True confession: NACS has never been our industry’s go-to source for food safety. Over the years we’ve included aspects of food safety in other foodservice-related initiatives, such as the now-defunct NACS CAFE, but we’ve never had industry-specific food safety and safe food handling training like ServSafe. And, for now, we don’t intend to.
The past several years, however, we recognized that our team would be caught off-guard if CNN or USA Today asked us for comment on a foodborne illness traced to our industry. We can handle crisis communication, but also recognized that food safety was a weak spot in our internal communications competency. And that was just the beginning.
Truth be told, the convenience retailing industry is just as vulnerable to foodborne illnesses as any other food retail channel, and for you, there’s financial risks to your company and your brand. Think back to May 2017, when a segment on the “Dr. Oz Show” about gas station food tried to link undercooked meat at a gas station with an uptick in road rage. That same year, one person died, and 10 people were sickened from nachos sold at a Sacramento gas station. These two incidents were clear indicators that we needed to be ready for the next food safety-related tragedies and headline.
And the stars began to align. One of the most vertically integrated family-owned companies in our industry invited us to a two-day food safety and food protection event at their headquarters in La Crosse, Wisconsin: Kwik Trip. We quickly found out how much we didn’t know, and how much we wanted to learn. And we met the right mentors at the right time.
To my knowledge, Kwik Trip is the only convenience retail chain in the United States that has its own full-service Bio-level II microbiological laboratory on its campus, which provides certified laboratory testing services for the company’s food and food-related samples. Kwik Trip’s onsite Food Protection Laboratory is also certified by the state of Wisconsin and the U.S. FDA.
Impressive. But what’s even more impressive is that Kwik Trip has another unique distinction: Food safety is driven throughout the organization from the top down, starting with the company’s owner, Don Zietlow.
Here’s a quote from Mr. Zietlow that I’ve shared several times in food safety-related pieces for NACS Magazine:
“There are two things that can take down a company. First is a decay of the culture, and second is a foodborne illness.”
So, here’s where I’m going with this. During the past few years, not only have we become smarter about food safety—and granted we started at the bottom floor so that elevator is still rising—the light bulb became brighter on how NACS can help our industry. And it’s not through training programs and certifications. It’s through culture.
Yes, the industry absolutely has a long history of making improvements to food safety, whether it’s through training and the adoption of food safety systems. These changes make a difference, but what we’ve also learned through extensive conversations with convenience retail food safety experts is that there’s an overreliance on the effectiveness of such systems, which in some cases have fostered a “blame culture” when something goes wrong.
Through the relationships we’ve built within the food safety community and the events we’ve attended, even when most of the content flies over my head (y’all use a lot of acronyms!), we started talking with Dr. Lone Jespersen, the founder and principal of Cultivate. She has dedicated her career to working with global food retailers and manufacturers to help them deliver safe and quality food through culture-driven intervention. She literally created the model for food safety culture, and we’re now working with Dr. Jespersen to create the industry’s first and only “Convenience Store Risk Culture Maturity Model, which will use the same structure as the globally-accepted Cultivate Maturity Model.
What we’ve heard from our retail members in the food safety arena is that they don’t need NACS to create training programs—they want us to help them create a movement. They want us to help drive change from the top down that focuses on behaviors.
This is a far cry from our “we need to learn more about food safety” conversation years ago. It’s thanks to industry leaders like Dr. Jay Ellingson, chief science officer at Kwik Trip, who shared this advice in the October issue of NACS Magazine:
“You need to develop a food protection system that meets your company’s business footprint and then educate everyone at all levels of the company so that they understand the food protection system and their roles and responsibilities within the system…Once that is established, then a true food safety culture can start to evolve at all levels within the company. If this is done right, the right food safety culture can evolve and lead to both public health and brand protection. This allows members of the company to be proud of their company culture and daily accomplishments as the company continues to grow.”
The smartest and perhaps most modest comment that Dr. Ellingson often says is this: Food safety is not a competitive advantage. If we can change our behaviors, we will all manage and reduce our risk, and ultimately protect our customers.
This month, NACS began embarking on a project to help convenience retailers foster a food safety culture that protects and sustains the future of their business. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more, as we hope you’re equally as excited about this journey as we are.