OTM 9: Identifying Expertise: Who qualifies as an expert food safety professional?


Becoming an expert food safety professional does not happen overnight. It can take many years of deliberate practice and dedication to the larger cause. In episode 9 of ‘Off the Menu’, tune in to find out what an expert is, their common traits and how much continuing education contributes to this level of mastery.

Episode 9 Highlights

Adapted Podcast Transcription

Here is a transcript of what we spoke about in this episode.  Both Pete and I have a lot of fun talking together so if there is anything in the transcript that doesn't make sense, listening to the actual podcast may put the words into context. 

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Amanda: Welcome back to ‘Off The Menu. I'm Amanda Evans-Lara. We're into episode nine. I am here with Pete. Hopefully, everybody has been enjoying this series so far on professional development and moving through the different levels of mastery in career path.

In this episode we are covering the fifth level which is called “Expert”. Peter, can you please define for us what an expert food safety professional is.

What is an expert food safety professional?

Peter: Know-it-all. Knows everything, can't be told anything. What is an expert in our hierarchy of mastery? This one is the visionary. This is the person that sets the standards for others to follow.

It means you need to see the future that others have not seen yet. That's the best way. So you are the person that is looking over the horizon at things to come and is preparing people through great communication, excellent practise and sound systems along the way to be ready for when that future arrives.

Amanda: So, how many hours or how many years are we talking about to get to the level of being an expert? I think that the last level we covered was being proficient. That was around about a five to 10-year mark.

Peter: Yeah. Five to 10-year mark. You really should be well practised in your industry for over 10 years to even be considering calling yourself an expert in the space. There is this whole rhetoric or theory around 10,000 hours of what they call deliberate practise, which means you do the same activities over and over again for a period of 10,000 hours makes you an expert.

Malcolm Gladwell, if anyone wants to look that up, came up with this theory. Gladwell draws his parallel to the Beatles becoming masters in their field because of all the gigs they played in Hamburg. One gig after another, after another, after another

Amanda: Well, they say practise makes perfect or practise makes expert.

Peter: That's another idiom that sort of draws on the same thing. 10,000 hours is something that people talk about. But, what we're really talking about is the concept behind it, of deliberate practise and deliberately upskilling yourself, intentionally upskilling yourself in the industry.

Amanda: I think that is a good definition of ... You are upskilling not because someone else is telling you to do it, you are doing it off your own back. It is deliberate.

Peter: It is. It's self-imposed. You want to be at the cutting edge. It is no different to sports heroes or GOATs - Greatest of all time. It talks about this want or desire to learn everything there is about the industry in which you work in, the field in which you work in and the technology within the industry that you work in. And it's not just about what's here today, what's clear in present. It's about what's in that dim distant future. And in a lot of cases, you will be the thought leader in the space. Stuff might not have even been written yet and you're coming up with what the future looks like.

The fast track to becoming an expert

Amanda: Considering it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, can you fast track that?

Peter: No, that is a no. This relies on ... It takes time. It takes effort. There's no shortcuts to success. There's no shortcuts to being an expert. You're really trying to learn everything there is to learn about your industry. It's not talking to another food safety expert, makes you an expert. It's not reading an opinion of an expert, makes you an expert. You sort of go through the process.

Amanda:  Okay, so really looking that you have had multiple roles. You're interacting with multiple different businesses, different standards and you're operating, let's say, from this QA perspective that yes, you may be exposed to SQF. But have you also audited SQF, have you also been a consultant for SQF? Have you also been involved in task groups around standard writing or whether it might be BRC or ISO 22000 or FSSC 22000? Any of those bigger global standards?

Peter:  Yep. GFSI, if you're involved with that.

Amanda:  And if those task force that would then start to play into that, yes?

Peter:  Yes. This is really being at the top of your game and not just influencing your business anymore. You're influencing the outcome of your industry. Be it local, national or international. To give you some examples around that. I was invited to work at ISO, International Standards Organisation to help write standards that were shaping the future of trade and industry in risk management, asset management and sustainability.

So, I was one of about 19 people that were actually writing the standard that went back out to global working groups, back to thousands and thousands of people to make comment that came back to us to then finish writing the standards. So, I would fly to Geneva and sit there and write the standards with these people. So, I was-

Amanda:  It is a collaboration going on. The many people.

Peter:  It is the highest level of collaboration. Yeah. Yeah. And it's the highest level of influence. And you're also, in this space, you're working with the highest level of complexity, which in this case means uncertainty. Because you're making something new that hasn't existed, either formally or informally, previously. So, you're making something that you hope the market adopts. That's what I mean by uncertainty.

