OTM 7: How to become a competent food safety professional


Becoming a 'competent' food safety professional is the next level above advanced beginner in building your career in food safety and quality. At this level your role and responsibilities increase as your experience and confidence builds.

Welcome to Episode 7 of Off the Menu.  Tune in, or read the adapted podcast transcription, to find out more on what the ‘Competency’ level means in terms of knowledge, skills, attributes, and work experience.

Episode 7 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. Remember, don't take life too seriously.....and have a laugh 🙂

Click to Read

Amanda:  If you’re new to Off The Menu, we're in episode seven now where in this particular series we're looking at how to progress your career in the food industry. We’ve really been focusing on what skills you need at each level, what experience is expected, what knowledge you should have to be at this particular level, and also the personal attributes that allow you to be at this level as well.

Peter:  We also talk about how your work experience demonstrates your ability to apply the knowledge you have learned by using your skills, and how your attributes help you progress into roles of more complexity, more authority and more responsibility.

Amanda:  In this episode we’re now onto the level of ‘competent’. What does it take to be a competent food safety professional? Peter, can you explain to our listeners what this level of ‘competent’ means?

Peter:  Absolutely. Well, to use the words of Snoop Dog, you know your shizzle at this point in time. You've actually attained a sound working level of knowledge and skills for the food industry.

Amanda:  Okay. We're expecting this to be around about the three-year experience mark.

How many years does it take to reach the ‘competent’ level?

Peter:  I think you're at the five-year mark, maybe three to five years would be about right, three to five years in this role, depending on how complex the role is that you're working in.

Amanda:  Obviously the industry that you're in as well, if you'd be moving around to different ones. So it doesn't mean that just because you'd been working for five years, that's not what we're saying.

Peter:  No, no. It's five years of relevant experience. Absolutely. The food industry. In the food industry and perhaps within a role within the food industry as well. It's all one thing to be an icing fondant shoveler five years ago or now.

Amanda:  Go back to episode five to learn about Peter's illustrious career and shovelling icing mix.

Roles and Responsibilities

Peter:  After three to five years of experience, you've probably migrated into roles such as being on the internal audit team. You might be part of the team that develops the food safety systems, or you might even be holding down some sort of regulatory role in the organization.

Amanda:  Being on the HACCP team, that's probably a classic one around the food safety. I think also definitely the internal audit team. You may not be the audit team leader, but you're definitely on the team auditing different sections within your actual business. There's some of the job roles that you might be doing from a food safety perspective. But I think also you could be a supervisor on a production line.

Peter:  Oh absolutely. You can be a supervisor of a team with varying levels of responsibility. But more importantly now you've got authority, which means you're able to make decisions, solve problems, and deviate from normal process under good cause.

Amanda:  I think one this week actually I've been away, one of my clients had been audited to SQF. And when I look at the structure within their business, we have our process workers and then the next level is the team leader, which this is where I think the team leader falls into this competent level as opposed to the supervisor of say, the entire packing area. Because my client has a 24 hour production at that site, they have three shifts, three different team leaders as opposed to the supervisor who will do the entire department from that side of it. So that is what I'm going to refer back to - it's that team leader position.

Experience Builds Confidence

Peter:  I think from my memories of working in the food industry, I think I hit a level of confidence when I became an external food safety auditor. What I mean by external food safety auditor, I was a supplier auditor or second party auditor, so wasn't necessarily out doing third party certification audits yet. But I was well on the way to becoming a certification or compliance auditor.

I thought I was competent because, well one, I was actually telling myself that I was competent. I had self-certifications, plenty of that in industry, but I knew a lot about the industry that I was working in.  I had quite granular detail around the processes that we were employing within that production and within that factory and within that industry.

That allowed me to go out and determine that these ingredients needed to be a certain grade or a certain quality in order to not impact the outcomes of our production process because I knew what a non-compliant ingredient would do to the process.

Amanda:  Peter looking at what you're talking about regarding your other experience of when you felt you got to that level of competence.

