How Dole Uses Technology and Proactive Food Safety Program To Save Time, Money

Dole Fresh Vegetables
"What terrifies you most in purity?" I asked.

 "Haste," William answered.
-- The Name of the Rose, Fifth Day, Nones, by Umberto Eco

This article is based on a presentation the author gave at the FoodSafetyTech Conference on May 17, 2013 in Chicago. 
At Dole Fresh Vegetables, food safety is our first priority, so we have a full-time staff that ensures all our suppliers – growers, harvesters, coolers, and packing sheds – meet rigorous food safety standards before product can be received in our facilities. For that reason, food safety needs to be extraordinarily proactive: we need to identify potential food safety risks and mitigations as early as we can to ensure production continues safely and smoothly.
That is easier said than done.  
Dole Food Safety Department has a staff of nine, myself included, to address year-round operations throughout North, Central, and South America. We nine are responsible to create requirements; conduct pathogen and pesticide testing; make pre-season visits to suppliers; evaluate fields and test results; teach food safety to new suppliers; inspect work practices and field conditions during the season; provide food safety documentation to customers; respond to our suppliers’ food safety issues; and ensure traceability is perfectly maintained the entire time.

Let me take a breath. It’s a lot.

It is no understatement to say this work generates a fair amount of paperwork: for Dole, that means roughly 20,000 documents a year. Careful choreography of assignments and enthusiastic employees can go only so far when documentation steals so much time away from primary field duties. Therefore, leveraging technology to free up our staff from reporting, filing, and record-pulling is not just more efficient: it is critical to our success.
Think about it. How much time does a single employee spend traveling to a work site, traveling back from a work site, searching for documents to support a report, writing a report, filing a report, sending that report to other people, and later on researching that report? One hour? Two? Four?
If you can save that time, you could gain at least the equivalent of another employee.
It could be worth your time to see what technologies exist to help you create those extra work hours. Many wonderful companies provide effective filing and work-flow products. We chose a company called SafetyChain, located in San Rafael, CA. They built report forms which we can “fill in” on smart-phones in the field. We can attach photos to the reports, which is always helpful. These reports email directly to a searchable database, and problem responses elicit real-time notifications to management. This means we are not tied to the office for report writing, report searches, review and analysis of documents, or document retrieval.
So, it was an easy equation. Less time spent on paperwork = more time on fieldwork.  
It was this concept – make it easier to do more fieldwork – we used to get buy-in with field personnel, but additionally, we were very cautious in our initial implementation. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if the software would work as well as I wanted. I was also worried that program “bugs” could frustrate users, make their jobs even harder to do, which in turn could make them reject the technology. For that reason, I started with a “guinea pig” population – our own three pathogen samplers. (I very much appreciate how patient they were about the entire exercise.) But after everything was proven to work well, the remaining staff was readily trained and launched.
I am often asked how hard it is to train workers who may not have experience with computers or smartphones. It was easy in our case, because we had done the really hard work before we adopted the technology. The report form program was based on our own written report forms with which workers were already familiar. We had already spent several years developing forms so they were easy to use. Since we already had the format, we only needed to work out an interface that was not intimidating to a worker, regardless of education level or language skills. That’s where a test group came in very handy.
Nor have we completely implemented the entire planned scope of our software programs yet. There are three reasons for this. First, we plan to extend our reporting programs to our suppliers, but again in small test groups. Although implementing in stages takes longer, getting the basics right – equipment, software, proper training, efficacy in field situations – creates a much better food safety tool. Your product works the way it was intended, and users are more accepting and willing to use it. Equally important, time and trust are not sacrificed while you rejigger equipment and retrain people.
Second, designing software to fit the needs of your business is not like buying a computer in a box. Creating a workable program is an ongoing relationship between you and your data company. Here are just a few of the discussions we shared:
· The software designer misunderstood me. 
· I misunderstood the software designer. 
· The software designer and I thought ‘X’ was a great idea, but the field personnel hate it. 
· This button doesn’t work. 
· This phone doesn’t work. 
· I forgot to ask for this. 
· This just isn’t working. We need to find another way. 
· I wanted ‘this,’ but now that I see it in operation, I know ‘that’ would be so much better. 
· Why did this information disappear from the report? It was there last week!
· We’ve just been asked to take on a new program, and need a new report.
· We need to retrain everyone on using the website. We are getting confused with the new additions. 
· I lost my password again.
Don’t be alarmed. I am convinced that this is the way these things go when they are working well.
Third, since I wanted to make sure we could work well with our software designers (see above), and also that we got exactly the programs we needed, I buy my programs one module at a time – with the understanding that we will not purchase the next module until we get exactly what we need in the current one. In food safety, we just can’t afford the money or time lost on products that do not meet our needs.
When this program is at its fullest, I will have these modules -- risk assessments, food safety review reports, supplier safety documentation, audits, and test results -- integrated into a fully searchable database. I anticipate it will take two more years to do this. For me, the reason all this effort and patience is worthwhile is because of how food safety works.  
Real food safety is not an audit with a high score, a binder full of paperwork, or a staff with training certificates in hand. No.
Real food safety is this: someone sees something that could be dangerous and stops it from hurting someone.
To do this, people must be free and available to look for problems. To look for problems, they must be at the location of the potential problem and not sitting at a desk or filling out paperwork in a truck. This is why technology can give food safety programs proactivity and efficacy. Technology can give us more opportunities to look for problems… and solve them. 
Nye Joell Hardy writes science fiction and fantasy (which have published in Nature, other magazines and anthologies) whenever she is not working as the senior food safety manager for Dole Fresh Vegetables. Previously, she wrote science fiction and fantasy whenever she was not working in pesticide regulatory enforcement and running her own field worker training business, and also whenever she was not obtaining a Bachelors in Biology from UC Santa Cruz and a Masters in Food Safety from Michigan State. She’s also written one novel.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of his or her employer, GxP Lifeline, its editor or MasterControl Inc.