Amanda:  We can see that in every day. When we look at pioneers in whatever industry. Whether it be in the technology industry, we see what Steve Jobs did for phones and music in your pocket. We've seen what, when I think about some of our biggest innovators, Elon Musk has done with electric car, do that. But there are those pioneers that have gone before us to give us what we have got today.

Accepting failure

Peter:  Absolutely. And these people are very comfortable with risk uncertainty, with error and correcting errors and very comfortable with failure, as well. Because it's common, sometimes, almost daily for us.

Amanda:  I think recognising that in order to be an expert, you have to accept failure and make sure that you get up from failure and you continue on.

Peter:  Absolutely. I think we talk a lot about motivation and personal attributes. The motivator here is that you're doing the effort for others so that they can succeed and prosper.

Amanda:  Yes. Okay. So we're now starting to push out that goal of what we want. And it's not just about benefiting yourself personally. It's about benefiting a whole lot more people.

Peter:  That's it. It is the broadest possible audience you can influence and educate or develop or just influence at the end of it.

Amanda:  We can look at what makes an expert food safety professional. Just putting it on your business card doesn't make you an food safety expert. And I have seen that many times auditing where actual consultants have written on their business card, that they are an expert. There was one in particular said that he was a BRC expert. The site completely failed the BRC audit. I do not even know whether the guy had a copy of the standard, but the site completely failed.

We actually stopped the audit and changed it to a gap audit because it was their first audit. But I was really, really angry with the fact that this guy had taken this food company's money. Only a small family run business. Had taken their money under the guise of I am an expert and I will help you achieve certification. Where there was no expert. The only expert about it was expertly writing expert on his business card.

Peter: Expertly extracting money from lesser knowing people.

Jack of all trades, master of none

Amanda:  That's right. So, that's something I think to really watch when you're a consultant. When I think about experts in the food industry, it's not necessarily about knowing everything, it's about being, I think, really good at a particular stream and that you can go very deep with that. You might say your focus is intentional adulteration, that is where you focus and that is what you're known for.

Because you have had the experience and the knowledge around all different types of contamination issues, the investigation side of things that may make you an food safety expert in that field. You might then also be an expert in risk management because you've gone through your 10,000 hours. I'm not saying that you can only be an expert food safety professional in one thing, you can be an expert in multiple things if you follow that principle of your 10,000 hours.

Peter:  I think so. I think the other things that define an expert are the personal attributes that come with these people and there's that, as I mentioned before, that desire to give back or to change. And so those people would naturally be mentors or even coaches in their space. And they're very much about empowering others. So, you're driven by a totally different set of motivators to say someone is proficient or someone is competent. You have this longer range view of the industry that you're trying to mould, shape and change.

Amanda:  I think attitude is a big part of that as well. Having the attitude that, and you'll see these with successful leaders, it's not about you knowing everything, it's being able to build up and empower people around you to know more than what you do. I think that is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to someone, if you have knowledge. It's to pass that on to someone else so they can become better than what you've become.

Peter:  I think what starts to knit all of these skills and attributes we've been talking about is the fact that they're highly logical people and can put what seemingly looks like incoherent points of information or thought bubbles together into a logical stream or following the golden thread, as people say, to show others where they've been and future seeking, and then what it will look like going forward. Because it's one thing to have an idea about the future or about innovation. It's another thing to be able to deliver that message to people that they understand it. Much like Amanda razing me about my torch model.

Logical, influential with a good splash of passion

Amanda:  Yes, you are saying about people being highly logical? We've said that they definitely have to be influential. You have got to have that passion that is going to kind of move to someone by osmosis, without you even really trying to force your opinion or ideas or whatever. It just happens. We talked about influential skills at the previous level, which was proficiency. These just takes everything up another level.

Peter:  Absolutely. Where do you find these people? That's the next question. I mean, are these buffoons in lab coats sitting in dimly lit labs somewhere? Maybe some of them are. But, I think you might find these people ... Executive management usually is a good place to find these people. And I mean, a C suite is usually a good place to look for them. They are there for a reason.

I think academics fall into this category as well. And I think there are some people out there that are in demand. So, they obviously have a professional speaking circuit or they have a very prominent, iconic business that people are understanding their theories and principles. They might have books out. They could be authors.

Amanda:  I think that is a key thing that you just touched on me that people can understand what they are talking about. If you can take a concept and translate it that people actually easily understand. I think you are on a winner there.

Examples of experts in our industry

Peter: So, let's keep it relevant more about our industry. So Amanda, when you think about someone in our industry that you would consider an expert, maybe not naming names, but maybe describe the person and the role they've held and what you think they did to advance the industry.

Amanda:  Well, I think one particular person who I have met later in my career. I mean, only in the last five years and that person was definitely innovative. They saw trends that were happening out in the general marketplace and then actually went forward to write a new standard and build a whole business around certification for these particular outlets and allergen by standard.

