OTM 8: The proficient food safety professional and what that really means


To become recognised as a proficient food safety professional, years of experience is needed along with an excellent grounding in the core skills and knowledge of you chosen food industry discipline.  

Welcome to Episode 8 of Off the Menu. In this episode we look at the required attributes, experience, knowledge, and skills of a proficient food safety professionals.

Episode 8 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 to Off The Menu, I’m Amanda Evans-Lara from HACCP Mentor and I’m here again today with my trusty colleague Peter Holtmann from Holtmann Professional Services.

Peter: Hello!

Amanda: Today we’re going to continue on with our topic of career advancement, career proficiency and making sure that we’re awesome food safety professionals and how we progress through each of those levels within our working career in food safety and food production. So, Pete, what are we going to cover today?

Distinguishing between competent and proficient

Peter: Today we’re talking about the proficient food safety professional or the proficient worker for want of a better term. I know last time you were saying to me off mic, Peter, really what is the difference between a competent person and a proficient person? So, let me help answer that question then Amanda. What is the difference between competent and proficient?

Amanda: Yes Pete, that was one of my main questions. What is the difference? Because from what I thought I knew, I thought they were pretty similar. What is the difference?

Peter: Let me try answer it quite simply for you. I don’t think there is a simple answer to this by the way.

Amanda: You know how much I like simplicity though.

Peter: Of course, you do. When you’re proficient, you’re really dealing with high levels of complexity in the role and that can mean more people, more process, more standards, more product, more customers, more technicality in how to produce a product.

Amanda: That, for me, sounds like more stress.

Pete: I’m sure it does! But a proficient food safety professional is actually looking for this level of work. You’re no longer just comfortable being an expert in a particular process line. You now want to be proficient in all process lines. You want to be proficient in new production techniques.

Amanda: Are you talking about, something like I’ve been working on the bread line, but now I want to get more proficient in other departments in the business, so now I want to do cakes, or I want to be in pies, or, is that what we’re talking about here?

Peter: That’s what we’re actually talking about. We could be dealing with a production environment that deals with low, medium and high risk food groups, and you may have been quite competent in the medium risk, which means you cut your teeth on the low risk environment, you’ve moved up into the medium risk environment.

Now they’re asking you to take on the high risk, high sensitivity, aseptic environment. That comes with it a whole new set of challenges along the way that you’re now going to have to upskill for by getting some tertiary training, some extra tertiary training on this, or some specific industry training and experience, so somebody probably has to train you on the use of the equipment or the process. You’re most likely going to have to train other people to use that process and that environment as well.

Expectations of the proficient food safety professional

Amanda: Okay, so from a QA manager perspective, or a QA Supervisor, what would that look like for them?

Peter: They’ve been asked to implement a new way of doing say modified atmosphere packaging on their salads line. They might have been doing a different type of gas flush and seal process, and now they’ve been asked to implement a nitrogen flush and a new thermal sealing piece of equipment.

Amanda: Are they actually doing the research? New research on this, or are they, is someone else higher up doing this research of, say, what is going to be best for the business, and now it’s their job to implement it with a team?

Peter: They will be working with say the product developers to understand how this product goes through the manufacturing environment. They’ll be working with the lab to talk about the micro regime and testing regime for this.

They’ll be working with the plant engineers to talk about how this equipment is installed, maintained, and cleaned, and then they’ll be talking with the finance department on the cost of maintenance, the extra cost or the savings in production costs for this equipment, and also the calculations in saving of labour costs.

Amanda: Okay, so if we go back a couple of steps, you were saying about having to look at multiple standards within the business. To put that in context in probably the space that I’m more familiar with, and that’s working with consultancy clients, where they are having to implement multiple SQF, maybe they’re doing an environment standard, a WHS standard, or maybe it’s all different food standards.

Unfortunately, here in Australia we have multiple standards, so even as auditors we have to audit multiple standards, where I know in other parts of the world that’s not the case. Here, or for example, the audit that I was on last week, we were audited to SQF, HARPS, which is a retailer program to be able to sell to multiple retailers.