Peter:  Yes, so one thing that I was very confident about is being able to identify hazards and severity, but also the likelihood. That’s a different skill set that you're learning, which is - I know something's bad, and how bad it's going to be. But what I'm actually doing now is I'm learning how to predict when that could occur or how often that might occur given the production environment or given the operating conditions. That shows that I've had sufficient time to study the process, study the statistics or the history of that process and be able to make a forward determination of future performance. That sounded like an audit.

Amanda:  Yes, it does. And at this point, were you actually provided by your employer at the time, additional training or additional courses that you went to increase that level of knowledge that you previously had?

Identifying areas for improvement

Peter:  Yes. Why did I get picked by the employer to do that? One is because I was helping in the previous roles to helping to improve the process as an automatic function of my role, so I was able to identify improvement. I was given enough reign in that role to identify improvement and have others verify and implement that improvement.

That gave the employer sufficient amount of trust and confidence in my capabilities to take it to a higher level of authority, which means in the supplier auditor role, it could mean turning off a supplier or approving a new supplier for use. Because I was given that level of authority, they wanted to make sure that I had the level of competency or capability to go with it. The component that they wanted to up-skill was the knowledge. That's where the internal auditing training came in.

Amanda:  Do you think after you received your internal auditor training, did you believe at that point you were competent even though you hadn't been out and done any actual auditing or reviews of that type? You just had the knowledge.

We have an online internal auditing course and online HACCP course on how to put together your food safety plan and identify hazards and risks, but also for the, internal auditing course, how to actually go out and what you should be looking for. Did you feel based on that knowledge alone, let's say for the internal auditing that you are competent even though you didn't have the experience?

Deploying the skills and knowledge for auditing

Peter:  Let me break that down for you. I was confident that I could deploy an auditing process so I could go onto a site and do the introduction or do the planning, do the introduction, do the audit, interview, observation and review, identify whether there was an issue, write up corrective action and then be able to report that and negotiate that to the client. I could do that.

What I didn't have was the competence or necessarily the confidence in just yet was could I do that on a supplier's site because I didn't know what I was going to experience when I got out there. I didn't know the condition of the place, the location or anything like that. That comes with experience doing multiple audits. You tend to build up a working history or working knowledge of what the industry starts to look like.

Amanda:  I think from my background and my role in inspection with the government because we were doing that every day, that was our normal. With somebody who is working in a food production facility, they are not auditing every single day. I think it comes with repetition and frequency.

When you live a ‘live experience’, knowledge and skills greatly improves, and you can really fast track areas if you are doing it every single day. I was going into many different factories, chicken processing, salad production, milk production, and then going and doing retail outlets. When you are doing that every day, I really believe that you, your skill set just improves absolutely 10-fold. I should say it happens a lot quicker than what you would be in industry when you are only auditing say once a week or once a month.

Peter:  Well, you're starting to use a different set of skills. Now you're starting to look at identifying issues or you're starting to do predictive analysis, which is what's going to happen next if this process keeps running like this or if those people keep doing stuff like that, what is the most likely outcome that will occur and that's why people get promoted up to supervisor level or perhaps even at this level.

You might become a manager, you might be quite lucky, but what it does is that you're promoted there because you can see into the near future perhaps a little bit and say, I know that on this team, these three people are going to do the job the same every single time. They're going to slack off about halfway through the day because they get a bit sleepy and their work level drops off, so I'm going to have to rotate their jobs around so that they stay sharp, so you're starting to be able to peer into the future based on your past experiences.

Using experience to drive outcomes

Amanda:  I was going to say from experience, I know that I could, there was about 7 out of 10 butcher shops, I know I could go in there and they would be using illegal chemicals. I knew exactly where to go look for these chemicals. Because of my past experience, I didn't have to waste time asking questions. I just knew that it would have been shoved up under the sink, in the hand wash area or out the back because they would see you coming a mile away.

Back in these days we went through a phase where we actually had our vehicles marked, so they knew that the food inspector was coming, which was a stupid, stupid idea. And we did fight that and got the stickers removed from our cars. But it would be nothing for them to go and put the chemicals, the illegal chemicals out the back. I would just go straight out the back before someone had a chance to run around the side and go and dump it in a bin or something.

