BALTIMORE — multiple speakers delivered the same message repeatedly to attendees of the 17th annual Food Safety Summit: If you haven’t started talking about food safety, start now, and use a multi-lingual approach.

That doesn’t mean food safety and quality assurance managers need to speak Spanish and Chinese, said Bob Erhart, senior policy and science advisor for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

“There’s a language called ‘farm’ and a language called ‘wonk’ and thankfully I’m conversationally proficient in both,” Erhart said during a session on the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed produce safety rule.

“We all need to realize we speak different languages when we are talking about food safety.”

Erhart said food safety managers must translate technological and scientific details into plain language for farm managers and rank and file employees or there is no way food safety programs can be successfully implemented.

“Align your goals with those of the C Suite ... You may not get all of the credit because it has become their goal as well as yours, but you will get your program.”                                                                                     — Charlene Gmunder

The third language absolutely necessary to change a company’s food safety culture is C-Suite speak, said Charlene Gmunder, former vice president of manufacturing for Chiquita Brands International Inc.

“Don’t assume your executives and operations managers know what you know about food safety,” Gmunder said during the summit’s keynote presentation. “You must help them understand what’s in your head, but you must speak their language.

“Talk about revenue, ROI (return on investment) and loss, legal implications and liabilities. Make it real with specific examples from your part of the industry.”

Written materials about food safety implementation also need to be in the correct language for CEOs, CFOs, COOs and other executives, said Ken Leith, business consultant and co-founder of the software company (e)Gauge Inc., Fort Collins, Colo.

“In reports to the C Suite, put the results on the first page and follow with the how and why,” Leith said during a session on how a company’s healthy food safety culture is insurance against catastrophe.

“Senior management will focus on probability and food safety managers typically focus on severity. You must explain the cost of failure.”

Leith said last fall one of his clients was discussing her company’s need to spend a substantial amount on food safety. Other people at the meeting told her she’d never convince management to make that kind of commitment.

“She met one-on-one with every single person and three months later she had a $35 million budget and an IT commitment of $200 million for the coming two years,” Leith said.

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Many summit attendees said they are comfortable talking with executives in their own language, but one question was posed repeatedly — how do you get the conversation started?

Gmunder said one technique she has seen work means the food safety manager may not get the glory, but will get the money and commitment to implement programs and procedures.

“Align your goals with those of the C Suite,” Gmunder said. “Then you have a shared set of goals and since they like to achieve goals they will help. You may not get all of the credit because it has become their goal as well as yours, but you will get your program.”

Gmunder also recommended taking executives to the action. By showing them the actual packing or processing lines you give them an instant perspective. When attendees asked what to do when the executives don’t want to take time to look at the operation from the ground floor, Gmunder again suggested playing to the classic executive character traits.

“Say you need some advice and ask them to go with you to look at a particular aspect of the operation,” Gmunder said. “They like to solve problems and by asking for their opinions you bring them into the process and give them an opportunity to take ownership.”

Above all at the summit, the message from speakers across the board was to act now to avoid food safety problems later.

Jim Gorny, vice president for food safety and technology for the Produce Marketing Association, likened the implementation of the produce rule and other aspects of the Food Safety Modernization Act to a glacier slowly melting and eventually falling into the sea.

“It’s moving slowly now,” Gorny said. “But eventually it will be here. Compliance requirements may be two or four or six years away, but if you don’t start now you will be under that glacier when it falls.”