FSMA, The CEO And The Board

Bill Marler | Forbes

Posted: 4/07/17

FSMA, The CEO And The Board

I was speaking recently at a food safety conference to mid-level food safety managers on the topic of “why it is a bad idea to poison your customers.” After muffled applause, I headed toward the exit on my way to the airport. As I slipped out a side door, one of the attendees caught up with me: “Psst, Mr. Marler, can I talk with you?” He said as he furtively glanced around to see if anyone was watching. After feeling comfortable that no one was paying much attention to him speaking to me, he said; “Mr. Marler, I wish my CEO and the Board had been here. They really need to see and hear this – the video of your client, your stories of the warnings missed before an outbreak – the costs to the company through your lawsuits and the recall and brand destruction costs – and, now the risks of fines and jail.” We spoke for ten minutes, I signed his book, “Poisoned,” and I slipped out.

As I headed to the next lawsuit, I could not help but feel for this poor food safety fellow. Getting the attention of a CEO and Board without ill consumers, the media, the FDA, and the lawyers pounding on the door is, in fact, difficult. For the CEO and Board making the business profitable has understandably been the focus.

Investing in food safety is like investing in something that is likely never going to happen. And, even if you invest in it, there is no guarantee that an outbreak will be avoided. Of course, if all of a sudden hundreds are ill, your product is being recalled, sales have fallen to zero, and the FDA and the FBI have arrived at your plant investing in food safety will suddenly seem like it was a very good idea indeed.

So, short of inviting me to come speak to the CEO and Board, how do you get them to focus on investing in preventing something that may never occur, even if there is no guarantee that an outbreak will be avoided? I would say two things: the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and a grossly underfunded Food and Drug Administration (FDA) together tip the scale solidly in favor of investing now to avoid larger problems later.

At its core, FSMA is the FDA mandating Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) on to the 80% of the food industry it regulates. The goal being to require a company to figure out how to produce food safely and then monitor it with inspections based on risk analysis performed by the FDA or is surrogates in State Departments of Agriculture or certified third-party auditors. However, the reality is that, although the FDA is going to require HACCP, given the lack of funding, the likelihood of inspections will be few and far between.

CEO’s and Board’s should not take solace, however, by not being inspected. There may not be frequent inspections, but if recent history is a guide, there will be enforcement. Just look at the recent criminal fines and jail time against companies as diverse as cantaloupe grower, Jensen Farms, egg producer, Wright County Egg, and peanut butter purveyors Con Agra and Peanut Corporation of American have faced in the last two years. The clear message to the industry by the FDA is that periodic educational inspections will be lacking because of lack of funds, but if something goes wrong, you can expect a visit by the FDA, followed shortly by an indictment by a U.S. Attorney.

FSMA allows the food safety people at a company to reset food safety in a logical, thoughtful way and then document that it is being done – the principles of HACCP. In some respects, FSMA sets the roadmap for a journey, but the people within the company will guide it from beginning to the end. It will require buy in and investment by the CEO and the Board. Most will do it because it is it the right thing to do for the customers and the company. Why not do the most you can to avoid a man made disaster? It does require what some call a “culture of food safety.” The idea that producing safe food will be agreed upon across all parts of the business in a daily and systematic way.

Again, most will invest in food safety because it is the right thing to do for the customer and, by extension, the company. And, if despite the investment in both process and culture, an outbreak or recall occur, expect support from those customers and the government. On the other hand, if the investment in food safety is lacking, you can surely expect the opposite.

So for the CEO and the Board, it's about the bottom line –- as it should be. But the bottom line is FSMA and a more aggressive prosecution of criminal cases have shifted the risk. I do not expect that the next time I give a speech that someone will wish their CEO or Board was in attendance, because they already would have been in the audience.




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