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The spread of COVID-19 has revealed how globalized our world is today, from the pains of travel bans and widespread shortages of hand sanitizer to communal gathering spots centralizing in grocery stores.
For myself, I almost count down the days to go food shopping. When I finally get to the grocery store, I find more self-awareness than ever before. Previously, grocery shopping on an almost daily basis, for lack of a better word, was a sacred space to get both inspiration and nourishment. Today, the grocery store has become a point of tension as a major intersection point that needs extra controls. I stick to my list, keep a safe distance from other people, and mindfully touch only the food I will purchase, then return home as quickly as I made it to the store.
The fact is we cannot, and should not, totally escape meeting each other. Instead, we need to develop new habits.
The seemingly simple direction to wash your hands is quickly becoming one of the trusted solutions for slowing the spread of COVID-19. You can find viral videos of handwashing techniques using paint, children’s sing-along songs for washing, and clear guidelines in many grocery stores on techniques to limit exposure to each other.
Working in the food industry, this extra attention to handwashing and hygiene may seem self-evident, but experts today point that there is still a lot of education and reminders needed. Washing your hands, monitoring water temperatures, using gloves at certain times, and using sanitizer are some of the steps we take to prevent cross-contamination. Whether it is to prevent food-borne illnesses in food production or the spread of COVID-19 in the grocery store, hygiene is a topic that requires extra attention.
Hygiene, from washing our hands to extra attention while preparing food, will shape the way we interact, feed our families, and build strength to rebuild from this challenging time. Supporting food safety efforts ensures that people continue to nourish themselves and their families confidently. We all want to feed our families in comfort and safety. We, at QualiTru, are proud to support food producers across the world, and we take our role extremely seriously.
The Italian “Andrà tutto bene” translated to ‘everything will be alright’ is another running theme we see between countries. We will come out of this period with a better sense of commonalities between people and countries, as well as a greater appreciation for hygiene and the people who keep us fed, healthy, and safe.
Reflecting on Women’s History Month, I wanted to share some thoughts about women in the dairy industry.
Producing a nutrient-dense food to feed our families is an unbelievable way to support and sustain our communities. The giving spirit should draw more commonalities between all people working to produce the dairy products we love. But it is hard to escape the inherent challenges that women face across the various industries that encompass dairy. I believe they are not intentional, but instead patterns that we often don’t even realize.
From what I’ve learned from colleagues, we have come a long way from a time when dairy plants did not have female bathrooms. Today it is not unusual to see women carrying hardhats into dairy processing plants, but there was a day when that was not the case.
When I started working in dairy, I found myself feeling isolated at times. From being the only woman in many conversations to becoming an easy comparison to my male-counter parts spouses, I was acutely aware of my otherness. The biggest frustration was being told that I had the advantage of being a woman because people would take more notice of me. This kind of comment only brings women together in frustration instead of developing opportunities. I wish I had had a group like International Dairy Foods Association’s (IDFA) Women in Dairy Network to help navigate some of those moments.
I began to realize I put myself in many of those situations and could change my reaction. I had to change the story.
I decided to focus on my strengths and growth areas. I developed better relationships and learned from industry professionals I admired. I work to maintain genuine curiosity and openness while holding my ground when necessary. This balance is a constant learning process.
I don’t want to say that men are the problem; it is the opposite. Men are my most significant supporters and advocates. I am fortunate that I have men in my life who push me and promote full collaboration.
My father challenged me to pursue a masters before I could even celebrate finishing my undergraduate degree, explaining that more women need a masters. My brother, who fondly described me as a tyrant growing up (which still horrifies me), reminds me that being driven and persistent are strengths. Jan, my husband, is my most prominent advocate. He continually reminds me of my end-goals when I begin to question myself. Even some of my male colleagues have brought up conversations around gender and the decisive and positive role they want to have.
Working in the nurturing dairy industry that provides so many opportunities, we need to build on commonalities. I am excited to see that the industry and groups like IDFA are actively addressing this and building a network to keep the conversations going. Working toward greater collaboration and inclusion are wins for everyone in dairy, one of the most nurturing and giving industries. Above all, I am proud to be a woman working in the dairy industry; an industry that I truly love.
If we trust the sampling and testing process, we are more confident in the result and can make informed decisions. To illustrate, let’s look at a non-dairy industry example.
Recently, my doctor ordered a blood sample. Keen to divert my attention from the needle, I looked out of the window and reflected on the seamless chain of events from sample to result when it comes to blood testing. Personally, I have never questioned the result of my blood test, let alone asked for a retest (much to do with that needle, of course).
And then I stumbled across this summary statement in a medical journal:
“For the clinical laboratory, errors that occur in the preanalytical phase of testing may account for up to 75% of total laboratory errors…”
Green, S.F. (2013, September). The cost of poor blood specimen quality errors in the preanalytical processes. Journal of Clinical Biochemistry, 46, 13-14.
