The food safety industry is always changing, and it’s important to make sure that employees are up-to-date on the latest training, as well as any new industry certifications.
Best practices for employee training
“New reality brings new challenges,” says Bart Dobek, founder, BD Food Safety Consultants, LLC, Chicago.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses are revising their practices related to employee training, he says.
“Face-to-face training is [being] replaced with e-learning options. Social distancing requires separation between employees, which also affects group training. Digital and online learning is now the best practice in employee training,” Dobek recommends.
Considering the current situation and to assist smaller and medium businesses, BD Food Safety Consultants has decided to offer its e-Learning Management System to the industry for free for the first 3 months with no obligation to purchase, he adds.
“Online learning is the future in employee training and studies show this form of training is more effective.”
Holly Mockus, senior industry analyst, Intertek Alchemy, Austin, TX, says that engagement is key.
"Engagement, engagement, engagement! Effective training has to embed employee involvement into it. For example, a training course should include knowledge checks and quizzes that force the employee to interact with the course at regular intervals. If you just play a video or have an instructor ramble on, the result will be in one ear, out the other," she recommends.
Training for employees should be competency based and competencies should be keyed to the jobs employees perform, says Megha Kripa, business development manager, Omnex, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI.
“The best training is interactive and workshop oriented. Today, while we are all working remotely from home, virtual training can be highly effective,” she says. “Recently, Omnex has been conducting a fair amount of virtual training and the positive feedback has been overwhelming.”
Training delivery methods vary widely, but can be grouped into three types: Instructor led, Online learning, and Blended learning, says Kristie Grzywinski, director, technical services, SQFI, Arlington, VA.
“Within each group, there are many different tools available, ranging from videos to infographics, from webinars to virtual classroom courses,” she says.
Choosing the training method that is right for your employees depends on several things, including the goal of the training, time, and budget, Grzywinski notes.
“Identifying the goal of the training is an important first step. Be careful not to identify a solution and then try to fit it to a training need. Begin with the issue at hand: is there a safety need, a performance goal, a new piece of equipment? Once this has been clearly identified, you can begin to identify the skills required for each job. This will be based on individual job descriptions, procedures and work instructions,” she says.
It is important to ensure that all relevant positions are covered, and that shift employees and relief employees are included to ensure that there are no gaps in the training requirements, adds Grzywinski.
“Staff in supervisory, management or technical roles must also be included. The training needs analysis will form the basis for the training program.”
Other important factors to consider are your timeline and budget, she says.
“Dreams of a custom, integrated online training program can be dashed by a scant budget and a tight timeline. Be realistic with both and consider the long-term training needs of both new and existing employees,” Grzywinski comments.
“Next, choose the delivery method. Any training delivery method is perfectly acceptable if used properly. Work instructions are the most simple and cost-effective method for training employees, but electronic delivery methods such as videos and online training courses are appealing for their added value in record-keeping tools and repeatability of delivery,” she says.
Also, don’t forget to plan and conduct refresher training.
“This may be on an annual basis, start of a new season, or as changes occur to the product, process or SQF System, or if the site through their monitoring identifies if the process has gotten off track. Consider using on-going coaching in addition to single-event training to ensure employees are on track at all times.”
Finally, be sure to document the training program and training conducted, Grzywinski says.
“Lastly, verify learner competency; just because the employee was trained, doesn’t mean they are able to perform the task. This is why it’s critical to verify the employee’s competency, or ability to perform the task consistently. Witnessing the employee conduct the task on the job is one was to assess competency. To ensure they do it correctly all the time, consider re-evaluating the employee over time and provide coaching as necessary,” she recommends.
Rod Martell, food safety professional, AIB International, Manhattan, KS, agrees that annual classroom training is always beneficial to employees, whether in-person or through a virtual platform.
“It’s then beneficial to observe each employee perform the training exercise on the facility floor under actual settings, followed up with interviews to confirm their understanding. It is also beneficial to conduct CCP and Preventive Control Training more than once a year, as these are the areas within your FSMS that have been identified as crucial to providing safe products to the consumer. In the event of a deviation, employees will need to know what to do, so practice several times a year is critical,” he says.