But then there was another retailer and an addendum for another major retailer as well, and HACCP. So, there was five different standards that came into play and quality as well. When we’re talking about multiple standards, that’s what we’re talking about, that you have to have a good regulatory knowledge around what all of that means.

Know your industry standards

Peter: That’s right. What I would expect a proficient food safety professional to be able to review, say, all four or five of these industry standards and create what’s called a standards crosswalk within their documentation and find where the crossovers are, where the gaps are, and then to adjust their food safety plans, their food safety training, their food safety recording and monitoring systems to be able to capture all of the requirements available in that crosswalk. That would be a proficient person.

Amanda: So we’re looking at being able to develop an integrated management system, really. Integrated food safety management system. So if you’re in the US you might be doing SQF but you may also be doing BRI as well as having to comply with the FSMA requirements. Instead of having separate documentation or separate systems for each of those requirements, you can integrate all of those together.

Peter: That’s exactly right. A competent person will be able to competently apply one, maybe two standards. A proficient food safety professional will look at the holistic picture and figure out how to make that work most efficiently and effectively within the organisation.

Amanda: Okay, so we’re doing more helicopter view.

Peter: You’re stepping out of the box now. You’re coming up several thousand feet from the production floor into an overview of the entire organisation and what are the best processes to deliver the outcomes according to the business plan.

How long does it take to become proficient?

Amanda: Okay. So what’s our expected level of working time to get to this level?

Peter: It’s usually the five to ten-year work experience period now, but a minimum of five years. You would have honed your skills on as many possible standards as you could, perhaps individually or perhaps in combination, and you would have been learning some management techniques as well.

This is becoming a manager, a leader within an organisation. The organisation may have approached you and asked you to take on more formal training, or you may have decided that your skillset needs to be upgraded in order to meet these new conditions and you’ve gone and done it all, all on your own accord.

Amanda: When we talk about this five to ten-year experience, that could be within that one organisation, it could be across several organisations?

Peter: That’s right. It’s probably across several organisations and what that leads you to is becoming familiar with benchmarking. This refers to what we’re doing differently to everybody else. Who has the better process, or what standard allows us to better achieve our outcomes? Benchmarking starts to become of your lexicon and part of your practices that you’re asking your teams, it’s no longer a team, you probably have multiple teams, to become involved in.

Amanda: I think with benchmarking comes this whole concept of the continuous improvement. You’ve got the ability to drive that process better within an organisation.

Peter: That’s exactly right. You’re committed to change and improvement within the organisation so that you’re achieving a better result with less resources.

Amanda: Okay. Less resources. Great.

Peter: Resource doesn’t necessarily mean staff, it could mean less money, less ingredients, less waste going out to be managed, less warehouse space, this is what we mean by resource. Resource isn’t just a person. It’s everything that the organisation deploys to achieve its outcome.

The core skills required at the proficient level

Amanda: Okay. So, from that side, when we’re looking at experience, some of the key things about this area –in a previous episode, when we talk about competence, we were talking about people starting to do internal audits and being on the HACCP Team – where at this level

I think we’re expecting you to be the HACCP Team Leader, to drive the change to definitely have that ability to identify and assess hazards and put applicable and effective control measures in place and to drive that implementation process.

Peter: Absolutely. You would be a HACCP Team Leader. You would be an audit team leader or if not a principal auditor, being able to conduct audits by yourself or being able to lead teams of others. You’d be a project team leader as well, so projects and their design becomes a major part of your role as well, and design of audit schedules, design of supplier rating systems… these are all the sorts of things you would be performing as part of your role.

Amanda: And I think if you’ve been following along with all of these episodes and going in order, hopefully you’re seeing the pattern that we’re not saying so much about different skills. We’re talking about the same skills, but we’re also talking about getting better at those skills.

