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A global perspective on food safety and quality

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Howard Popoola

The post is sponsored by TraceGains.

Traveling around the world has given Howard Popoola an appreciation for the quality and safety of the food supply chain in the U.S.

Popoola, vice president of quality assurance at Skokie, Ill.-based Topco Associates, the nation’s largest private-label cooperative, gained his global perspective early in his career working in food safety for the United Nations. After gaining his master’s degree in food and industrial microbiology from the University of Lagos in his native Nigeria, Popoola became the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Program Manager for the U.N. Food Program, where he was responsible for establishing HACCP systems — a prevention-based process for food safety — in food donor processing facilities in more than 80 countries.

He gained further experience in quality assurance and food safety positions with major food brands, including WestFarm Foods (now Darigold), Kraft Foods and Nestle before he joined distribution company U.S. Foodservice, and then Topco in 2009. Along the way he has been involved in several national and international organizations, including the Safe Quality Food Institute, and in 2010, he was named to a two-year term on the Fruits and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee of the USDA.

At Topco, Popoola and his staff of 24 oversee regulatory compliance, nutrition, quality and safety for more than 60,000 product SKUs, and monitor the 1,700 supplier facilities that produce them. To do this efficiently, Popoola has implemented a risk-based evaluation system for quality assurance and food safety, which leverages automation to allow quality assurance personnel to use their time most effectively by focusing on the suppliers and products most likely to encounter problems.

He relies on an automated system for record-keeping put in place with the help of TraceGains coordinate safety and quality documentation and product specifications for all of those facilities.

SmartBrief recently spoke with Popoola about his key role at Topco, a $14 billion, retailer-owned company.

Topco has 62 member retailers who cooperatively own the company. What are the keys to working in an environment with so many different constituents?

We understand that our members have their businesses to run, and the key is communication. Our members want to know what’s going on, and what’s coming down the pipeline. We have a quality advisory council with 16 of the top members, and we talk about issues of mutual concern, about quality and food safety.

What attracts you to work in food safety and quality assurance?

Most people, especially in developing countries, buy food at their local markets, and when you look the conditions at those markets, you have to wonder about food safety. I think that had an effect on me early in my career — I love the fact that we are able to impact people’s health, that people are able to walk into the food store and buy products without falling sick.

It’s a feeling of accomplishment every time I see our products in consumers’ carts, because I know they are going to have a very, very good experience, not only from a food safety perspective, but also from a quality perspective as well.

How has technology changed the role of the people who work in quality assurance and food safety?

We used to maintain an audit team that went out and audited facilities, but now business has grown, and there are more and more suppliers. My staff today are not auditors — we are quality assurance professionals. We have been able to take advantage of automation to help manage that supply base. That being said, if there is an issue, we will go out to those facilities, and look and understand what is going on.

What are the qualities you look for in QA staff?

Topco has a lot of great people, and I have people in my group who have been with the company for 20 years. I have the benefit of those long-tenured employees.

Development of people is very, very important to me. We are taking people who have been out in the field being de facto auditors, and we are turning them into people who can use automation in the decision-making process. Now I have people who are able to dive into data on supplier performance, go in and look at how a product has performed over time and use those data points to make decisions about the products and whether we continue to do business with that supplier.

With technology today, we can reject products before they have been shipped out of the facility. We can tell if the temperature has been breached on a supply truck coming from California to Texas, and call the driver in Phoenix and tell him to turn around because his load is going to be rejected.


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