“Even though it is not required, HACCP/PCQI training certifications should be revisited at least every five years, as things in the food industry change frequently,” Martell says.
It’s also important to stay up to date on regulatory changes, he notes. That includes updates like FDA’s recent decision to temporarily conduct remote importer inspections under FSVP due to COVID-19, as it “shifts to conducting these inspections remotely during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
“Even though FDA may not be doing on-site audits, each facility needs to be prepared and maintaining their current programs, such as their COAs. We recommend that clients go to FDA.gov and stay current with ever-changing guidance,” adds Martell.
“Due to restrictions on traveling and allowing visitors into facilities, food manufacturers that are GFSI Certified will want to seek an extension on their certificates. They will also want to have their audits done as soon as the window opens up to ensure their certificate does not expire.”
Certifications will vary by state and by industry, says Mockus.
"There are some staples, like forklift driver certification. No matter the certification, though, what’s important is to have a system that helps you track when an employee’s re-certification is due. The right training management system will go a long way to helping you keep on top of this in advance," she says.
Certifications in food safety management systems like FSSC 22000 or SQF or BRC, quality management systems or ISO 9001 are in high demand, says Kripa.
“When companies get certified to food safety or quality, then it is a requirement to have internal auditors. Internal Auditor or Lead Auditor certifications are required by the standards.”
Other popular certifications are HACCP and PCQI, she says, and both are required in the food industry. PCQI is mandated by the FDA.
There are two major food safety regulations in the U.S (HACCP and FSMA), and both require some type of training, says Dobek.
“Under the HACCP regulation it is required that HACCP coordinators are HACCP certified. FSMA Preventive Controls for Human and Animal Food rules require that each food business has PCQI (Preventive Controls Qualified Individual) available to the company,” he comments.
The best way to become PCQI is to attend standardized certification course developed by FSPCA, Dobek says.
“Neither HACCP nor PCQI certifications have an expiration date as current legislation doesn’t require re-certification. HACCP re-certification may be however required by the customer—Costco, for example, requires that HACCP re-certification for certain individuals takes place every 5 years.”
Training that is most familiar to everyone is HACCP training and the FSPCA Preventive Controls for Human Food training, says LeAnn Chuboff, VP, technical services, SQFI.
“Both are training in food safety with FSPCA training addressing a requirement within FSMA. According to FDA, a preventive controls qualified individual (PCQI) is required to complete certain activities at the site and is designated as a PCQI when they have successfully completed certain training in the development and application of risk-based preventive controls or is otherwise qualified through job experience to develop and apply a food safety system,” she says.
The PCQI can demonstrate their competence by successfully completing training in the development and application of risk-based preventive controls under a standardized curriculum recognized as adequate by FDA, Chuboff notes.
“All other training at the site is to be determined by the site. A training schedule should be developed based on the needs of the site and the employees and outline the necessary competencies and the training methods that are to be applied. The schedule should list the required training for new hires, temporary staff, visitors, and refresher training. This could include training for all aspects applied to the site including areas in food safety, workplace safety, quality training (i.e. SPC), etc.”
According to Chuboff, examples of training programs include:
- Appropriate HACCP training for staff involved in developing and maintaining food safety plans.
- Good Manufacturing Practices for all staff engaged in handing food at the site.
- Environmental monitoring for relevant staff.
- Allergen management, food defense and food fraud for all on-site staff.
- Sanitation and chemical handling
- Internal auditor training for the lead auditor and for on-site personnel that are assisting in this role.
- Workplace safety training
- SPC training
- FSPCA Preventive Controls for Human Food (PCQI) training.
Getting up to speed
It’s important for employees to stay up-to-date with the latest certifications.
“Whenever possible, employees should attend subject specific seminars, either in-person or virtually. AIB International now offers many of our expert-led seminars through Virtual Classroom, which provides our expertise and training without travel. We also offer private in-person and virtual training on various subjects. Courses such as PCQI, Food Defense Coordinator, Food Fraud and FSPCA Intentional Adulteration should all be on your radar,” says Martell.
Dobek recommends staying up-to-speed with FSMA, and the best way to do this is to sign up for the FDA’s notifications and attend training courses developed by FSPCA, he says.
