP)

A top management commitment to both food safety and customer satisfaction can minimize your risk. Why customer satisfaction? While regulatory bodies set standards and conduct audits, only a commitment to your customers can sustain your commitment to food safety. Of course, today, your larger customers set their own standards and conduct their own audits, and they are typically more rigorous than those of regulatory bodies.

The first step in food safety is building a quality control fence around your business: keep out contaminated ingredients. Then sanitation and good manufacturing procedures are two keys to maintaining quality throughout the process. Your system should provide for integrated quality and food safety functions, including:

  • Product specs during procurement
  • Vendor quality ratings
  • In-bound testing
  • Quality specs as part of inventory
  • Quarantine
  • Aging
  • Date-sensitive picking
  • Plant maintenance
  • Lot tracking

2. Preparation
Good preparation starts with the assumption that, regardless of how diligent you are, you will have an incident. You must be prepared to respond. The backbone of being prepared is the automatic generation of lot tracking and tracing data. An automatic approach to capturing these data requires that data be embedded in all transactions, so no special functions—with their related cost and time—are required to collect these data. This also guarantees that the data will always be collected, as part of normal operations.

Given the response time required by customers and regulatory bodies, it is not practical to rely on manual systems. The data must be computerized.

A complete system would provide supporting information and be integrated with lot tracking, including location management and quality.

3. Proof
For many reasons, you need to be able to prove that your recall system will respond when it is needed. Management and staff need proof that the system works. Of course, the regulatory bodies will demand proof. Today, even more importantly, large retailers and food service customers are also demanding proof.

To build confidence in your recall system, it needs to be tested frequently. To provide proof, your business system should provide for mock recalls. In addition, the ability to validate the data stored in the track and trace system without executing a mock recall is valuable.

4. Proactive Response
If an incident takes place, your response must be proactive. All incidents must be taken seriously. Your strategy should be to respond quickly and completely. Yes, responding can be expensive, but over-response is often less expensive in terms of dollars and PR than under-response.

A proactive response starts with management commitment. Unless top management is committed to food safety and proactive response, you are playing the odds that an incident is a false alarm or that it will not be a major problem. However, you can only identify false alarms or determine the extent of a problem with the passing of time—and that’s valuable time for protecting your brand and image in the marketplace.

Your business system is a major part of your ability to respond and should provide rapid recall support to allow you to meet the requirements set by regulatory bodies. Since getting recall data from your system is only a minor part of the total response required, the system must provide that information in minutes, not hours.

Top management support is critical to your food safety strategy. Food safety is not free, and a single incident has proven to be the end of some companies and brands. Top management needs to understand that food safety is good business.

One way to remember the steps leading to a successful food safety program is to understand the four Ps. The most important “P” is prevention. If an incident never happens, you are successful in protecting your business. However, your major customers and regulatory bodies want more. You, your customers, and the regulatory bodies must assume that an incident will happen, so you need preparation for an incident. You need to build the necessary information to be able to respond when an incident happens. For many constituents, you need proof that your system is ready and able to respond. If an incident happens, the only acceptable response is a proactive response, one that is quick and complete.

About the Author
Olin Thompson is a principal of Process ERP Partners. He has more than 35 years’ experience as an executive in the software industry with a focus in process industry–related ERP, SCP, and e-business–related segments. Olin has been called “the father of process ERP.” He is a frequent author and an award-winning speaker on topics of gaining value, including ERP, SCP, e-commerce, and the impact of technology on industry. He currently provides consulting services to both end user and supplier organizations. He can be reached at

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