Shortcuts. Don’t you just love shortcuts? I’m sure we’ve all used them at some point in our lives. Shortcuts are amazing; why wouldn’t we take advantage of one that’s available? It’s almost instinctive and expected today that we want things to be easier, faster, and better. But shortcuts don’t guarantee success. Quite the reverse in fact. When we take shortcuts we tend to get careless and place more emphasis on efficiency than on quality. Is it worth the risk to take a shortcut when applying food safety practices?
Shortcuts are generally derived from indolence in an attempt to perform a job with the most minimal effort required. This creates the opportunity for negative results and possibly severe consequences.
Let’s say you’re at home preparing a snack of fresh strawberries. After preparing and cleaning them you take them to the table, but a few berries fall to the floor along the way. You decide to go ahead and eat them. In this scenario, your decision to take the shortcut and not rewash the berries only affects you as the consumer – you’re assuming the risk of any consequences that may result.
Now let’s change it up a little bit. Let’s say you’re hosting a kid’s party with several in attendance. Deciding to not rewash the berries in this situation has the potential to negatively affect several children. Is the shortcut still worth the risk when others’ well-being is at stake?
The safety of the foods we consume relies on the everyday decisions of food processing handlers. One poor decision can potentially affect millions of consumers. Shortcuts can be taken at any point in time, but they tend to be more prevalent when someone feels no one will see them not following the proper procedures. As a result, this feeling of anonymity can create a false sense of security where an employee may believe it’s acceptable to take a shortcut. Many dangers can be presented as a result of taking shortcuts in regard to food safety.
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
The lack of understanding can be a catalyst for many shortcuts. Frequently, this is the result of insufficient training that didn’t fully assure trainees understood the content. As a result, employees may believe they’ve discovered a shortcut that in actuality could be detrimental. For example, simply instructing employees that all egg-containing ingredients are handled with yellow containers and utensils would not be adequate unless they truly understand why these procedures are critical to preventing cross contact and the potential of injury or death to consumers.
If we don’t adequately address the why, what will stop employees from thinking they’ve come up with a brilliant new idea to use the blue containers and utensils (that are used for non-allergen products) instead of the required yellow ones? Ensuring that your employees understand why a specific procedure needs to be followed will likely improve overall conformance and inhibit shortcuts.
For successful understanding, develop and implement a comprehensive training program to ensure the delivery of training and education on prerequisite and food safety programs and procedures is provided to all personnel. Experience has demonstrated that many trainings take the approach of just stating what needs to be done rather than demonstrating the why and the associated consequences.
Comprehension of the provided training should be assured and can be accomplished through several methods such as testing with defined satisfactory criteria, on-the-job interviews, direct task observation, etc. Employees should be able to satisfactorily demonstrate that they understand their job requirements in relation to function and level of responsibility. In addition, supervision should routinely verify employee job performance to ensure procedures are being followed and enforced.
The attempt to implement an approach that requires the least amount of work results in employees taking shortcuts. Ironically, when this happens the “shortcut” that was taken often results in more work and effort from others to correct the problems created from not following the outlined procedures. When it comes to food safety, there is no room for deviation from established procedures. Shortcuts are typically methods of doing something more quickly, but often not as thoroughly, as the ordinary procedures.
For example, let’s say an employee responsible for testing a metal detector has a test piece that isn’t identified and rejected by the device while performing the required check. Instead of implementing the required corrective actions, the employee decides to just pass the test piece through one more time. When it is not detected on the second attempt, the employee considers it to be acceptable and doesn’t believe corrective actions are necessary.
In this situation, the metal detector failed to detect a potentially hazardous piece of metal. This presents an opportunity for product contaminated with metal to proceed down the line and into finished packaging before or after this incident since no corrective actions were taken. Consequently, consumers may receive contaminated product that could result in serious health consequences or even death because the employee wanted to apply the least amount of work and, therefore, deviated from the established procedures. Training and education discourage the minimal effort approach and play a key role in preventing blatant disregard for policies and procedures. When employees fully understand the implications of their job responsibilities they’re less likely to take shortcuts. Thorough screening and hiring practices, routine verification of job performance, and accountability may also discourage insubordination. In addition, be open to suggestions and feedback from your employees as they understand the true application of their jobs better than anyone and may have ideas for improvements that truly present a best answer to a situation.
Shortcuts may eventually create bad habits. It may begin innocently enough, but it can quickly become extremely detrimental to consumers, yourself, and your company.
Let’s say we have a chocolate manufacturer whose nightshift production has run past the forecasted finish time. Sanitation is scheduled to be conducted upon completion of production, but now their allotted time for cleaning has been reduced if day shift wants to start on time. To further complicate matters, the sanitation crew is short-staffed and there’s pressure to get production started on time. As a result, some sanitation shortcuts are taken to speed up the process: equipment that is difficult to dismantle for cleaning is skipped, a less intensive pre-operational inspection is conducted, and equipment swabbing is not performed for verification. Let’s also assume that no immediate negative impact is readily noted, so the shortcuts start to occur more frequently because nothing bad happened the first time. The procedures have now become habit, and slowly the entire sanitation program begins to deteriorate.
How long do you think these habits can continue before the large-scale impacts begin to take effect? One positive pathogen result on a finished product? Two? Four reported illnesses? Twenty reported illnesses? Death of a consumer? Death of a child? How far does it have to go before we understand the impact that a single shortcut can have on food safety?
This scenario presents a multi-faceted approach for prevention. Again, training and education is important as well as hiring, verification, and accountability. However, it also appears that there may be an opportunity to improve equipment design to facilitate cleaning. The easier it is to dismantle a piece of equipment, the less likely employees will try to find shortcuts.
This is also an opportunity to solicit input from operators, sanitarians, and maintenance personnel to find a solution that works for all involved. Sometimes searching for a shortcut can require more work than simply following the procedure, especially if it causes problems requiring corrections by additional staff. Wouldn’t you prefer that your employees collaboratively focus on finding an agreeable solution that is not only a shortcut, but the best answer? There needs to be an organization-wide understanding and commitment to food safety that prioritizes these practices above operational efficiency and outputs.
Implementation of shortcuts has been observed across multiple disciplines, departments, shifts, etc. Frequently nightshift operations get a bad reputation for being the most likely offenders, and it is generally assumed that this is the result of fewer employees, less oversight by upper management, and time constraints. But shortcuts that could lead to hazardous consequences can occur anytime, anywhere, by anyone.