Food fighters

Manufacturers rely on skilled employees to keep food supply secure

Posted on Jul 13, 2018 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

It is a food manufacturer’s worst nightmare: having to issue a recall due to the presence of a contaminant, whether it is a bacterium, such as salmonella, or nuts in a product marked nut-free. That’s why testing — of the raw materials, finished product or workspace — plays such an essential role for food manufacturers.

“There is so much consumer awareness about food safety, and it has never been more relevant,” says Steve Kuchenberg, chief operating officer of Cherney Microbiological Services in Green Bay, which provides a variety of testing for the food industry, particularly dairy-related businesses. “Food producers and manufacturers do not want their customers to become ill and understand how food safety is important to protecting their brand.”

According to a joint study by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the average financial impact of a recall is $10 million in direct costs to the food manufacturer, plus damage to the brand and lost sales. Think about it: When a company announces a food recall and the information is shared on social media and in traditional news outlets, the business’s name is repeated several times, and each mention brings with it a negative connotation.

Safely producing and packaging food is a top concern for food manufacturers, says Kevin Ladwig, vice president at Johnsonville, LLC. Businesses need to make sure their final product is free of contaminants, but also the raw materials that go into making the cheese, bratwurst, cottage cheese or pizza. In addition, the manufacturing space and all the equipment in it need to be free of any microbes that could make their way into the food or beverage.

“You are always testing. If there is something in the environment, there is the potential that it could end up in the final product,” he says, adding that not only are the surfaces touching the food checked for harmful microbes, but also that everything is the correct temperature, so bacteria or mold does not grow on the product before it reaches consumers’ tables.

While most food manufacturers have food testing facilities in-house, many also contract out product and environment testing to labs like Cherney to provide another level of safety, Kuchenberg says.

Cherney provides a variety of services including microbiological, analytical and chemistry testing and nutritional analysis in addition to working on special projects for clients.

“From a liability standpoint, it is also good to have an outside, unbiased tester,” Kuchenberg says. “You want to make sure when the consumer opens up that container of sour cream, it’s not curdled or bad. That turns off consumers, and next time, they’ll pick another brand.”

Workforce preparation

Employees working in food safety require specific training on how to conduct a variety of tests, record and track data and stay compliant with regulations.

The industry has seen a host of regulatory changes during the past several years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act — the largest industry changes in more than 70 years — was signed into law in 2011 and went into effect in 2016. The new law, which focuses on preventing foodborne illnesses, requires all food-related manufacturers with more than $1 million in annual sales to develop a risk assessment plan and adopt preventive controls, says Sandy Toney, vice president-corporate quality and product development with Masters Gallery Foods Inc. in Plymouth.

“The new rules raised the bar on what employees need to do,” she says.

Just as other manufacturers struggle to find enough skilled workers, the same is true in the food and beverage industry, especially in food safety. Lakeland University in Plymouth is looking to change that by offering the nation’s first bachelor’s degree focused on the safe production of food. After receiving approval from the Higher Learning Commission for its bachelor’s degree in food safety and quality in June, the university will begin offering classes in the program this fall.

Lakeland’s food safety and quality program blends the science of biology and chemistry with best business practices to prepare students for careers in food processing, says Brian Frink, dean of Lakeland’s School of Science, Technology & Education. Graduates will be well-rounded manufacturing professionals equipped to advance in the production of food, while also possessing finance, management philosophy and other skills needed to lead people to their potential, he says.

“We were hearing from food industry employers that there was a need for this degree,” Frink says. “They are struggling to find people to fill their jobs. Many people simply don’t know these opportunities exist.”

Lakeland worked with Johnsonville, Sargento, Masters Gallery Foods, Old Wisconsin, Usinger’s, Klement’s Sausage and Miesfeld’s to develop the program.

“We’ve created a program that will lead to rewarding, good-paying careers in what is a large, growing industry,” Frink says, adding employees new to the industry as well as current workers can benefit from the program since the training can expose them to other career paths within the food industry.

Toney says Masters Gallery Foods has struggled to find qualified employees in its food safety and quality areas.

“We have had employees who wanted to know more, but there were few options to provide them with advanced training,” she says. “There are so many food-related businesses in this area, but no real options for training. When we heard about this program, we just had to get involved.”

Like other manufacturers, the food safety industry has an aging workforce that will soon need to be replaced, Toney says. “We struggle to find enough workers,” she says.

The Lakeland courses can be taken via the university’s BlendEd and BlendEd Live formats, providing flexibility for students with full-time jobs.

“Producing safe and wholesome products is mission critical for any food manufacturer,” Ladwig says. “With targeted classroom studies, combined with hands-on experience, students will be well prepared to find challenging and rewarding careers in the food industry.”

Beyond Lakeland’s program, some organizations provide more specific offerings to help get current workers up-to-speed on the latest testing techniques and trends
in food safety.

Cherney launched its own training program, Cherney College, in 2014. The in-house training center is open to customers and industry partners looking to learn more about food safety, Kuchenberg says.

The program provides basic microbiology coursework for food production workers as well as other, more advanced classes focused on environmental monitoring for food and production areas.

“There is a big need for continued education in the food industry, and what we provide is a great option,” Kuchenberg says.

The Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership also provides courses to help food manufacturers keep up-to-date with the latest rules. WMEP can walk manufacturers through a risk assessment program called a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plan, which takes a close look at what possible risks any ingredients and processes pose, as well as help set up a Preventative Controls Qualified Individual training program to ensure employees understand what needs to be done to prevent contamination.

Looking to the future

Millennials are driving the increased interest among consumers about where their food comes from and what’s in that food, putting more pressure on food manufacturers that their products are safe and what they have on their labels is correct, Kuchenberg says. Cherney, for example, offers testing to confirm the nutritional information on a package is correct.

“Whether you need to do a recall due to a possible contamination or word gets out that your nutritional label is not correct, consumers feel betrayed and go with the next product on the shelf,” he says.

That increased focus, combined with continuing advances in technology — faster-working equipment that can identify even the smallest contaminants — is one challenge facing the food industry. Traceability is another top issue with food manufacturers since if a food recall is necessary, they need to be able to provide information about where all the ingredients came from.

Toney says food manufacturing is a strong, stable industry, and having enough well-trained workers is vital
to maintain quality.

“We really want to attract younger workers to the field. These are good-paying jobs and our industry is solid — people always need to eat — but we need skilled workers to keep it going,” she says. Φ