Hold on! Does this mean my blood test result may be wrong? Unfortunately, yes. It’s well known in medical circles that mistakes do happen, which can lead to some poor decision making and sometimes dramatic outcomes.
Now, I don’t want to scare you, and I still have a lot of confidence in the medical profession; however, that statement did start me thinking about sampling and testing in our dairy industry. If the medical profession has issues with samples, could this mean that samples are also the weakest link in dairy testing?
Using my blood testing analogy, let’s explore some of the challenges for sampling that I have experienced in my 30 odd years in the dairy industry. Let’s start with the sampling plan and the importance of training.
Medically, my blood tests are initiated by my doctor. She decides on the tests and sets the sampling plan. She also tells me the purpose of the tests and instructs me on what I might need to do in preparation before sampling. The blood sample is drawn by a phlebotomist, a trained, qualified professional. Personally, I’m very pleased that the person with the needles is trained.
This is somewhat different from my dairy industry experience. During the last ten years, I have visited many dairy factories around the world and reviewed their food safety controls. When it comes to sampling, I ask questions like, “Why do you take this sample?” and “Who is responsible for the sampling plan?” Some answers are unlikely to surprise you: “Because it’s part of the job” and “I don’t know, we have always taken this sample.” I recognize these answers, because I’ve been there.
I started my New Zealand dairy career as an operator in a butter factory. During cream processing, we took in-process samples for analyses. I had never been formally trained in taking samples; my training was “hands-on” by following another operator around. They showed me where to take it and how to take it, but I was told very little about the reasons for taking it. Sampling was just another task, amongst many other responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, mistakes happened. We occasionally missed a sample, mislabeled a sample, or forgot to put the samples in the fridge.
Formal training in sampling techniques and explaining the “why,” is a wise investment. Only samplers can vouch for the integrity of the sample, because only they know how a sample was taken, where it was taken, when it was taken and the process conditions at the time of sampling.
What about the handling of a sample? In the case of our medical example, after filling several tubes, my blood samples were stored in a dedicated fridge, collected by a dedicated courier, and then checked by a dedicated laboratory prior to testing.
This is not always the case in our dairy factories. As mentioned, samples can be mislabeled, stored at the wrong temperature, or sometimes “take the scenic route” between the factory and the laboratory. Laboratory staff don’t know a sample’s history and will accept a sample for testing after some basic checks, like temperature and “condition”.
So, looking back on my experience, I think sampling and handling may well be the weakest link in dairy testing.
Ironically, we only pay for the test if we submit a sample. Hence, improving sample integrity by training samplers, having a sound sampling plan, and controlled sample logistics are likely to have a quick pay-back. Not only will we pay for samples that are worth testing, it will also increase our confidence in the test results, because accurate test results start with accurate samples.
Jack van der Sanden has over 30 years of experience in the global food industry across the supply chain. He previously worked as the General Manager of Food Safety & Quality Assurance at Fonterra. There he redesigned the company’s food safety and quality standards for HACCP and EPM, with an extensive review of the manufacturing process. Today, Jack enjoys spending more time in the garden and shares his knowledge and expertise with selective projects. We are excited to work with Jack and pick his brain about in-process, hygienic sampling.
This week I want to take the opportunity to introduce Jack van der Sanden. During his career, he has pondered many similar questions that I have asked, but from a different background. While attending a conference last fall, I heard Jack speak about Environmental Pathogen Management (EPM). His message about ‘tracking the smoke before the fire’ caught the attention of the audience. With his focus on the importance of sampling, I couldn’t help but ask what this attitude could bring to process monitoring and managing in-process equipment.
With so much emphasis around building a strong EPM program, have we forgotten to look at the physical in-process samples? This can expand to a larger question like, what is the correlation or causation between environmental data and in-process data? Or is there a relationship at all?
I decided to connect with Jack and simply ask, “What is the relationship between environmental and in-process sampling?” Having over 30 years in the global food industry across the supply chain, Jack must have some idea where the solution lies.
He simply replied, “In-process sampling will give you confidence about your process control, whereas environmental sampling provides confidence about your factory control. I believe they complement each other. You need both to have a functioning and proactive Food Safety program.”
Jack previously worked as the General Manager of Food Safety & Quality Assurance at Fonterra. There he redesigned the company’s food safety and quality standards for HACCP and EPM. He started in the Netherlands, then moved to New Zealand and has traveled everywhere in between.
Jack has brought a unique perspective to our internal conversations about sampling, from drawing parallels between the sampling process in the medical and food industries to sharing stories of the late-night audits. His experience and expertise underscore the need for aseptic sampling and techniques to effectively monitor the processes of quality dairy food production in order to ensure confidence in the testing results.
