As we spotlighted in Part One of this series, food manufacturing leaders have their feet to the fire these days when it comes to implementing the most up-to-date best practices for facility design that puts food safety first.
One remarkable, passionate industry pro has been leading the way over the past few years, and we’re thrilled to call him a good friend.
We’re talking about Dr. Randy Huffman, Chief Food Safety and Sustainability Officer at Maple Leaf Foods, whose impressive work with his awe-inspiring team at their Toronto facility caught our attention in October 2018 when we visited.
In our Q & A with Randy below, you’ll learn how he became the smart, successful food safety warrior he is today and why Maple Leaf Foods stands tallest among food manufacturing companies that make food safety its utmost priority.
Q: Tell us about your professional background and what led you to your current position.
A: My journey to Maple Leaf Foods (MLF) started as a kid in Auburn, Alabama, where my father was a professor of meat science. He taught me a lot about meat production and safety at an early age. I was involved in livestock production and showed cattle throughout elementary and high school. It was all so interesting to me, and I absolutely knew that was the career path I was meant to take.
After earning my Ph.D. in meat science at the University of Florida, I worked for several food companies before joining the American Meat Institute (AMI) in Washington, DC in 2000. During my time at AMI, I became President of the AMI Foundation, and, in that role, I oversaw critical meat safety research.
MLF was a member of AMI and, when the company announced its 2008 recall of some ready-to-eat products due to Listeria contamination, AMI’s CEO reached out to Michael McCain, CEO of MLF, and offered to send me to help. Within two days, I was on the ground assisting in crisis recovery and implementation of a new food safety plan.
During my two weeks at MLF, I got to know the people there and came to appreciate their staunch commitment to food safety—a commitment that started at the top. Every person was focused on solving the problem and making sure it never happened again. That seriousness of purpose drew me in and sparked a strong desire to join the MLF team. And, in 2009, that’s what I did.
Q: At MLF, what have you done from a facility design standpoint that’s having a major positive impact?
A: Globally we’ve closed or modified all old, non-scale plants and invested in new facilities. Within the actual plants, three things have had the biggest impact on our ability to manufacture products in the safety possible way.
First, our Food Safety Advisory Committee, comprised of leading experts in the field, reviewed and approved the initial layout, design, and people-flow plans at our flagship ready-to-eat facilities. Their contributions were significant.
Second, we closely followed AMI’s Sanitary Equipment Design Principles and Sanitary Design Principles for Facilities. Our senior leadership was adamant that we take all the right steps to build food safety into our design and use cutting-edge technology. We traveled the world and toured 25+ best-in-class facilities that had recently been built to collect ideas and deploy them in our plants. For instance, the wheel assembly on equipment in the ready-to-eat (RTE) area can be a surface that is difficult to clean, so it was redesigned to eliminate the “sandwich” between the wheel assembly and leg of the item/equipment. By “opening up” the sandwich with the use of spacers, the mated surface can no longer become a growth niche, or microbial harbor, that will allow bacteria such as Listeria to occupy and potentially contaminate the process area.
Lastly, we put a major focus on our company’s food safety culture. Building a facility with top-of-the-line food safety design is very important, and it does a lot to help employees do their jobs well. But, at the end of the day, it’s people who make food safe. For example, after the 2008 Listeria outbreak, we started a daily 8:30 a.m. food safety call across all facilities—a practice that continues to this day. This sets a very strong tone for putting food safety first.
And, every year, we hold a company-wide commemoration of the Listeria crisis to honor the lives lost and people impacted. Our CEO has a poignant mantra all of us at MLF take to heart: The victims of the outbreak and their families have the right to move on, but we do not.
Q: Leading up to all the improvements you’ve made, what served as the catalyst for investing in those changes?
A: Although MLF was making food safety improvements prior to the Listeria outbreak—simply because it was the right thing to do—that event was a huge catalyst for accelerating those investments.
Q: What facility design best practices do you consider to be vital and non-negotiable for any company that manufactures food products?
A: The AMI guidelines for both sanitary equipment and facility design. Following all of those guidelines should be standard practice for any ready-to-eat food company.
Q: Stop Foodborne Illness is very excited about our work together. What do you find most helpful about your partnership with us?
A: Without a doubt, it’s STOP’s ability to capture the hearts and minds of our 12,000 employees, plant leadership team, and front-line supervisors. STOP’s focus on the people who’ve suffered so greatly or paid the ultimate price for contaminated food is a heart-tugging reminder of the consequences of failure. The victims and survivors represented by STOP motivate us to do everything in our power to prevent foodborne illness.
Dr. Randall Huffman is Chief Food Safety and Sustainability Officer at Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto, Canada. Randy leads a team that has developed and is executing world class strategies to deliver on Maple Leaf Foods’ commitment to produce safe, great tasting food and become the most sustainable protein company on earth. Randy lives in Toronto with his wife, Lisa, and his daughter Lauryn.