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Why we can't just inspect our way to safer food

Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels is founder of Aubrey Daniels International and has spent more than 30 years working with organizations to apply the science of human behavior to the workplace. He is the author of Safe By Accident: Take the Luck Out of Safety - Leadership Practices That Build A Sustainable High Performance Safety Culture (November 2010) and blogs about workplace safety and management issues.

The only way to ensure food safety is to make sure that everyone in the food industry who touches plant, animal, or food--from the field to the dinner table--does so in a safe manner. Unfortunately, the latest version of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which the Senate passed this Tuesday, does not address this issue at all. The designers of the act think it does, but it doesn't.

The government seems to think it can require, inspect and educate safe behaviors into the food chain. However, quality experts learned long ago that you cannot inspect quality into a product or service. I have been in too many government inspections in the Army and in other parts of the government where vehicles looked good but wouldn't run; where equipment didn't operate properly, but the operators could avoid the detection; where paperwork irregularities were explained away. Why were such things done? Simple: To avoid punishment.

Punishments and penalties are favorite government tactics to "enforce compliance." The problem is that the penalties rarely affect the unsafe behavior. More likely than not, the penalty is to the organization and does not touch the offending performers. Even when it does, the consequences are usually too late and uncertain to be effective.

The basic problem with these behavioral consequences like punishment and penalties is that, while in some instances they stop behavior, stopping unsafe behavior doesn't mean that safe behaviors will replace the unsafe ones. A typical response to punishment is to do things to avoid it. However, this avoidance (surprisingly to some) is continually reinforced, since it works. It is unfortunate that lying and cheating can often get you out of punishment, but it can--and more often than not it makes penalties, sanctions and other enforcement techniques ineffective.

This brings me back to inspections. The purpose of most inspections is to find errors. Namely, who is at fault and who is to blame. Why wouldn't people want to avoid them? On the other hand, if inspections were instead used to help employees be more successful, why wouldn't they welcome them? In fact they do. More and more business people hire coaches for just that purpose. If we create a food-safety inspection process that employees seek, rather than seek to avoid, we might just get somewhere.

So what would a better approach look like? First, the government should train inspectors such that they can actually help facilities improve. It is easy to criticize; the real value comes not from finding errors, but from offering practical ways to solve problems. On top of that, we need better inspections of the inspectors. This will make sure that the standards are maintained and will provide opportunities to reinforce inspectors who are the most helpful.

Another effective strategy the government could take would be to develop a series of levels--such as silver, gold and platinum--for consecutive inspections at 100 percent. When a facility reaches the platinum level for, let's say, 24 months of consecutive scores of 100, reporting requirements and inspection frequency would be reduced.

But it's not just about better government oversight. The plants themselves need to encourage employees to observe and record safe conditions and behaviors. In the beginning no negative consequences should be used, no matter the score. There should be positive reinforcement for those who demonstrate use of safe procedures and safe behavior. Plants should also post the score, with a graph of progress, for all to see. Low scores on the graph would provide motivation for improvement; and as scores improve, visitors and other employees will note the progress, which will further reinforce the accomplishments. The combined score for the facility should hang in the lobby, signaling a shared accountability for operating a "safe food facility."

It's also important to encourage customers to visit and score the plant's food-safety behaviors and practices. I never will forget eating with colleagues at a small restaurant in Milan where the owner invited the party to inspect his kitchen after we had completed our meal. It was immaculate! It is a real statement of confidence in the condition of a facility to have customers, not just to visit but actually score you. When you create a facility where employees take pride in safety accomplishments, it reduces the need for regulatory oversight and makes the role of the government one of actively helping to ensure a safe food supply.

That's the kind of systemic overhaul we need if we want our food to be safe. More punishments and penalties are unfortunately easier; however, they won't get the job done. Creating an environment where all employees have pride in the safety of the product they produce is the only long-term solution to this problem. Pride can only be accomplished in an environment of positive reinforcement.

By Aubrey Daniels

 |  November 30, 2010; 4:07 PM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Federal government leadership , Leadership advice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree with everything Daniels says, but would add some concerns I have. I don't see how government inspectors can be a more potent force urging industrialized food operations to correct problems than damaging lawsuits of those sickened after eating contaminated food.
That aside, I see a huge loophole in this legislation in that it promises to solve problems like the recent salmonella outbreak that forced a huge egg recall. This is not a problem of inspecting, because one egg looks like another, and just inspecting eggs won't detect those that are contaminated. This will become quite clear in the first salmonella outbreak traced to eggs after this legislation passes. The problem is that salmonella has found a way to break through into the inside of the egg itself. This is also largely an east coast problem. Look at the outbreak data, and you will see the west coast doesn't have the problem. Why would national inspections then resolve this problem?
E-coli contamination of meat is another and completely different issue. It is possible, but very costly, to test all hamburger (the bulk of the problem) for the presence of E-coli. But do we really want to pay for this, either through taxes or increased meat prices?
There is no one easy solution. It might help if employees of meat slaughtering plants were trained in handling carcasses to avoid the contamination, but given the education levels of those filling these minimum wage jobs, that might not help that much.
So this legislation does nothing but add to the bureaucracy. We will have further outbreaks, and there will be yet another bureaucracy to shrug and say it's a difficult issue to deal with. There will be new and larger office buildings in Washington, but nothing will change.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | December 2, 2010 12:29 AM

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