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Making an impact behind the scenes in food safety

5 min read


Wendy White

This post is sponsored by TraceGains.

Wendy White had long been interested in the public health sector when she decided to pursue a career in food safety and quality.

As the director of corporate food safety and quality at Golden State Foods, she puts her expertise to work behind the scenes, helping to ensure that pathogens don’t reach the consumer end of the food chain. A microbiology class White was taking as an undergraduate piqued her interest in food.

“I thought, here is a way that I can really make an impact in the public health sector, where it can be preventative, and I can help people before they get sick,” she said. “The idea of that is really very intriguing to me.”

Golden State Foods is a global food manufacturing and distribution company that supplies a wide range of products for foodservice. It has four main divisions focusing on proteins, liquid products (such as condiments and salad dressings), aseptic dairy products and produce. It has 22 distribution facilities in the U.S. and one in Egypt. Its manufacturing operations include four plants in the U.S. and nine overseas.

The company has been using TraceGains for several years to help manage documents related to food safety and quality, primarily in its liquids and aseptic dairy divisions. It currently uses the Supplier Compliance, Supplier Management and Specification Publishing applications.

SmartBrief spoke with White about her critical behind-the-scenes position protecting public health.

What are the challenges of dealing with such a wide variety of products?

One of the challenges is that there are different pathogens in each of the different categories. You are concerned about [one set of pathogens] for beef, and a whole different set of pathogens for produce. And shelf-stable liquids are very complicated, as is aseptic dairy.

You also have different levels of inspection. You have the USDA for beef, the FDA for others, and overseas they have their own local inspections. That adds complexity.

On the other hand, there are advantages, and that has to do with sharing best practices. Somebody is always doing something better than you are, and we have done a lot of cross-pollination to learn from the different categories, so we are building strength across the enterprise.

What are some of the people skills that are needed in your job?

Our field is obsessed with automation, and I think it’s a wonderful thing, but you can never ever take the people piece of it for granted.

The two things you need to have on your people side are vigilance and engagement. You will never ever be able to replace the people who are on floor. They are the eyes in the trenches, and they see everything that goes on. They see where we could be exposed to problems, or even more importantly, potential problems.

These two skills, vigilance and engagement, are not necessarily intuitive. They need to be developed through training, empowerment and encouragement. People need to know that they have the authority to raise their hand an throw up a red flag.

How have the functions of food safety and quality assurance evolved during your career?

I have definitely seen large changes in our arena of quality assurance and food safety. I think the role of quality practitioners has evolved and really expanded. It seems like we are constantly being called to expand that focus into areas such as food fraud.

And now we are looking at areas such as social responsibility and sustainability, and I think that’s really a reflection of how consumers’ expectations have changed. Their definition of quality has changed.

Also, with all the clean labeling initiatives, there’s a big move to go to things like natural preservatives. As quality practitioners we really have to be cognizant of these things. Removing the chemical preservatives from a product is not necessarily a good thing because it might compromise the safety of the product.

What are some business lessons you’ve learned from operating internationally?

We have found great benefit in having frequent communication with all of our international sites, because we have found that a lot of emerging issues first surface in another part of the world. So if you’re in contact with your international colleagues, you have a heads-up and can start formulating your strategies before it becomes an issue in the U.S.

Understanding what the public is concerned about before you get a call from your customer about it is really invaluable.

It can also involve being prepared for an emerging hazard. In Europe for example, they were looking at E. coli long before we were.

What advice would you have for someone just starting out in food safety and quality assurance?

I would definitely advise that earning does not stop at graduation. I am a big proponent of continuing education, and one of the best ways do that is through our associations and organizations.

My two favorite organizations are GMA and of course the International Association for Food Protection. They have an invaluable exposure to emerging issues. I can’t stress enough the opportunity to network with other quality professionals, not only in academia but also in government and industry.

Shop around, and once you found an organization, get involved in it. Not only attend the meetings, but also get involved by presenting at the meetings, joining the committees, and try to get involved in some leadership opportunities as well.

Often these national organizations have regional or state affiliates, and that’s a great place to start.