Also the area that I had to look after, you'd get maybe two butcher shops into a run and then you had stopped because what they would do, they would ring the next town, the next town butcher and say inspectors are out there on their way, blah blah blah. So we knew from experience that number three, number four, number five would all be compliant. The next day went up and started in the reverse, we could grab those three straight away because we knew that they were doing the wrong thing. I’d say highly predictive and being able to map people's actions of what they would do.

Ethical practices in the food industry

Peter:  What we're really talking around here is just knowing where to look for things as you're starting to further develop ethics now you might say. Oh, but I'm an ethical person anyway. I was born with it. Well, no one's born with ethics for a starter. It's something that comes with your family and your upbringing and also attributed back to your behavioural attributes as well. But what we're talking about is what's right for the business and what's right for the process and then hopefully what's right for the consumer of the product at the end of the day as well.

Amanda:  Well, hopefully in that food safety role, you're actually putting that as a priority because I do have a lot of people contact me around what should they do. They're in a business where there's no management commitment. They’re doing dodgy things. The poor QA person or food safety manager or team leader or whoever are afraid to sign anything or whistle-blow because they need the job. So, it's becomes where do you draw that line? And hopefully when you're at this competent level, you can actually make that decision of what is more important. Hopefully it is the safety of the people you’re producing the food for.

Peter:  I think we're seeing that turn up in food safety systems these days that everyone's looking for the next level, the next paradigm in food safety. That's where I'm hearing conversations around food safety culture and how to award it. This ties back into this ethics as a component of food culture, but as a person who's competent in the space, you'll be able to predict the outcome of productions at that site based on things such as the culture of the organization, not just the system.

Amanda:  Yes. I also think being able to identify when things aren't right. And I think also at this level, just starting to trust your own inner feelings around stuff. If you have got a hunch that something's not right, you tend to act, you're getting more intuition around what's right and what's wrong within the business.

Peter:  I think also very importantly is that your peers or your employers also see that, and they are trusting you to use those skills and attributes more often in your role. So you're adding more value to the organization by using or utilizing these sorts of skills. And so what, what does that look like? I mean, if I was an employer, what would this person look like? Behaviourally when they’re working on my site? I would say they're very confident. I would say that they are very influential in the workspace. A workspace. People are coming to them for an opinion or they're influencing the opinion decisions.

Interpersonal skills of a competent food safety professional

Amanda:  That’s definitely one thing. If you’re a team leader, you have to have that ability because you need to be able to enact change. If someone's not doing the right thing, you need to be able to help change their behaviour. If you don't have that influence, you won't let them change it.

Peter:  Absolutely. Intimately linked with that is interpersonal skills. You'll be able to adjust your message based on the audience you're communicating to. You’re thinking about what the most effective way is to communicate with your audience.

Amanda:  You are starting to think a little bit outside the square now because not everybody is the same. The way that you get one person to do something is completely different to another. I see that even in my own two children. How I get my favourite son to do something is very different to what I say to my daughter who I don't really need to say anything to at all because she’s a mini me. She just knows. She can do it and I think we actually share the same brain. She just knows the way. My son, you have to talk to him in a different way.

Developing leadership capability

Peter:  Well, these are behavioural attributes. And as a person that's competent, you should have some training or some skills around behavioural leadership or behavioural techniques and learn how to adjust your style to get the most out of the person that you're interacting with. And so this ties into leadership. At this level you should start to have some quite well-developed leadership capabilities.

Amanda:  I think also if you're in that role, the knowledge of what's expected of a leader, as well as what attributes and what skills. I don't think that is a missing piece. I see that in a lot of my consulting clients that those team leaders have not had any leadership training. They haven't been sent to those courses to learn. People are different, and you have to adjust your message.