“BD Food Safety Consultants currently offers a PCQI course for Human Food and a Foreign Supplier Verification Program Course. We also have started the qualification process to provide our Clients with an Intentional Adulteration Course,” Dobek notes.
Some of the trickier aspects of FSMA and important certification can benefit from the assistance of an outside set of eyes to be sure all documentation is in order, says Mockus.
"Food safety consultants study these topics daily as part of their job; leverage that expertise. Be sure the consultant you use also has real-world industry experience outside of consulting. Otherwise you could wind up with academic advice that’s good on paper, but not practical to apply," she notes.
Pre-FSMA, all employees engaged with the manufacture, packing and holding of baked goods must have the training, education or experience to do the job that was assigned to them. However, under the FSMA Preventive Controls Rule for Human and Animal Food there is a requirement to have a “qualified individual” in place, says Rasma Zvaners, VP of regulatory and technical services, American Bakers Association, Washington, D.C.
“This person is the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI), and that person must have successfully completed a class that is recognized by the FDA, in addition to already having the education/experience of bakery production. This individual would also need to be familiar with good manufacturing practices (cGMPS), training in hazard assessment of critical control points (HACCP) and Hazard Analysis Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC),” Zvaners notes.
The FDA-approved coursework was developed by FDA in conjunction with the Food Safety Preventive Control Alliance, she says.
“It’s my understanding that once this was in place, additional ‘trainings’ were added; for example, there is a certain course for dealing with the regulatory requirements of the Foreign Supplier Verification Program,” Zvaners adds.
For the Intentional Adulteration Rule, the employees assigned to this area have to be familiar with food defense training, she says. The qualified individual does the bakeries’ vulnerability assessments.
Best practice for FSMA is for every facility to have two or more persons take the PCQI class pertaining to type of food production, says Kripa.
“In regard to Import Certification, all facilities and importers should take a FSVP course to understand the regulations and criteria,” she recommends.
FSMA was signed into law in 2011 with the first wave of rules being enforced in 2016, says Chuboff, and when FSMA was first released, there was a flood of information that was shared.
“Since then, the amount of attention to the rule isn’t as precedent; however, there is still a lot we can learn,” she says.
“The first way is to learn about the rule and take a class such as the FSPCA Preventive Controls for Human Food training. Even if you took a class when the rule was first released, you might want to consider retaking another class. There is a lot of information that we now know that is shared in these classes. Additionally, there are classes that have been developed that address specific rules such as foreign supplier verification and intentional adulteration. Many of the classes now offer a blended learning of online and in-person instruction,” Chuboff adds.
A second way to get up to speed with FSMA is to go directly to FDA and the FDA website, she recommends.
“The FDA has been capturing the different questions they have received and have an excellent FAQ page on their website. They also have a means to asking your own question if it isn’t already posted.”
Another way is to talk to your retailer or buyer, she says.
“Many [retailers and buyers] have manufacturing sites of their own and are considered the importer of record. They have been in communication with FDA and can share some of the hits and misses that they encounter.”
Lastly, don’t count out your association.
“Associations, such as the Food Industry Association (FMI), are a constant source of information, and can share helpful resources and explanations for understanding the regulatory requirements. They are ready to answer your questions or go to the proper authorities for getting the right answer,” Chuboff says.
Martell says that Food Defense involving Intentional Adulteration now requires that Food Defense Qualified Individuals and those working in areas in the facility that are considered Actional Process Areas with Mitigation Strategies would require the Qualified Individual in that area to have appropriate training on their role in the Mitigation Strategy. [They should also] be able to demonstrate this training to a regulator, if asked to do so.
“Under FSMA, each site should have a trained Preventive Control Qualified Individual (PCQI). They will also need to demonstrate their knowledge of the FSMS and how their HACCP or Food Safety Plans were developed,” he says.
If it comes to HACCP and PCQI certifications, current legislation doesn’t require re-certification, says Dobek.
“It may be required by the customers with frequencies as outlined in each of the Vendor Audit schemes, but not by the current law. Under the Preventive Controls rule, it is required that employers provide Food Safety and Food Hygiene Training to all staff involved in any food operation. The frequency of training—including retraining—is not specified in the rule. Most businesses conduct employee training at the start of employment and retrain yearly thereafter,” he says.