To be able to see that vision, that how are we going to stop multiple claims popping up and confusing industry or confusing consumers, sorry, that the product is free from X, Y, Z. They went forward, they had a standard written, they implemented that standard. They rolled out that standard to the industry. And now that standard is seen as the highest level for compliance.

Whilst not only dealing with the compliance issue, they've also helped the consumer to then recognise that, okay, if I see this symbol, I have a level of trust that my product is going to be free from my particular allergen. So, I think that person definitely showed direction, leadership and expertise in able to do that. And it's across all different facets, business development, RD, putting it into place, implementing and then successfully going on to sell that business to a much, much bigger company.

Peter:  I think I know the person you are talking about. I know that person quite well, myself, actually. I would agree with those comments. Speaking for myself, someone I ran into, or actually I used to work with still in the personnel certification space as is someone that I worked with more than 15 years ago now. And they had this crazy idea that audit personnel shouldn't just present log books and make claim that they're professional based on a log book. They should actually be able to demonstrate something to their peers, to the industry and to their customers to improve the level of confidence in the outcomes of the service that we're providing. And so they went on to develop a model and start to promote that into industry which was resisted. And then I'd say, even today, some ideas around that are still being resisted because it was such a radical change for the profession at the time.

After a number of years of pushing on it, that idea and competency became an international standard. And the requirement for competent personnel were being written into a lot of standards these days where compliance has to be demonstrated. So, I think that person showed me how it could be done. And I think they showed a lot of people in industry where the future should be pointed and it's still taking some time to get there.

I think there are at least 10 years ahead of their time. And you've probably heard people say that, "Oh, you're ahead of your time on this stuff." This is an example of that where this person was at least 10 years ahead of their time. And I think these days, it's just starting to be realised that it's necessary and a value and will provide value going forward.

Experts have the ability to be visionary

Amanda:  So, do you think a lot of that stuff is ... Really when we're talking about competence and moving forward, a lot of that has been driven by the whole litigation and people being made responsible or liable for their actions. And we can talk about the PCA in the U.S. and auditors have been in there. We've seen that in other major outbreaks where auditors have been through and not identified certain things. Then there's a judgement around, well, was that person actually competent to be reporting on that or auditing that?

Peter:  I think issues or incidents in the industry draw people's vision back to the immediate future, which is, well, what is going to stop this from happening tomorrow? Do I think these issues really alter the course of history? Not unless it's catastrophic, not unless it's some major incident. One we've mentioned in a previous episode was Wallace Lake oysters with hepatitis harming scores of people and as a result, positive testing in the seafood industry was introduced. That was a catastrophic event that led to change.

I think visionaries and experts are above that level. They could probably, this is this prediction that I mentioned.  They are predicting long range stuff. And so they've already seen these incidents occurring and they're sort of sitting back waiting for it. While still waiting for industry to catch up.

Amanda:  So, that is when we talk about you definitely have got the experience in the industry. You've been in industry for over 10 years. You have seen things that happen, and it might have been the right time in your life, you were not in a position to put change in place.

Because you might have identified it when you are a novice or second level, but you just weren't in the right time. It wasn't the right time, the right place to bring that up. When now, if you could see that there was no changes have been made, you can then go ahead and go right, "We need to fix this issue. And this is how we're going to go ahead and do it."

Using history to prevent repetition

Peter:  I think one thing this expert class is good at is use of history. So they understand history and they can use it. That they're excellent in seeking data, that they understand how statistics work to model historical data into something palatable. And that they're really good at being able to communicate the future using just those tools, using history and using data and using statistics. I think these people are very clever at making convincing arguments based on those attributes.

Amanda:  I think when I look at this in the different businesses that I go in and work with. There's a lot of history there, but people don't seem to be learning from the history. When something happens in the U.S. another country might not learn from that. When something's happened in Australia. So, we saw the listeria in fruit salad, that was back in 1995. I think it was five years after that. Or 10 years after that, then the U.S. had a similar ... I just remember thinking at the time, if only they had looked at what happened in Australia and why it happened, that could have been prevented. What you say, having that forethought to look at history and might action-based decisions on that history.

Peter:  Absolutely. And again, these people, when I said earlier on in this podcast, people are seeking out all they can know about the industry. That means beyond their back fence. I know we have talked about looking over the neighbour’s back fence as they were a barbecue. We're actually looking, what's down the street and what's across the water. And what's halfway around the other side of the world that's influencing industry or influencing outcomes there. And then asking yourself, "Could that happen here?"

Amanda:  We are now getting into the one part, which if you are in the QA space, you would be quite familiar with. You are required under the GFSI accredited standards. You have to be looking at new and emerging diseases or incidences. And we can see the whole drive towards even food fraud was really triggered after the horse meat scandal in Europe.

