Assessing the “Quality” of Your Next Employer

Alright foodgrads, somehow I’ve hooked you. You know what your values are, and you’ve gotten to the point you know what your next role might be. You’re ready to chase down some interviews in food safety!

Welcome to the ranks. Bring a calculator and print out your favorite XKCD or SMBC to tape to the wall of the lab.

However, there are two parts to every job offer: first they choose you, then you choose them back. As a FSQA individual, it’s important to not only evaluate the position itself, but also to get a feel for what level of management commitment you’ll have to work with as you build or support a food safety culture. Here’s some recommended interview preparation tips that will not only help you evaluate the company, but also demonstrate the type of detail-oriented sleuthing I look for in promising FSQA candidates.

Major food safety actions are public, know what they are

CDC, FDA, and FSIS all publish information related to food-borne illness outbreaks, food recalls, and enforcement information that can give you insight into the company’s past struggles with food safety. Here are a few and what you should do with the information:

Outbreaks – Everyone’s worst nightmare. A confirmed foodborne illness outbreak. This is a small club, so if it’s in any way recent, you should absolutely be aware of these. An outbreak doesn’t necessarily mean that something horrible was happening. An outbreak is two illnesses, and if you produce enough material, even the smallest fraction of dangerous product could cause a problem. Knowing what the company’s public position during the outbreak will tell you how much deflection vs. introspection occurred, and the scope of the outbreak compared to the size of the company should reveal just how serious the problem was. Outbreak information can be found via the CDC, or by state health departments for smaller firms.

Enforcement actions – More common at larger companies that simply have more opportunity for enforcement, these are nonetheless indicators of serious issues with the basics of regulatory compliance. FDA warning letters, for example, aren’t just handed out, they’re usually in response to the company having already received a form 483, and failing to correct the problems noted within. That should be a big red flag. Other enforcement actions, depending on jurisdiction, can be fraudulent organic certificates, humane handling violations, drug residue repeat violators, FDA’s new supplier evaluation dashboard, or interstate milk shipper audit scores.

Recalls – Probably the hardest one to evaluate, but absolutely one you should be aware of. FDA and FSIS each have databases of recalls reported to them by companies. Knowing a company’s recall history lets you know the types of food safety problems they’ve been struggling with (e.g. physical, biological, chemical, allergen, etc.) and where their program will likely have the most emphasis moving forward.

To make sure you find all of this information, make sure you have the company’s legal name as well as their “doing business as” and brand names, as this data might be recorded as any of those options. Feel free to also include searches for any legal trouble or occupational safety issues the company may have had in the past that provides insight into their culture and priorities. The main thing is to enter the interview with this information in hand, and allow the company to tell you their side of the story. Listening to either deflection or self-reflection will tell you a lot about what kind of company they are.

The certification and paperwork are fine and dandy…what have they been doing?

The dirty truth is this: you can hire a person to make the paperwork look pretty, know the code, and pass an audit even if your practices are horrible. PCA did it. I like to ask some of the following questions to gauge how the food safety and quality plans are being implemented on a day-to-day basis:

  • When was the last time you had to throw away products because of a food safety issue, what was the root cause?
  • What happens when you have an employee violate a food safety guideline/GMP? At what point does it become a progressive discipline issue? When was the last time this happened?
  • When was the last time you had to throw away or rework something because it didn’t meet your quality standards, even if it was safe to eat?

At any company with more than a few people, there should be a ready, solid example from the last 6 months. Days where you have to throw things away are the worst, no one just “forgets” them. That’s like saying you can’t remember your last car accident. If you get a generic or non-specific answer from the company QA person, it’s no different than them getting a generic answer from you, what does that normally tell you?

Either they don’t throw things away and call it good enough, or they do it so often they don’t notice anymore. Both are bad signs.

How do they measure and reward “success”?

If a company says they put quality first, how do they reinforce that for their employees? It’s important to be sneaky with this one and ask questions like:

  • What are your organizations key performance indicators?
  • How do you evaluate the “quality” of the product and communicate that to floor-level employees?

On the production floor, metrics like production speed, waste, and time management tend to predominate, it takes real effort to communicate quality to the floor and put those measurements in front of employees, what are they doing now, and are the right incentives in place to encourage production staff to focus on quality over quantity?

Interviews are about preparation and examples, and the right company will have them ready just as you had them prepared for your part of the interview. Ask lots of questions, and make sure that you’re coming into a quality culture you’re prepared for and will be successful in.

Author: Austin Bouck is a quality assurance manager at a regional beverage company in Oregon, USA. When he’s not at work solving technical quality challenges, he continues to ponder food safety issues on his blog, Fur, Farm, and Fork, which helps him stay sharp and share his knowledge with other professionals and the public.

In my articles on FoodGrads I’ll talk about different roles in food quality and what makes a good candidate, as well as some hard questions about the ethics of the decisions we make when quality and business needs are both on the table, or how to make your personal impact on public health.

I look forward to hearing what sorts of additional topics readers want to see here on the subject of food safety and quality, and excited to be a part of FoodGrads!

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