“At BD Food Safety Consultants, we believe that food safety/food hygiene training should be ongoing, and the frequency determined based on Internal Audit findings. The more non-conformances related to employee practices are found, the more frequent training the company should have. E-Learning options for workforce training we offer can be very helpful in that process,” Dobek recommends.
Workforce development training strategies
Training is one of the most important aspects to continue and improve food safety, says Kripa.
“All employees need to be trained on the food safety rules of your facility and also regulatory rules. Also, there needs to be specific training for certain individual jobs. This would include positions such as HACCP Monitor, Receiving and Shipping Persons, Internal Auditors, Maintenance and Sanitation persons and others. Training should be at a minimum of annually refresher courses with testing to verify learning and competency.”
Martell says that manufacturers that are committed to a food safety culture will also positively develop their workforce.
“By keeping your workforce current on best practices through food safety training, they will also develop their careers and raise the standard for food safety in your facilities,” he says.
Communication is also key to developing your workforce, Martell adds.
“For example, during this COVID-19 crisis, it is important to monitor the CDC, FDA, USDA and other websites and stay up to date on best practices, while regularly relaying that intelligence to your staff to ensure the information you’re providing them is current and accurate. Manufacturers should also educate their workforce on any changes to the FSMS due to any COVID-19,” he recommends.
As there are changes to production or cleaning, or changes to staffing levels that could change the HACCP/Food Safety Plans, these changes need to be made and signed by the most senior person in the facility, he says.
“Leadership will then need to show that they addressed the issue, and then communicate how and why they did so to the staff, which will support staff morale and trust.”
Mockus says that to her, the two most important strategies for workforce development are having training in multiple formats, and showing employees that you care about their development.
"Multiple formats means a mix of training courses (classroom or eLearning), reinforcing that training with structured shift huddles and breakroom videos, coaching on the floor, and app-driven on-the-job training. And perhaps most important is showing employees you care. The right training platform can make it easy to build learning plans to make career pathing possible. Giving more than a one-and-done approach shows your investing in your people. This goes a long, long way to the employee feeling good about their employer," she adds.
Providing resources and tools is the best way to enhance your workforce performance, recommends Dobek.
“Next to the financial resource, providing with training and ongoing education is part of the strategy. It is important that training provided to the workforce is effective,” he says.
Tamie Van Buren, manager, compliance, SQFI, recommends these as some best practices in workforce development:
- Understand the difference between training and workforce development and create measurable objectives. Training generally meets a current need that could be the result of a certification, regulatory or company requirement. Workforce development ensures future needs will be met through developing current employees. Companies should have an understanding of what they are working to achieve.
Best practice: Think outside the box when it comes to finding workforce development opportunities. There are companies that focus on workforce development but also look to industry and local resources such as community colleges and universities. Many will have groups or departments that specialize in workforce development and will often customize for a specific company.
- Identify the potential of each employee. Engage and empower employees so they feel equipped for their future in the company.
Best practice: Utilize a performance and potential matrix to take the guesswork out of identifying employees who are strong candidates for development.
Best practice: Don’t use a cookie-cutter approach to workforce development plans for each employee. Employees should have input into the creation of a plan that will meet their goals while ensuring company objectives are met. Employers can help guide the connection between the two.
- Inspire loyalty and develop personnel for retention by providing management support and necessary resources to achieve success.
Best practice: Recognize employees who successfully meet or exceed their goals. Don’t underestimate how important it is to celebrate employee achievements. This helps to ensure they further their career in the company instead of with someone else. Newsletters, communication boards and/or monetary awards are all good examples.
At BD Food Safety Consultants, Dobek says he often sees people repeating their certification courses, as their previous training was ineffective.
“This resulted from the inability to demonstrate the knowledge during an audit or inspection. Effective training is where instructors do not just read the slides, but instead explain the course content. E-Learning options in workforce training also increase training effectiveness by introducing interactive elements.”
As a main strategy, many companies set a yearly budget specifically for workforce development, Dobek says.
“That covers expenses associated with education, equipment and tools that the employees need to do their job. Setting the goals, planning the budget and providing education and the necessary tools seems to be the best approach in workforce development.”