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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2005

Summiting Mt. Quality

by Mark A. DeSorbo

The trek to the Summit of Mt. Quality for many in the food industry is a lot like a hiker’s quest up Mt. Everest. The trick for the food company, however, is to stay on top because descending can be devastating. From Camp Product Concept to Communicate-Cooperate Junction through QA Manager Pass, the journey is challenging and it will take as much acclimatization as it does preparation to see you past the awaiting avalanches and the threat of exposure in order to reach Preparedness Plateau and, finally, the Summit.

HIGH IN THE HEAVENS, atop the 29,000-foot summit of Mt. Everest, the world is seen from a different perspective, and those who get there are both driven as well as humbled by what it took to conquer it. The various paths to the top present ever-changing sets of challenges, for each year geological energies force Mt. Everest to rise, and its bipolar disposition often hands down avalanches, the number one cause of death. Bitterly fluctuating weather adds exposure into the mix.

The journey up this Nepalese slope also tests psyches, for those who ascend may see some of the 120 corpses that Everest has claimed and feel the air thinning with every step they take on trails where many things can happen.

Such are the paths that many in the food industry endure as they continually ascend the rising summit of Mount Quality, where descending can be devastating and is definitely not an option.

The avalanches and volatile weather on Mt. Quality are different in nature from Everest's and come in the form from everything from a severed finger in a bowl of chili to looming terrorist threats to tough consumer demands to major departmental reorganizations. Let's also not forget the omnipresent threats of foodborne illness outbreaks and subsequent product recalls that can also come with the territory.

Hikers often make their ways from Everest's base camp to the treacherous icefall to four camps, the last of which is called "the death zone," before reaching the summit. The trek for a food company, especially one in crisis, can follow a similar path and embarking on the journey requires the same degree of preparation should the conditions turn treacherous.

"Any business, whether it's us or any industry, is so fragile that it just takes one incident, even this one which is a fraud, to cause real havoc for six weeks," Jack Schuessler, CEO of Wendy's International, Inc., said in an interview, amid the chili-fingertip hoax. "And the lesson is you've got to be on your guard, but even with that, this thing is so fragile that one has to be able to respond. One has to have a set of core values in order to respond, because there is not a playbook that has been written for events like these."

Surviving the Chili Finger Avalanche

Schuessler is speaking from profound experience, for all it took to trigger an avalanche was a severed, 1.5-inch fingertip. It happened in March at a Wendy's restaurant in San Jose, Calif., and the effect reverberated violently at the Dublin, Ohio-based firm, which operates more than 9,700 restaurants worldwide.

While a husband and wife team is charged in the grand theft plot to create a lawsuit against Wendy's for allegedly purchasing a severed finger and placing it in a bowl of chili, the quick-service chain is making great strides on the vindication path.

News of the incident was like a crevasse opening underfoot, and Wendy's lost about $15 million in sales from March 23 through the end of April as police worked quickly to determine what happened.

Company management was quick to react in search of answers as well.

A $50,000 reward, which was later upped to $100,000, was offered for verifiable information on the incident.

Calls placed by Food Quality to Wendy's corporate headquarters were not returned, but USA Today's Ron Insana, who also hosts CNBC's Street Signs, recently sat down with Wendy's Schuessler, who believed that it was a hoax from the start.

Throughout the investigation, Schuessler, Tom Mueller, president and chief operating officer, and other top officials seized the opportunity to talk to the media, showing great restraint and patience during an incident that made its restaurant chain the butt of many jokes on late-night television shows.

"My first response was 'I cannot believe it.' And I said, 'This is a hoax and we have to get to the bottom of it'," Schuessler told Insana. "As the news got out, we said 'We have to protect the brand; tell the truth.'"

In addition to cooperating with the police and health officials, the path back to Quality led Wendy's through its own internal investigation, which included polygraphing restaurant employees and visual inspections to determine if they were any missing fingers. Wendy's also checked with all suppliers of its chili ingredients and no injuries were reported, as required by government regulations.

"They weren't missing anything, and the polygraphs came back clean," Schuessler said. "No one knew anything about it."

If fact, Schuessler and other Wendy's officials indicated that independent franchises and employees suffered, as they faced less hours and lay offs.

"These people were victims," he said, adding that staying the course of action will see Wendy's back to the proverbial summit. "We just stuck to our core values, doing the right thing, searching out for the truth and listening to the facts. Then, we just made informed decisions."

Preparedness and QA Sherpas

Making informed decisions is done by "paying attention, being open to every detail and never assuming anything," says Rich Jochum, who heads legal affairs and quality control for Beef Products Inc., BPI, a processor of boneless, lean beef trimmings based in Dakota Dunes, S.D.

It also helps to have a guide. For those tackling Everest, they will most likely hire a Sherpa, a Tibetan person living in the Nepalese Himalayas, who often serves as a porter on mountain-climbing expeditions.

In manufacturing environments, like those of BPI's, the Sherpas are one of the 16 quality assurance (QA) managers in its four facilities, who ultimately clear the path and lead the charge up Mount Quality.

