For Gillian Kelleher and the Wegmans Team, Food Safety and Consumers Always Come First
If you’ve recently shopped at a Wegmans Food Market, you’re familiar with why customers love this mid-Atlantic grocery chain headquartered in Rochester, NY.
Wegmans does a superbly remarkable job of delighting store visitors with fresh foods, friendly workers, unparalleled selection, reasonable prices, and immaculate stores. Their gorgeous, always-fresh salad bars and huge candy section are also a big hit. Plus, offerings like child care, cafes and restaurants, and pharmacies create a “one stop shop” for busy people who appreciate not having to trek around town to get their long list of errands done.
While all of the in-store happenings make for an incredible shopping experience customers genuinely get excited about, two behind-the-scenes priority areas are at the core of why Wegmans wins so many fans: A food safety first approach and paying close attention to customer feedback.
Today, you’ll step inside the life of Gillian Kelleher, VP of Food Safety and Quality Assurance (QA) at Wegmans. She’s been at the heart of a new relationship we’re working on with Wegmans, and, like all of us at Stop Foodborne Illness, she’s deeply committed to the mission of keeping contaminated food off the tables we sit down to eat at everyday.
Q: Tell us about yourself and how your longtime career in food safety came about.
A: I was born in Cork, Ireland, and I’m the eldest of nine children. I attended University College Cork and graduated in 1985 with a degree in Dairy & Food Science.
After graduation, I moved to England where I started my career with Express Foods Group (Grand Metropolitan) and worked at various locations in manufacturing Quality Assurance (QA). In the late ‘80s, we implemented a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in our cheese processing plants and were the first dairy company in the world, I believe, to become ISO 9000 certified. Looking back, I appreciate how very fortunate I was to start my career with a company where high standards of food safety and quality for our customers really mattered. I thrive in that setting!
Following my time with Express Foods, I moved to Burger King Europe in London to work as a Supplier Quality Assurance Auditor. In 1992, I relocated to France to work with Häagen Dazs as plant QA Manager at their green field European manufacturing site. Next, I moved on to Paris and worked with Grand Metropolitan Foods Europe in the role of Senior QA Manager where I was responsible for all aspects of QA for eight manufacturing locations in four countries.
In 1997, I started with Wegmans Food Markets. Back in Europe, I had always worked in the area of QA. For me, it’s implicit that (in the definition of quality) the food in question be safe to eat. That should be a given. When I came to Wegmans, though, Danny Wegman saw fit to call out “food safety” in our group’s name, as well, emphasizing its critical importance to our customers.
As my career progressed, I sought companies that could satisfy the three criteria I always looked for: The customer is held in the highest esteem, employees are proud of the company they work for, and I can make a difference. I found all three with Wegmans Food Markets.
Q: What’s a typical day like in your work at Wegmans?
A: A lot of what I do revolves around collaborating with my team on food safety initiatives and issues. I’ve got a strong, committed group of food safety & QA professionals working with me, and they never tire of doing what’s right for our customers when it comes to food safety. I’m very proud of them!
To get a little more granular, my typical day includes meetings, calls, visits with various partners, projects we’re working on to prevent foodborne illness, and putting fires out—like when a food recall hits.
While I focus a fair amount of time on everyday activities, I also work diligently with my team to push forward on the company’s key strategic priorities. One example is partnering with other retailers and fellow Food Marketing Institute (FMI) members to improve Listeria control in our deli departments. This includes taking the learnings and developing a guidance document for all retailers to use.
Now, one thing that’s unique about me is that I live in Boston and telecommute from there. With Wegmans’ HQ in Rochester, NY, you can also find me traveling to their main office a couple times per month. Plus, I’m closely involved with our trade association, FMI, and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), so a typical day often includes travel and/or interaction with folks on these fronts.
In a nutshell, my work has me handling food safety and QA across our entire business—including our stores, internal and external manufacturing, distribution facilities, and our Wegmans brand products. It’s exciting and challenging. No two days are ever the same, and that’s how I like it!
Q: What do you enjoy most in your work?
A: Without a doubt, it’s Wegmans’ high standards and how we work together to achieve those.
Of all the food industry sectors I’ve worked in over the years—food retail, food manufacturing, and food service—I’ve found that retail is certainly the one that brings you closest to the customer, which I love.
I’m fortunate in that my group is part of our Consumer Affairs department. The voice of the customer comes right to us every day through various communications about our products and our service. Questions, complaints, concerns, compliments … we get them all! That feedback loop helps make us better, keeps us on our toes, and feeds right into the high standards and continuous improvement we strive for every day.
At Wegmans, we know we can always do better, and we deeply care about our customers. It’s not just something we say. We live it every single day. The concerned, energetic voices of our customers help regularly inform decisions we make about how to improve our product offerings and heighten our level of service. When you walk into a Wegmans store, everything you see has come about because of what we know our customers want from us.
Q: With all you’re responsible for, what’s the most challenging part?
A: Balancing local and global can be hard at times but fun, too! And it’s very rewarding.
Wegmans is a regional supermarket chain based in the Northeast, yet we source globally. We’re very active on the food safety front: nationally through involvement with FMI, and internationally through our involvement with GFSI. Keeping all of these balls in the air is demanding and challenging, but these areas are incredibly important and valuable to my work. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Q: Is there one food safety problem that gives you a lot of angst?