Drawing on his depth of experience, he can provide simple, yet complex reflections on the Food Safety process, the good and the bad.
We are excited to share a selection of articles this year that we hope will raise engaging questions. Check our blog page on March 4th to read Jack’s article, “The Weakest Link.”
A common question I ask when I meet a Quality Manager is, “Do you trust the data from your process?” It’s a simple question, that often leads to engaging conversations about their process or about trust with their team. Those visits typically don’t turn into long philosophical conversations. They usually highlight the trust with fellow coworkers and more specifically, the people working on the floor collecting samples or cleaning sampling equipment.
The reality is that operators, lab techs or anyone who is responsible for collecting or cleaning sampling tools is pressured by short cleaning times or demanding lab procedures. When time pressures kick in, training and best practices are difficult to maintain. The challenge here is that this pressure can produce false results, alter decision-making, or worse, introduce microbial contamination. If you can’t trust your coworkers or the results, there is no point in even collecting the data.
We all face differing pressures. It is hard to find a good balance and build the necessary trust between people to build good results. This time challenge is true in almost every job- not just collecting samples.
Working remotely with a small team, I find myself coming back to the question of trust often. If I’ll be honest with you – it is tough, and I am far from having a good answer. I struggle to keep a busy schedule building genuine connections with existing partners, training new ones, and keeping up with a seven-hour time change with the rest of the office. Not to mention I am learning Norwegian and building a new community in Stavanger. I don’t have the time to invest as much as is needed into any one of those buckets.
Starting the new year, I packed my schedule with new customer trainings, new sampling application demos, and developing education campaigns. The business is working; asking challenging questions is opening doors. Poor sampling and mistrust are a challenge for the dairy industry worldwide.
However, I am so focused on my customers building trust in their companies that it has come at a cost to collaborating with my team. I’ve missed several weekly meetings due to my travel schedule. I rely too heavily on emails over calls. Worst, I struggle keeping up with the small successes. I am lucky to work with a team that supports my work, even in my absence, and follows up to the crazy emails. However, I need to slow down my schedule and evaluate the key priorities.
Trust and respect, as Patrick Lencioni puts it, “Are the basis of a highly functional team.” I would agree with this. Respecting your colleagues, trusting their work, and celebrating together go a long way in providing the motivation to keep us growing and moving ahead.
As this busy year ends, my shoulders can finally start to relax. It’s a very natural time to reflect on the year’s activities and look ahead to 2020.
For me personally, the year encompassed completing my MBA in May, followed shortly thereafter with my wedding in June. With no time for a deep breath, I then moved to Norway, complete with its own set of work and visa related technicalities and set up an international office in my new hometown of Stavanger.
This was the first time in the 35 years that QualiTru has led a concentrated effort in building our international presence. We brought on new partners in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Poland and solidified collaboration in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Japan, Australia and Canada.
Additionally, we participated in studies for line sampling for US and Argentinian farms, supported the development of international sampling guidelines and truck sampling trials in Ireland. It was a very productive year.
While these efforts are certainly worth celebrating, the biggest accomplishment for me was developing the comfort in humility and drive to ask for help.
As a small, family business that fills a niche in the food safety industry, it is no simple task to find partners that are driven by the same values. Then add in the cultural dimensions and regionally unique regulatory requirements of the international market.
There is no way we would have connected with our new partners without asking for constant feedback and referrals. I have been humbled by the support we’ve received from new partners seeking to develop new port configurations to support expanding our presence in new markets. I am also thankful to our internal team back in the US for their support in taking tariff and international shipping courses.
One of the year’s surprises has been how small the European network is. We have Scandinavian distributors sharing colleagues contact information for new regions to represent and engineering companies making introductions to new networks. A simple question leads to multiple introductions and new sampling applications.
Looking ahead to next year, there are another five regions where we hope to make new connections. Luckily, we now have a strong network and an internal team that is expanding its skills. At this time next year, it is hard to know what the biggest accomplishments will be, but we can be confident that we are asking the right questions with some great partners.
The first year of a concerted effort in the international market has been a growing and learning experience. The support of partners has made my work a real blessing and confirms that the company I represent is really making a positive impact.
In work and in personal life, it is important to surround yourself with people who ask engaging or opposing questions. The curiosity of questioning can lead to greater creativity, collaboration, problem-solving or simply stronger awareness. For example, my husband constantly challenges me to consider other perspectives when what I thought I needed was his alliances, instead of a greater perspective.
Questioning should align with the end goal of creating movement in the right direction.
When I prepare for a training or a customer visit, especially when it is in a new region, I begin by asking:
- What do I want to achieve?