Peter: Absolutely. You are applying more decision making, more problem solving, to more complexity. That is what you are doing here. As these complexities in an organisation increase someone, or some group of people are usually managing it, and as you move up the management tree, you’re actually doing less and less of the hands on work and gauging more and more people to do the hands on work for you.

Essentially, you are becoming a little more removed from the granularity but you’re becoming more engaged with the overall process of the organisation.

Amanda: When, for you, Pete, based on your history, do you feel that you were at this level of being proficient? We have given that guideline of five to ten years, did that fit into your scope?

Experience comes with time

Peter: I think it did, you know. I was probably a good five years into my career into that point in time. I moved from the lab tech to the regulatory function to the internal audit and quality management process to becoming an external auditor, a certification auditor, so I was able to audit to multiple standards to multiple industry sectors and to multiple risk ratings. I reached a level of proficiency there.

That came with time, which is experience. I was trained in the multiple standards, I was trained in the auditing function for certification, and I was placed into different industry sectors to learn about those industry sectors, find where the risks were and use that knowledge of risk to apply it to the audit process.

I found that I started, say in the food ingredient and bakery sector because it was most familiar, and then moved into beverages, I moved into, and that was into dairy beverages which starts to put you into a high risk component, from there I was getting egg products and egg production. I found myself in seafood pretty quickly from there because of the primary production, the agricultural, component of doing the seafood and then I started to move into other areas from there.

Eventually I ended up food service and then auditing hospital sectors, so I moved into the highest risk categories based on the ability to demonstrate the knowledge of the sector and being able to apply that to identify risk and audit against those risks.

Amanda: I think that sounds very similar to mine, but from the public health perspective around that I left public health after seven years of being there and that’s when I felt that it was time for me to move on, not that I had learnt everything that I needed to learn… that was far from the case, but it was more of a lifestyle choice that I made.

I do recall at that point however, around about year six, year seven, I was definitely running all of my own legal cases – we still had to get approval of this all obviously, given it was a government department – but probably the biggest shift was now I was sitting on stakeholder committees from a national level, because at that time in Australia we were going through the new food safety standards being rewritten, so being able to sit on those committees to put in my expertise of what and how things should and should not be running.

Another area I found was that I was starting to talk at conferences as well. A lot of it was around major food poisoning cases, so yes, the Hepatitis A and the oysters that we spoke about in a previous episode, we had a massive case of listeria in fruit salad that ended up killing quite a few people, so presenting papers at conferences around that type of stuff, and getting more technical with that. It was very directed kind of work. It still very much around the basic work, and that’s only a resourcing issue as we still had to cover all of that work anyway.

One of the other things I found myself doing was instructing and educating other food inspectors, not just in the state government, but now starting to train and educate local council inspectors.

The trust attribute and how it relates to proficiency

Peter: This is important because it’s starting to get into some attributes here and one of these is being trusted and also showing trust and that’s really important when you get to these levels because you can’t  do a lot of the work yourself.

You have to entrust that work to other people so you’re starting to build your behaviours and your leadership skills around trusting others and whatever other tools you need to put in place to trust other and to get the right feedback. You’re also talking about talking at conferences and that, and that demonstrates passion for the cause, passion for the industry, passion for sharing information with other people, so these are really important attributes when you’re at this level.

Amanda: I think that’s still something that I maintain today. I’m very passionate about what I do and how I do it, and I really want to, my legacy is that I want compliance to be effective and easier for everyone. That’s kind of what I live by every day. That’s why I do what I do.  

I actually had someone send me an email yesterday saying thank you and you do this without being paid – Pete and I don’t get paid to do these podcasts – but we have got a shared passion of being able to pass on our knowledge to other people so they can take up the baton and continue on with this whole concept of producing safe food, because that’s what we want.

Peter: That’s exactly right. Being motivated to deliver information to make change is important. A lot of the times in this role you could be facing various levels of adversity or challenge, say a new product, a new process, something that has never been done before. The industry has not or isn’t accepting it yet. We don’t have data on changing food safety requirements from this to the other, so you have to be motivated in order to get through those changes.