We see that even all our food defence requirements now in our not only legislation in FSMA, but also in the standards that, these again, GFSI standards or customer requirement standards have driven the need for this whole food defence wasn't there five years ago, or even 10 years ago. We only saw that with the strawberries in Australia, within the needles in Strawberries food recall and how quickly that blew up.

Using critical thinking to support change

Peter:  That's true. And I think the other thing that experts will be doing is being highly critical of the data they're being provided. So, one incident does not make a pandemic. One incident does not require standards and industry guidelines to be changed. And, talking to you off air recently, Amanda, you were talking about how people interpret standards based on a particular experience. And I know we cannot have it that way because I saw it differently in another place. In which case, the answer to that is, "So What?"

As flippant as that question sounds, it is actually a really important question for the experts to ask themselves. Even if the data or the future shaping they're doing as well. "So what?" How do you know it's going this way? And that's where their critical thought, their highly logical thought processes come in, their ability to reason with the data and with arguments or hypothesis plays a big part of it. They're highly confident at the time they go to communicate this, that this is the right path.

Amanda:  So, Pete, to be an expert food safety professional for those people who are listening. Do you think there are any particular courses if people are working towards these, they may have been in their area for 15 years. Is there any type of course that they can start on to push this process forward?

Peter:  I've never seen a course on how to be an expert in anything?

Amanda:  No, you know what I mean ... Or is it more around this whole technical writing, higher communication. I definitely think critical thinking, which we did speak about in the last episode. Understanding that maybe you've actually gone further than just your general degree. You may have got another degree. You may have got postgraduate qualification.

Peter:  I think those are important. It's a lot of it around postgraduate, which shows that you've put the time and commitment into learning in-depth knowledge about a particular component of a process or the industry you're looking at. What we know about people that are in this space, they are very good leaders.

They are good leaders because they have quickly understood their own behaviours and personal attributes and have capital understanding of other people's attributes and are able to use that to be highly influential. That's what makes strong leaders and thought leaders and influencers and futurists out there is their ability to work with the psyche and human nature and human behaviour to attract and retain followers to their ideas.

Continuous education to develop, enhance and maintain knowledge

Amanda:  Do you think in saying all of that, that a person would continue to develop their knowledge? So we have a lot of this continuous education. And I see now in BRC, they have the BRC professional programme where people in industry, I can get signed off as a BRC professional. But then you also have to keep up with that continuing education and same as an auditor. So, every time I have to renew my auditor cert, I have to show that I have done X amount of continuous education.

That was one of my biggest drivers when I had HACCP Mentor accredited to be able to issue continuing education units for the industry. It is not just about doing that ‘one off’ course and then that is it, you actually continue to upgrade your knowledge around that subject matter if you are going to be that subject matter expert.

Peter:  That's it. And this infinite learning want or environment is really where future leaders are looking at. I know Simon Sinek has a whole new series around, around this space itself, and I'd encourage you to look up Simon Sinek and look at what he's talking about these days.

Amanda: I will put a link in the bottom of the show notes to this episode, to anything that we do speak about that you may want to check out for your own knowledge or extended knowledge on this stuff.

Peter:  It's a constant learning cycle. It never stops. An expert's always someone that's got an insatiable appetite for knowledge and for growth and personal development and learning, and then a burning desire to convert that into ways of supporting and helping others. So, Simon Sinek calls it the infinite mindset, and there's a lot of topics within that, that he talks on. He's got a growing number of podcasts and paraphernalia around this now.

Amanda: Okay. Well, I think that we've covered all of our points then in being an expert, going to that next level. Just keep in mind, just because you've done 20 years in the place doesn't make you an expert food safety professional. It may make you someone who has a lot of knowledge, but not necessarily an expert. It's all of those other things that we talked about. The other skills, the other attributes, the giving back, the greater good, I think is probably one of the biggest drivers in all of that.

Peter:  It is the will to see others succeed.

Amanda:  So, that wraps up our fifth level. Fifth and final level, but in saying that, we are going to talk in our next episode about mentoring. Some of you who may be at that level may be ready to start mentoring people within your own organisation.  

It's not necessarily meaning that you're at that food safety expert level, but you still may be in that position to now at least start passing on some of that knowledge and nurturing and mentoring people coming up from beneath to get to a level that you're at. Thank you very much, again, Pete. Don't forget, if anything we discussed, have a look in the show notes to the episode and we will catch you in the next one.

About Off the Menu

In the first season of Off the Menu, Amanda Evans-Lara and Peter Holtmann dive into career development for newbies and professionals working in the food industry. Listen in to learn about the skills, knowledge, personal attributes and work experience needed to map your food industry career path.

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