- What questions do I need to answer?
- What is the challenge at hand?
- Do our goals align?
Every country has its own set of challenges to solve and solutions to develop. I need to gain an understanding of the current operations and objectives to confirm if our end goals line up. Are there extra quality requirements from importing countries? How is data collected and managed across the supply chain?
Working with quality managers, I often like to find out what questions they ask to drive their quality management program. Understanding the questions helps to outline what results the management is trying to reach. Often regulatory or customer requirements direct the questions.
However, I find the most intriguing conversations come from internal discussions. Dialogues between operators, engineers, and quality management have included questions that would never be asked by someone outside the company. How can we improve CIP procedures? How can staff on the floor provide greater feedback or training for management?
When we ask more intentional and pointed questions, we can discover the overlaps and draw on successes or lessons learned to keep the ball moving in the right direction.
QualiTru is proud to partner with S.K.S. in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany to support the international dairy industry. S.K.S. is a proven leader in stainless steel piping manufacturing and process components, with plenty of dairy industry expertise and experience.
Why is such a partnership important to the future of international dairy? First, some statistical information.
The European Union-25 (EU-25) annually exports a total of €21 billion in dairy products, while Oceania, which includes Australia and the wider geographical continent, exports €3.8 billion and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is responsible for €1.1 billion (WUR, 2009). This is only export data and not total production, but it does show the strength that Europe holds as a global dairy stakeholder.
This is especially true for many Northern European countries from the Netherlands producing 9.2%, Belgium with 6.1%, and Germany at 10.4% of total international dairy exports (Workman, 2019). This strong presence holds a lot of responsibility when shelf life is extended, and food safety risks are elevated.
So, what does this have to do with sampling and this newly forged partnership? A lot.
Sampling is an indispensable tool for gathering data on the process and product. Plant and Quality Managers need to be confident in their process. QualiTru works with more and more dairies needing robust sampling plans to meet the demands from their international customers. This is especially the case with Asian customers seeking the highest quality products from a competitive industry.
Having the in-process data builds transparency between the Quality team and the auditing party. More importantly, Quality teams need to have accurate data for verification. In many cases it can be a tool to trend operations to show improvements.
This is where the partnership between QualiTru and S.K.S. comes into play. S.K.S. can help develop sampling plans and facilitate logistics. Due to their experience and knowledge of all current requirements and guidelines, S.K.S. does not solely act as a supplier, but also as an advisor. Their in-house engineering department can offer tailor-made solutions and provide dairies with technical support.
Check out their website to learn more:
S.K.S. Process Components
In personal and professional life, picking the right long-term partner is no easy task. On the personal side, before marrying my husband last summer, about half of our relationship had been a long distance one. During that time, I received a lot of sympathy from those who didn’t understand how lucky I felt to have a partner that I trusted and respected to support me in pursuing my ambitions to complete my MBA and reconnect with family.
These same values of trust and respect are the foundation of our business. I have learned over the years that those values are the secret to building strong partnerships.
Growing up in a family business, I have seen firsthand how trust and respect for people in the business directly translates to outside collaboration. Our company strongly believes that the integrity of aseptic sampling and data accuracy supports farmers and Quality Managers to produce safe and delicious dairy products. Providing a highly regulated and technical sampling process while building partners in academia or distribution depends on more than logistics: it relies on strong mutual trust and respect.
We have distribution partners who have successfully expanded our scope for sampling to situations where their unique connections and knowledge were needed. One partner consults dairy plants in proactively managing contamination by establishing CIP procedures with strategic sampling points. Another partner stayed awake for 24 hours to take hourly samples in order to accurately identify contamination on a farm. Still another partner tapped into a new industry by introducing aseptic sampling to monitor liquid egg processing equipment for pathogens. All of these partners verified aseptic sampling credibility and used their expertise to solve real challenges.
Today expanding our business by working with new partners, we can learn from our long-held relationships to foresee how solutions are delivered to new farmers or Quality Managers.
I recently visited our new distributor in Denmark, Fooddes. This team has the technical expertise to advise dairies on good hygiene and food safety practices. More importantly, the team closely works together with their customers to solve challenges or foresee risks. Their integrity is evident, both in the office and the collaborative manner in which they work with partners.
The secret recipe to the sauce of strong partnerships is quite simple. It starts with products and processes that can be trusted. It continues with partners who understand the importance of building relationships while solving problems. Mutual trust and respect create win-win scenarios.
Welcome to the QualiTru Sampling Systems Blog! Check back often for interesting new articles posted on a regular basis from a variety of QualiTru team members located all over the world.
Here you will read blogs about our experiences and observations as an industry leader in aseptic sampling in the food and beverage arena. Our history lies in dairy, but we regularly receive requests for new applications. You can never over sample!