Amanda: And innovative too, I think.

Peter: And innovative, that’s right. You may have either been directed to do these changes, which can happen, usually by someone higher than you, an expert has directed change in industry. I could be from a standards maker or a peak body or a government authority, or new regulations. Or, the industry has decided to make this change. Either way you need to be motivated to rise to the challenge to meet the changes and to demonstrate the outcomes that are expected of you.

Amanda: I think in that context then it’s really important to have these critical thinking skills or attributes so when we say that we mean you can look outside the square. You’re looking at things not as they are, but more an in depth level, what they could be, to try and make something better, more efficient, more effective, less costly, whatever the parameter may be, but you have got the ability in your thinking to not just accept the ho-hum, you’re able to move past that.

Peter: So we’re discussed some, in the last podcast, being able to predict the future somewhat. We’re really talking about at a competent level, you look at what happens over the next six to twelve months, when you’re at this level, at the proficient level, you’re probably looking mid-range or mid to medium term.

You’re probably working to say a three year plan that the organisation has put together, or the industry has, you might be aware that standards are reviewed and changed every four years, so you might be working on a four year agenda for things to occur so your thinking is beyond the front of your nose now and to maybe what’s over the neighbour’s fence and how are they going.

I can think of another case in my history. I moved from the lab to compliance into internal auditing to external auditing and I did mention previously I was asked to join some committees about developing auditor competencies.

At this point in my career I actually moved into the world of the professional credentialing of auditors, so I realised that I had sufficient skills now to go and talk about what makes good auditors, and to join the organisation to help craft that.

Amanda: For people who aren’t familiar with that, a person who wants to become and external auditor, they have to have a certain level of skills, attributes, experience and knowledge. Pete was involved in writing what that level should be.

Peter: Yes. At this level you may be involved in the creation of some standards based on your experiences using standards or based on being a professional in the space.

Do you consider yourself a subject matter expert?

Amanda: You may be a subject matter expert that feeds into that process.

Peter: Definitely. At this level you are a technical expert or a subject matter expert. You’re helping to discuss the challenges of your space, and how can your industry or your professionals or your peers improve.

Amanda: If you’re looking at this purely from within an organisation, you may now be asked to sit on, or report to, the board, be a part of… not so much director’s meetings… but definitely higher management meetings that sets policy moving forward within the organisation. Not just around product but process.

Peter: This comes back to the trust again. People are trusting that the information you’re providing is accurate and is current and is relevant, and they’re trusting the decisions or opinions you’re providing around that information. Essentially, you’re on a very high level of influence now, and that is also translated through your passion.

If you’re really quite passionate, it comes out in how you share your message and how you communicate. We’ve spent a lot of time in previous podcasts talking about levels of communication and interpersonal skills. Here you will have quite a high level of interpersonal skills. You’ll be very articulate either in written or spoken form. You’ll be able to influence people with good construction of arguments and content.

Amanda: Having that infectious personality about what you’re passionate for helps motivate people. This is because they’re inspired by you to change their own behaviour, because they want to be like you.

Peter: That’s true. You’re motivating as well as being motivated. It wouldn’t be unusual for you to be a mentor at this point in time, so you may be crafting your mentoring skills and be willing to take on some mentors.

Amanda: It may also be from the point that you’re just trying to get the best out of the people that you’re working with, or the team under you. We’re going to talk about mentoring in another episode, but at this level, you want to get the best out of your team. As Pete said, you might start doing a little bit of that stuff at this level of being proficient.

The trust to make a food business better

Peter: Do you think this occurred for you Amanda when you moved into private business? Did you feel that you were more than ready to make the change and deploy what you learnt from your regulatory role?