Eldon Roth, founder and chairman of BPI uses a different analogy. "A really good QA person is like a fullback on a football team," he says. "When you need four or five yards, you give the ball to that person, and they will get you there."

BPI has a series of quality systems that the company says helps it ascend and stay on top of Quality.

First, workers scrutinize federally-approved trimmings that roll on conveyors from fabrication lines from distributors that meet BPI's raw material specs. The lean material is then recovered with a proprietary process that allows BPI to tailor the fat and moisture content in a product that reportedly finishes at a leanness of 95 percent.

"We test for moisture, fat and protein levels, and then we send it to an independent testing lab for microbial testing," says Jochum. "No product is released without a full microbial profile and a negative result for E. Coli 0157:H7."

The product is then treated with a pH-enhancement process using ammonium hydroxide to reduce the E. coli and other pathogens. "At first, food safety costs you money, but in the long run it has been very profitable for us," Roth says. "The next evolution is to test every serving size; we call a serving size a quarter pound."

Then, the product goes through a roller press that rapidly flattens and freezes it in 90 seconds. This process reduces dehydration, locks in freshness and maintains microbiological characteristics in the finished product. From there, it goes through a metal detector and is then formed into 60-pound blocks and packaged.

And just as a hiker puts his or her trust in a Sherpa, food processors like BPI ascend up Mount Quality with the help of QA managers and microbiologists, the proverbial Sherpas of safety and quality.

"The biggest challenge is that people must have the right mind set to have quality assurance as an asset to the company and maintain it," Jochum says. "Protect the company, protect the customers and protect the consumer."

Roth agrees, saying QAs, who communicate and cooperate, help make the trek to Quality easier for others.

"There has to be dedication to food safety and quality," he adds. "Some people just want to police people. They become one-sided. That's a weakness, and because they have a police badge it becomes a cops-and-robbers scenario, which creates animosity. The best QA managers work for the common goal. It's easy to say, but hard to accomplish."

Peak Shape for Journeys Ahead

Being on the same path and having a common goal is must for would-be Everest conquistadors. And the better shape one is in before hitting the trail, the better experience he will have. The same holds true for those who expect to summit and remain a king of the quality hill.

Like Roth says, a cops-and-robbers scenario wrought with lagging logistics and unorganized departments can hinder Quality climbers, and it indeed takes a team to reach the highest of peaks.

That's why when Tyson Foods Inc. acquired IBP's Foodbrands America in 2001, senior management quickly deployed a plan to merge the philosophies of not only three companies, but two laboratories, the right arm of a quality system. That endeavor involved 3,000 people in 18 different laboratories handling quality systems for a host of different products.

"On the lab end, we had two separate cultures, two separate mentalities and two separate sets of rules," says Dr. Neal Apple, vice president of Tyson's Food Safety and Laboratory Services. "Considering all that, we handled it very systematically, taking the good out of all the organizations and we're better for it."

Dr. Rick Roop, Tyson's senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs, echoed Dr. Apple's sentiment, explaining that a company-wide dialogue among quality system Sherpas was sparked to hammer out organizational dynamics for the integration expedition.

"We got everyone together to talk about their responsibilities and why systems were in place to preserve safety and quality," Dr. Roop says. "We also talked about strength and weaknesses. Then, we developed a number of teams that were charged with evaluating various aspects of the quality systems, with respect to beef, chicken and pork enterprises."

The result, Drs. Apple and Roop say, was a Tyson lab manual, penned to preserve AOAC and BAM procedures, that brought consistency and strength.

"The biggest hurdle was probably the difference in approach and corporate philosophies. We looked at all the policies and procedures and in some cases we adopted IBP's and in some cases we adopted Foodbrands' as well as some of Tyson's," Dr. Roop says. "In other cases, we merged a few, modified others and made some hybrids."

While some of the systems in the chicken business do not apply to the beef business, the policies, described by Drs. Apple and Roop as merged, modified and hybrid, can be applied generally and serve as the basis for procedures developed specifically for beef, chicken, pork and ready-to-eat products.

"All the while, they were working with FSIS to understand the regulatory environment," Dr. Apple says.

Dr. Roop adds, "Now, if I get some micro results, I don't have to ask what procedures were used. I already know because there's a procedure that is consistent."

Drs. Roop and Apple, along with BPI's Roth and Jochum are quick to point out that the journey to Mount Quality never quite ends.

"Organizationally, it may be done," says Dr. Roop, "but you never really finish. Food safety is number one. It will never stop. It's ongoing and you have to continually modify it."

Roth says quality assurance is really an application of prior lessons in life. After all, the concept of treating meat with ammonium hydroxide to reduce pathogens stemmed from an ammonia leak at a California slaughterhouse that he observed as a young man.

"You can always improve, and to do so, you have to pay attention to your scientists and processes and use technology that embraces food safety," Roth says. "It's all still in evolution. QA systems are always in perpetual motion. There is no room to relax."

The climb is tricky and fraught with dangers. But if the weather turns bad, memory maps from past experiences, preparedness and a core value compass will ultimately see a firm through tough terrain so that it can emerge to the ultimate goal: Becoming a Mount Quality summiteer. -MAD

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