Former Director of Corporate Food Safety and Quality for Golden State Foods Wendy White sits down for an interview with SmartBrief. She puts her years of experience to work behind the scenes, helping to ensure pathogens don’t reach the consumer end of the food chains.
Wendy White had long been interested in the public health sector when she dove into a career in food safety and quality. A microbiology class White took as an undergraduate piqued her interest in food.
“I thought, here is a way that I can make an impact in the public health sector, where it can be preventative, and I can help people before they get sick,” she said. “The idea of that is really very intriguing to me.”
Golden State Foods is a global food manufacturing and distribution company that supplies a wide range of foodservice products. It has four main divisions focused on proteins, liquid products (such as condiments and salad dressings), aseptic dairy products, and produce. The company boasts 22 distribution facilities in the United States and one in Egypt. Its manufacturing operations include four plants in the United States and nine overseas.
The company has been using TraceGains since 2012 to help manage documents related to food safety and quality, primarily in its liquids and aseptic dairy divisions. It uses the Supplier Compliance, Supplier Management, and Specification Management products.
SmartBrief spoke with White about her work as a critical behind-the-scenes team member protecting public health.
SB: What were the challenges of dealing with such a wide variety of products?
White: One of the challenges was that there were different pathogens in each of the different categories. You were concerned about [one set of pathogens] for beef and a whole different set of pathogens for produce. And shelf-stable liquids are very complicated, as is aseptic dairy.
You also had different levels of inspection. You had the USDA for beef, the FDA for others, and overseas they have local inspections. That adds complexity.
On the other hand, there were advantages, and that had to do with sharing best practices. Somebody was always doing something better than you were, and we had done a lot of cross-pollination to learn from the different categories, so we built strength across the enterprise.
SB: What were some of the necessary people skills for your job?
White: That field is obsessed with automation, and I think it’s a wonderful thing, but you can never take the people piece of it for granted.
The two things you always to have on your people’s side are vigilance and engagement. You will never be able to replace the people who are on the floor. They are the eyes in the trenches, and they see everything that goes on. They see where we could be exposed to problems, or even more importantly, potential issues.
These two skills – vigilance and engagement – aren’t necessarily intuitive. Develop them through training, empowerment, and encouragement. People need to know that they have the authority to raise their hands and throw up a red flag.
SB: How have the functions of food safety and quality assurance evolved during your career?
White: I have seen significant changes in our arena of quality assurance and food safety. I think the role of quality practitioners has evolved and expanded. It seems like we must extend that focus into areas such as food fraud.
And now, we are looking at areas such as social responsibility and sustainability, and I think that’s a reflection of how consumers’ expectations have changed. Their definition of quality has changed.
There’s a big move to go to things like natural preservatives with all the clean labeling initiatives. As quality practitioners, we must be mindful of these things. Removing the chemical preservatives from a product is not necessarily good because it might compromise its safety.
SB: What are some business lessons you’ve learned from having operated internationally?
White: We found great benefit in having frequent communication with all of our international sites because we discovered that many emerging issues first surfaced in another part of the world. So, if you’re in contact with your international colleagues, you have a heads-up and can start formulating your strategies before it becomes an issue in the United States.
Understanding what the public is concerned about before you get a call from your customer about it is invaluable.
It will better prepare you for emerging hazards too. In Europe, for example, they were looking at E. coli long before we were.
SB: What advice would you have for someone just starting in food safety and quality assurance?
White: I would advise them that learning does not stop at graduation. I was, and am still, a big proponent of continuing education, and one of the best ways to do that is through our associations and organizations.
My two favorite organizations are the Consumer Brands Association and, of course, the International Association for Food Protection. They have invaluable exposure to emerging issues. I can’t stress enough to network with other quality professionals in academia, government, and industry.
Shop around, and once you found an organization, get involved in it. Not only attend the meetings, but also get involved by presenting at the meetings, joining the committees, and trying to get involved in some leadership opportunities. Often these national organizations have regional or state affiliates, and that’s a great place to start.
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SmartBrief originally published this post.