Food Safety Is Not Proprietary Information
Food borne illness is a serious threat in a food processing facility, especially one handling foods that are ready-to-eat when they leave the facility. West Liberty Foods designed and built a “state of the art” meat slicing facility in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. However, management understood that the most sophisticated food safety system is only as good as the training employees receive. Without thorough employee training, the company could experience significant losses.
West Liberty Foods management contacted ISU Extension to express the need for food safety training for potential plant employees at the new Mount Pleasant facility. Because ISU Extension specialists can access the resources of Iowa State faculty, this phone call led to a partnership between West Liberty Foods and Iowa State University and resulted in a $600,000 USDA grant to provide training and a food safety curriculum in English and Spanish. ISU Extension and Iowa State staff developed and piloted the food safety modules.
Now several times a month, ISU Extension program specialists and trainers from West Liberty Foods team-teach an eight-hour food safety course in English or Spanish. Those passing the test then are considered for employment. This partnership has created a workforce knowledgeable about and capable of providing safe food. Animal handling prior to harvesting also is a critical safety step in getting safe food to consumers and was part of the USDA grant.
From April 2003 through January 2011, trainers held 332 eight-hour courses with 3,971 participants. Currently more than 500 jobs are retained by West Liberty Foods in Mount Pleasant. In the long run, food safety training makes food safer for consumers — not just in Iowa but nationwide.
Families are affected personally as well. Employee Diana said the course not only prepared her for a position in the company’s Mount Pleasant plant, it also changed her home habits. “I’m a lot cleaner at home. I know how important it is to wash my hands after going to the bathroom, because I could contaminate my family. You have to be clean personally, that’s most important. You have to wash your hands all the time and wear proper gear. You can’t touch garbage or your own face,” Diana said. Employee Mariah also brought this concern to the family level, saying, “You want to make safe foods for your kids and for everybody else.”
West Liberty Foods CEO Ed Garrett said, “We’ve driven our business on food safety. We recognize the need to raise the bar on food safety. At West Liberty Foods we do not consider food safety to be proprietary information.”
Iowa State University Animal Science Professor Joseph Cordray praised the company’s openness, noting, “West Liberty Foods is a leader in the industry and is helping pull the whole industry up to a higher standard.” ISU Extension and West Liberty Foods have shared this training concept and the materials with many smaller Iowa companies through food safety conferences. West Liberty’s Mike DeSmet said, “I don’t know that West Liberty Foods would be where they are without ISU. We look forward to a great and long lasting relationship.”
When West Liberty expanded its processing operation to Tremonton, Utah in 2007, the company adapted this food safety model for training employees in that facility. ISU Extension specialists monitor the educational sessions.
It started with a phone call — and has led to an eight-year partnership between Iowa State University and West Liberty Foods and more than 3,900 potential employees trained in food safety in southeast Iowa.
Cathy Strohbehn, Hospitality, Restaurant, Institution Management Extension Specialist, 515-294-3527