Robert Whitaker, Ph.D.

The Importance of Training

At last, a cost-effective solution for produce safety education

I remember being at one of the first trade association meetings I ever attended when I joined the produce industry twenty-five years ago and the subject we discussed at length at that technical committee meeting was how to provide produce safety education that was consistently accessible and affordable to the industry. As the discussions advanced over time, we found that it got too big very fast. By that I mean that if we put all the detail and scientific rigor in course that was needed and engaged instructors that were qualified, the costs to put the programs on became burdensome for the hosts and the attendees. Creating a comprehensive produce safety educational program ultimately raises concerns about the time off the job it would take to attend the courses and the additional costs that travel represents. Those same discussions on produce safety education have been repeated over and over again during the last two decades in various forums around the industry. To be certain, there have been many excellent produce safety educational programs developed over the years; largely one-off events that greatly benefited the industry and those individuals able to attend. But that was always the problem. Generally, if a company participated, they might send one or maybe two employees who undoubtedly learned a great deal, but that is where it ended. We often speak of produce safety being every employee’s responsibility, but how can that be accomplished if we only set out to educate one or two folks per company?

 

Note, that I did say education and not training. It is common practice in the produce industry to train seasonal work crews that toil in the field, harvesting products, packing or even processing finished products. Those training programs are an excellent way to make sure workers know what is expected of them and how specific tasks are to be completed.  I would argue that to improve our industry’s produce safety performance, it is important to educate every supervisor and manager on you produce safety, operations, distribution and maybe even you sales and marketing teams so that they not only know what is to be done, but why it is necessary to insure the safety of the food. Supervisors and managers are out there every day; in our fields and packing operations. They are there on second shift and during sanitation when directors and Vice Presidents are at home. They interact constantly with workers and have the most opportunities to observe and correct behaviors that can lead to produce contamination; if they have been educated to know what those behaviors and practices are and why it needs to be done according to your produce safety plan. Additionally, an educated team of managers and supervisors is a collection of individuals who now share a common produce safety vocabulary. They understand their roles and why and how they need to perform key tasks to preserve the safety of the produce. Most importantly, they begin to think about produce safety; there is an awareness and an engagement; when that happens, you can get innovation and ultimately better and more informed ways to improve safety.

 

This is where Fresh Ed by PMA comes in. As PMA sought to explore better ways to make content available to its members a few years ago, one of the first opportunities recognized was produce safety.  With the emergence of e-learning platforms, PMA saw a way to deliver produce safety educational content to produce companies in a cost effective, efficient way. So, Fresh Ed was born to provide educational opportunities to the produce industry. PMA partnered with Alchemy, a world leader in e-learning formats for food safety and embarked on the development of Essentials of Produce Safety; an educational course specifically targeted at produce industry supervisors and managers. I was proud to be involved along with Afreen Malik in developing the content for this program. Take a look at this short video to learn more about the program.  After almost three years of development, PMA announced the release of Produce Essentials last week.

 

Most everybody today has access to a smart phone, tablet or computer and e-learning can be facilitated by any of these devices. Participants can connect when they have time without the cost of travel. Whether on a lunch break, downtime during the workday or at home, participants can connect with the learning platform and proceed through the course work at their own pace. There are 7 focus areas or modules broken into 26 learning sessions. Subjects include: the basics of building a produce safety plan, the importance of foundation programs, Good Agricultural Practices, hazard analysis and risk assessment, FSMA rules and what they mean, sanitation and microbiology testing. Each learning session is 15-20 minutes long so the course can be accomplished in short, focused time intervals by individuals with the kind of busy schedules everyone in the produce industry thrives on.

 

The modules combine narrated presentations with visuals from our industry, graphics that serve to highlight key learnings and out-takes where more detailed explanations or best practices can be shared. Each module contains a listing of important terms and concludes with a set of questions the participant can use to make sure they understood the content and are ready for the next learning module. A built in feature that permits the company to monitor an employee’s progress through the course can be a powerful way for senior produce safety management to foster interactions with course participants to help them through any areas where they might struggle. Essentials is available in both English and Spanish. I believe Essentials is a great tool to improve produce safety performance and enhance your produce safety culture.

If you have interest in learning more about Essentials, you can contact Gina Jones, PMA’s Vice President of Insights & Analytics at 302-607-2180 (direct) or email her at gjones@pma.com. You can also sign up today for individual registration or Group Sales  to inquire about multiple employee registrations.