Amanda: Absolutely. I saw it as I wasn’t on the ‘bad guy’s’ side… not that there should ever be a bad guy’s side, but that’s how people perceive government inspectors. They are just here to ruin my day. I saw it more as being now in the position to be able to help people, because obviously as an inspector, and even as an auditor, your job is not too much focused around nurturing people to comply or to show people how to do something.

Your role really is just around this is what the rules are. You’re not complying, or you are complying. It’s to assess compliance. That’s what the role of an auditor is. But when you can step into that role as a consultant, which is what I went in to when I started my business, I felt for me I could be more nurturing. I wasn’t there with a big stick. I could talk on a more personal level with companies.

From my experience I say, look this hasn’t worked, you’re going down this track which is not going to be a good track, we need to put some level of change in place. Change management was a big part of it. But ultimately being able to relate those concepts to people and getting them to change. I’ve also found that even with some of my clients that I’ve worked with for… there’s one client I’ve worked with since day one… so we’re going on twenty years… I probably do more mentoring with the business owner than what I’ve ever done before. That’s only come about by trust.

That person trusts me to advise on how to make his business better. Not just around food safety, it’s gone way past food safety. We’re talking about business management now. Because of the experience I’ve had as an auditor going into all different types of businesses I can now go in an advise, look I’ve seen this work, this not work, you know this is the way we need to address your staff members, you shouldn’t be doing this. Really around change management and culture within a business. I would not have been able to do that as an inspector.

Peter: I think you are touching on two really good points that we have not raised yet. One is about being consultative or following a pathway as a consultant, because that’s still a professional that’s in this space and you’re adding a lot of immediate and long-term value to a client based on your level of knowledge and detail in the industry.

The second component is being able to educate others around what best practice looks like or what good practice looks like. The other career path here is being a trainer in this space as well. I know between the two of us we’ve complete all four of these roles… consultant, trainer, auditor, and I guess a mentor as well. We have been fortunate enough to pursue all of these activities.

Amanda: When we get into another episode we will talk about the differences between a trainer and an educator. I feel my position now that I am doing more education. It is not so structured. If you know what I mean. It feels a lot more… I feel a lot more satisfied with that as opposed to just getting up and lecturing. Following a path of this the competency the participant has to have, you have to deliver it in this manner. Whereas education… you get to choose how and where you deliver that message. We can talk about these in a later episode.

Peter: It’s a good point. If you wanted to distinguish on how information gets delivered as a consultant versus an educator… all you can do as an educator is give them the seed of knowledge and they go away and apply it whereas in the consulting space you’re practically applying it for the client and then it’s up to them to educate themselves on how to use it. You are almost reversing the process there on good practice and how it gets into an organisation.

Amanda: To wrap this episode up, I think we have covered everything now Pete. We have looked at our attributes, experience, knowledge, and our skills to be at this level of proficient.

Peter: Yes. I hope not only you Amanda but the listeners can see, or hear a different level between just being competent and now being a proficient food safety professional, where you’re taking more charge not only of your future but also the future of others around you. You are starting to progress towards what we call the penultimate level, which we call expert.

Amanda: We are going to talk about that in a future episode. Hopefully, you will come back and listen. You can subscribe to the podcast on any of the major channels. Have a look on the HACCP Mentor website and you can see links to previous podcasts and where you can subscribe as well. After we actually finish this series Pete, we are not just going to stop at this series on professional development. We are going to look at other series. We are having a great time working with each other. For once.

Peter: Absolutely. I think Amanda and I can talk the leg off a wooden chair together. Stay tuned for more content.

Amanda: Thanks very much again and we will see you next episode.

Pete: Thanks for listening.

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

2 thoughts on “OTM 8: The proficient food safety professional and what that really means”

  1. Sefiu Olatunde Ikudaisi

    Nice and impressive professional tutoring from you Amanda (and Pete)!
    You are both just wonderful, motivational, impactful and altruistically helpful to me personally in my career development efforts towards becoming a food safety professional.
    Once again great job, and best regards,

Comments are closed.

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