Peter:  Absolutely. Thinking back to some of the roles that I've held in the industry, moving outside of a supplier role, I was asked to volunteer on a certification panel at this particular point in time because I was recognized by others as having good ethics. What should auditor’s ethics look like? I was also very conscientious about the work I was doing, so I was doing work not only for the business I was in but also for the industry too. In other words, building the recognition of other audit professionals out there. At this point in time, I still was not an external auditor, I was an internal auditor or a second party auditor if you wish to call it.

But people from external audit agencies were looking at the work I was doing because our paths would cross. There would be an external auditor doing a certification audit on the same day as I was doing an internal audit. People watch your capabilities; people see that you're quite skilful at deploying your knowledge to get an outcome. They see you are demonstrating good experience because you can identify and you can predict the future a little bit, do a bit of a problem identification and problem solving at the same time.

Being highly committed to the process

Amanda:  I think also to go hand in hand with that is that you are highly committed to the process and not just around, I'm here to earn money or I'm here to pay the bills. You're actually starting to think outside that space to something more like “I actually want to make sure that things are safe and things are better” and the way we get better is that we work with our team to help them get up to the same level as what we are.

I think those interpersonal skills and being able to report to management around this is what's happening. You might now start having some influence with management. Maybe you come up with the, ‘I think there's a better way to do the process’. I remember when we talked back in the novice episode, we don't just rock in and start saying, “I think this job would be better if we use something like a shovel six times the size of the one we're using. We'll be able to get it for the job to get done quicker”. You don't do that, but I think now at the competent level, you can actually start talking about change management and more efficiency in practices.

Peter:  Absolutely. I think ‘so how would you know if you're competent personally’? What would give it away? Well, apart from you having a feeling about it, some of the things you might recognize as people are coming up, having a conversation to you about your next job, you know, but that could be, there's a manager role popping up in the business and I think you should consider applying for it, or you know, there's a project team being put together.

I think you should get on that project team, or hey, there is a meeting for the industry association end of the week, in the evening. I want you to come with me to it because I want to introduce you to some people. These are pretty good indicators that you're at a competent level. And high trust. Because you're starting to not only develop processes and people and a product for an organization, you're also being asked in some cases to represent that organization to the industry.

So you're at a competent level where you can go in and you can talk with a deep understanding of the organization, the trends that it follows in terms of where we've just implemented this new bit of machinery and it does this for us. Or we've upgraded our HACCP system to include VACCP now because when, you know, where we've started in new product line and selling to a new market with a new customer, so you can talk at those levels. Now you're a competent person.

Competency in context of food manufacturing

Amanda:  And I think just to put that in a context of food industry as in manufacturing, maybe you've been asked to go onto a task force with other like businesses as a representative of the company which maybe has a barrier such as food safety. Maybe you've got sister companies within your group of all your organizational group that you're now representing your site in the food safety at these places.

Peter:  Absolutely. It might just be hovering below a line manager, a level in the organization. If you're in the laboratory you could be at a technical expert or a technician level. I should say, or a senior technician, but you might not have made it yet to laboratory manager or technical experts.

Amanda:  I think even representing a team in a company meeting. You have to go to that Monday morning meeting and report on what your outcomes are and what you’re going to do for that week to the rest of the other business teams within your organization.

Peter: You're not only organizing your time now; you could be organizing other’s time within your team. What tasks are you going to do when a task occurs as well or what happens if a task can't be completed? Line’s broken down, cleaned for maintenance, etcetera. What do you do with the people in your charge at that point in time?

Amanda: So, time management obviously is another attribute we haven't really touched on yet, but this is definitely at this level of being competent.

Peter: If you're unsure of what a competent position is or if you're competent, then you can always drop Amanda or myself a note after the podcast and we'll do our best to answer it for you.

Amanda: That wraps up this episode where Peter and I have looked at the experience, skills, knowledge and attributes that you need to become a competent food safety professional. In the next episode we will be covering the next level which is going to be the proficient professional. I will be looking forward to learning what’s the difference between proficient and competent.

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.

Off the Menu Podcast

Get free HACCP advice and updates

Find out how to better implement and manage your HACCP, legal and food safety compliance requirements by joining the HACCP Mentor newsletter.

Scroll to Top