A: Produce food safety.
We want our customers to eat more fruits and vegetables so they can live better, healthier lives. But, we don’t want those foods making anyone sick. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of produce food recalls, which has been worrisome. So, at Wegmans, we’ve made produce safety a big focus.
Another area where we’re constantly focusing our effort is on store food safety. There’s high risk due to the amount of food preparation we do in our stores. We have a strong emphasis on employee coaching and education, making sure people handling food understand the ‘whys’ behind our in–store food safety practices and the importance of what we do when it comes to safe food handling.
Q: How is Wegmans working on produce food safety and what can Stop’s readers do to help?
A: Produce safety has been a top priority at Wegmans for a couple of years now, as it has been for our industry, too, through FMI. We’re all stakeholders, and we all have our part to play in food safety. As Danny Wegman, our CEO, says often: “Food safety is everyone’s business.”
There’s much being done by Wegmans on the produce safety front. For my part, I currently chair FMI’s Food Protection Committee’s Produce Safety work group and can attest to the hard work and commitment of that group’s members. We’re particularly proud of our partnership and collaboration with the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh in the recent publication of FMI’s Produce Safety Best Practices Guide for Retailers.
As a company, Wegmans has been very involved for some time through the produce trade associations and most recently through the Center for Produce Safety (CPS). We very much believe in the mission of CPS to drive change in produce safety through targeted research and then spreading the word through the industry.
For STOP supporters, they can get involved by reaching out to produce growers and retailers suggesting they adopt the FMI guide’s best practices. It’s a short document, just ten pages long, and consists of two parts: the first is about working with produce suppliers and the second is about retail in-store produce handling. Click here for that guide with more information on how you can do this. This initiative is a priority for us at Wegmans and for FMI members. It would be terrific to have help from STOP members!
Q: At Wegmans, what are some initiatives undertaken that you feel have made a positive difference in food safety?
A: Back in 1998, illness from ground beef nationally prompted us to put “Cook to 160F” warning labels on all ground beef packaged under our brand. This, I think, was important in bringing proper cooking temperature of beef more top of mind with our customers.
In 2002, Wegmans became the first supermarket chain in the nation to introduce irradiated fresh ground beef (under its private label), offering more choice to our customers. Ground beef that’s been irradiated has undergone an additional safety measure, which involves passing a concentrated beam of electrical energy through it to help reduce bacteria like E. coli.
Q: How did you first learn about Stop Foodborne Illness?
A: I met Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO, for the first time at last year’s GFSI conference in Barcelona. I was delighted to see a consumer group represented amongst the 1,000+ attendees. Talking with Deirdre, I knew I wanted to get involved and help with Stop’s work, especially in the areas of food safety advocacy and awareness.
Q: How is your collaboration with Stop helpful to Wegmans?
A: Stop Foodborne Illness is centered on consumers and what’s best for them. It strikes me that Stop is all about meaningful change and making steady improvements that make our food supply safer for all consumers. So is Wegmans, so there’s a fantastic fit.
It’s never been about meeting legal requirements when it comes to preparing and selling food, that’s a given for us. It’s about doing what’s right—for our customers, our employees, and our families. Partnering with STOP helps us put a big exclamation point on this.
Q: Is there one area in your work that you think Stop is especially poised to help you with?
When it comes to communicating with our customers, I think we can learn a lot from Stop on how to do this more effectively. I’m excited to dig in deeper and learn more about the programs and messaging Stop has used at the national level.
Q: Why is your partnership with Stop important to you personally?
A: I’m happy to be aligned with Stop particularly because the organization works so closely with consumers. They are what I’m most passionate about in my work.
From a company perspective, Wegmans has admired and respected Stop’s efforts and consumer advocacy for many years. Our customers trust us. That trust is precious and we don’t ever want to lose it. To that end, partnering with STOP makes all kinds of sense. We like to partner with the best!
Q: Going forward, what can our supporters expect to see with respect to your involvement with Stop Foodborne Illness?
A: I think a major area will be more partnership for joint campaigns. For example, I see us working together on food safety awareness efforts for older adults.
Q: Many of our readers have suffered from, or lost a loved one to, foodborne illness. What’s your personal message to these folks?
A: I want them to know that Wegmans is doing our utmost to ensure the highest standards of food safety for them.
While we realize our work will never be done, we pledge to continuously improve our food safety efforts and aim to stay one step ahead. We’re constantly looking for best practices in terms of science, technology, and partnerships that help us play the strongest role we can in preventing foodborne illness and the suffering that comes with it.
Gillian Kelleher was born in Cork, Ireland and graduated with a degree in Food Science from University College Cork. She has worked in the food industry in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S for over 25 years. Gillian started with Wegmans Food Markets in 1997 and currently holds the position of Vice President of Food Safety & Quality Assurance. Gillian lives in Boston with her husband, Martin, and two sons, and she loves living in the sports capital of the US
If you’d like to reach out to Gillian to share your thoughts or thank her for Wegmans’ support of Stop, please email her at Gillian.Kelleher@Wegmans.com.