Unannounced Audits

SQFI has made news these past few weeks with their announcement that beginning in 2015 some SQF audits will be unannounced.

While unannounced audits are nothing new to the industry they do always cause concern.  There are many valid reasons to not like unannounced audits:

1.  Vacation schedules can make program and document reviews difficult.

2.  In today’s environment of 900 miles per hour it can be hard to drop everything else and accompany an auditor for 3 days at the drop of a hat.

3.  We all like to be prepared and you can never be completely prepared for “unannounced”.

Of course, from the receiver of the audit side there’s just as many reasons to want an unannounced audit:

1.  Plants often spend untold money and effort to “prepare” for the audit, allowing the facility to lapse afterward.

2.  While difficult, it is not impossible, to prepare for an audit and paint a picture somewhat different than the actual running conditions.  This is especially true of employee behavior and plant conditions.

3.  Disasters, recalls and the like aren’t going to call ahead and schedule.  GFSI is intended to be a continuous improvement process.  How better to identify your opportunities than to truly put your programs under the microscope as they are.

Those of us in quality, and some outside, stress the need to be audit ready at all times.  For just the reasons stated above you don’t want to work in a plant that puts on the full court press just prior to the audit.  These plants don’t really take the process to heart and instead are just applying bandaids to ‘pass’.  No one wants to do business with these companies but how do you really identify them?

I remember working with a plant superintendent who used as a root cause finding “Mark was on vacation” with no effective corrective action.  I was not amused.  My reply was that we should start labeling our product to announce to the consumers when Mark was on vacation so they knew the product wouldn’t be as good or safe during that time.  Ridiculous…  All of us know we are not irreplaceable.  Our programs must be effective independent of the persons involved.

It’s still a bit too early to see the full effects of the SQFI announcement.  BRC has offered a modified unannounced audit for quite some time.  It’s voluntary and a solid program.  SQF’s would appear to go a bit above and beyond the BRC.

Unannounced audits are currently thought of as negative.  All programs have a provision for unannounced audits when first results are less than favorable.  Government agency audits are, for the most part, unannounced.  It certainly is not a foreign concept but one that will be eschewed by industry for the reasons above and many more.

If we truly want to get better this is a concept we should embrace.  Whether the SQF program will be effective is yet to be seen.  I only ask that we keep an open mind and challenge ourselves.  I strongly feel that the North American food supply is the safest in the world.  That doesn’t mean we can’t get better.


Food Ingenuity

Why do I love working in the food industry?  The reasons are many but right at the top of that list is the wealth of talent that exists.  Technology tends to get the gold star for forwarding thinking.  The food manufacturers tend to plod behind – slow and steady.  But when innovation takes place sometimes it just knocks your socks off.

As was the case for me yesterday as I was purchasing groceries.  Enter canned vegetables – a true staple and the epitome of consistent.  Canned vegetables, for the most part, remain as they did when your grandparents first started purchasing canned goods at the store in lieu of canning their own.

Welcome to the 21st century:



Green Giant has found a way to vacuum steam without liquid – resulting in crisper product that weighs a mere fraction of the former.  The cans are smaller with the same amount of product; the cans are lighter meaning less transportation cost for them.  The smaller size takes up less space on the shelf – creating more opportunity for other products.  And the taste is fantastic.  A total home run for both the company (cost savings) and the consumer (lighter, easier to store and handle, better product).  Just one of the many reasons I love my job every day.

The Plight of the Lazy Farmer

Pretty much anyone in the farming industry that follows social media has been at least moderately aware of the Panera story for the past few weeks. This ad campaign has gotten more than it’s (un)fair amount of press since its release a bit ago.

Panera Story

It all started with a blogger from Wisconsin who publicly asked a bunch of questions many of us should have been asking:

Open Letter to Panera

I’ve thought about this post quite a bit since the news broke. One needs only to search #pluckezchicken to get an idea of the far reaching offense this ad campaign caused. Farmers and farm supporters across the nation began publicly announcing their boycott of Panera and calling on others to do the same. Panera launched a post by post apology campaign stating they did not intend to offend farmers, they love farmers etc etc etc until the swell of the tide was simply too much and they disappeared. Digging further onto DairyCarrie’s website shows Panera also contacted her directly in an attempt to explain their side of things. Unfortunately they didn’t do a particularly good job of it and the swell continued.  Note to all – never claim something is superior simply because it costs more……

Panera has stuck to their guns, while the pill shaped chicken seems to have diminished a bit. One has to assume they did zero cross functional marketing research before launching this campaign. I find this a bit surprising as my work with Panera always yielded a good back and forth dialogue. I am equally surprised that no one has put effort into finding out exactly who supplies the chicken to Panera and if, indeed, they are doing things differently.

I had the pleasure of working with Panera Bread when they originally developed this program, 8 or so years ago. The company I was working with at the time was one of the largest producers of Raised without Antibiotics chicken and we were approached as a potential supplier for the rollout. At that time, Panera was proceeding slowly, as were a few other chains, and wanted to understand the difference between the raising practices. They had nothing against conventional agriculture (and shouldn’t) and were simply looking for something to differentiate themselves from others in the market.

I have lived my career trying to explain the difference between birds raised without antibiotics and “antibiotic free” chicken. As has been stated many times in the past few weeks, all birds at slaughter are antibiotic free. While some have made statements that USDA makes sure they are (totally not true – USDA does essentially no drug residue testing in poultry) a reputable company – of which 99.99999997% are, follows proper treatment and withdrawal guidelines. Additionally, most companies at this point are using drugs for treatment of illness only. This was not the case 10 years ago – most of the industry used low-dose antibiotics as a means to help the growers ensure a strong flock of birds even if flock management wasn’t ideal.

I have no issue with Panera choosing to buy Raised without Antibiotic chicken, although at this point I’m uncertain if they are or simply mis-advertising the Antibiotic Free term. I think variety is the spice of life and consumers deserve to make an informed choice. What I do take issue with is Panera’s choice to degrade the methods of others – instead of highlighting what they (may?) do differently.

There is room enough in this world for all kinds and positively differentiating yourself from others is what marketing is for. But one should never denigrate the backbone of this country in an attempt to prove you’re better.  For that I am very disappointed that a company I have thought highly of for quite a while has proven themselves undeserving of that priviledge.


Business Continuity – A necessary program or needless pain?

Anyone who has been through a GFSI audit has been challenged to discuss and provide proof of a Business Continuity Plan. If you’re anything like me, the answer evolved over the years from “huh” to “well we’ll manage” to “our plan is to xxx”. But did we ever really think through “xxx” and did we believe in any of it?

A combination of “it’ll never happen to me” and “we’ll know what to do when the time comes” work to make us feel that a continuity plan is at best unnecessary and at worst a colossal waste of company time and effort leads to the citing in this Harvard Business Review article that 75% of the companies surveyed had been hit by an unexpected supply chain disruption within the previous 24 months. This is a troubling statistic given the current emphasis on planning and preparedness.

After much coaching and a bit of frustration at not being able to easily provide proof to auditors my former company embarked on a quest to truly test our business continuity plan. The credit goes to the plant’s Safety Manager who developed a believable and detailed scenario and led the Site Leadership Team through the event blow by blow. The experience was very humbling for all of us and highlighted our weaknesses and strengths in the event of a catastrophe. Thankfully we never had the opportunity to see it in action to judge whether it was beneficial but I will say it was an eye opening exercise.

I encourage each of you to walk through your plan and truly answer some of the hard questions it raises – better to test with a clear head than during an event when you wish you had.

Harvard Business Review – Research: Why Companies Keep Getting Blind-Sided by Risk