Keynote speaker covers roles of food safety staff during pandemic

Keynote speaker covers roles of food safety staff during pandemic

by Sue Jones
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Food safety professionals were already “in the belly of the beast” before the coronavirus pandemic hit and they continue to be in the hot seat, according to Craig Wilson of Costco. Wilson gave the keynote address this morning at the 2021 Food Safety Summit.

The virtual session today, May 11, attracted about 400 attendees and was titled “The New Roles and Responsibilities of Food Safety Professionals in the COVID-19 World.

Wilson is the vice president and general merchandising manager of Quality Assurance/Food Safety, Non-Foods Quality Assurance, Environmental Services/Haz Mat and Merchandise Services for Costco Wholesale Corp.

“No one knows our companies better than us,” Wilson told the attendees. “We’re in the belly of the beast. Why is food safety staff involved with changes regarding COVID? Because we know the systems.”

Wilson covered a wide variety of topics related to COVID, including describing how Costco decided to impose a mask mandate in April 2020; how the company decided to stick with guidelines from the CDC; supply chain disruptions; and how to manage conflicting information from federal, state and local health officials.

“It takes more than a village,” Wilson said, describing the work of governmental agencies, supply chain companies and Costco management.

One governmental agency Wilson was not expecting to hear from was OSHA about food safety. He said they had productive phone audits which were time consuming but not difficult. He said the agency has an excellent COVID website.

One frustration encountered with federal, state and local entities has been that they won’t go out to the Costco stores to see what precautions are in place, Wilson said. The company’s answer is to continue to require masks in their stores and to follow other CDC guidelines, as well as going above and beyond them.

The chain went to a mask mandate early on and fired up its “Big Ass” brand fans to improve air circulation in their stores. Both happened before government guidance came out.

A problem with the chain’s mask mandate for staff and customers has hit a bit of a stumbling block, though, with customers who feel it is an infringement on their civil liberties.

“Everyone has a choice of where to shop,” Wilson said. “We have had customers threaten our employees . . . we’ve had people sprayed with bear mace.”

Wilson said if mask issues with customers cannot be resolved the consumers are removed from the premises and their Costco memberships are either revoked or refunded. The situation has required additional employee training to help with communication and confrontational situations.

Another employee management situation arose when some workers were just too afraid to come to work. Wilson said, to a degree, those employees were placed on paid leave. “We just took the hit,” he said.

The increased reliance on virtual audits is another change that has come with the pandemic and Wilson said he believes a hybrid version of that system will become a fixture in the future. He said the ability of suppliers and producers to walk through their operations with a tablet and take pictures is a great tool for virtual auditors.

“The auditors are incredibly resourceful,” Wilson said, adding that the future is now with data sharing, data hubs and block chain technology.

Costco is currently running a pilot with a software company to set up a data hub. The hub allows Wilson and other Costco managers to see information from multiple entities — provided in multiple formats — in a uniform format so they can make better informed decisions faster.

A surprising revelation from Wilson is that Costco did not form a specific crisis management team for COVID response. In fact, the retailer does not have any crisis management team in place at all. Wilson said the company takes a different approach with a number of “special situation” teams that can focus on assigned areas and come together for corporate wide issues when necessary. 

Wilson said the word crisis implies something is out of control and that’s what the retailer’s special situation teams avoid. They identify problems early and resolve them so they don’t turn into crisis situations. The food safety special situation team was and still is front and center on Costco’s front line of defense against the virus.

When one attendee asked Wilson about his thoughts on how small businesses can fight the virus while protecting their operations and meeting government mandates.

“No. 1, don’t knee jerk when you think you are ready to take action. Think about it. Take a 20 minute break and look at it with fresh eyes before you move forward,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s No. 2 point for small business operators is to get help. Contact everyone who regulates the situation, but don’t stop there.

“Call me. Call (attorneys) Bill Marler or Shawn Stevens. Both are experts in food safety,” Wilson said. “You will have problems. Seek out the people with the answers.”

About the presenter: Craig Wilson is the Vice President, General Merchandising Manager of Quality Assurance/ Food Safety, Non-Foods Quality Assurance, Environmental Services/Haz Mat and Merchandise Services for Costco Wholesale Corporation. Costco Wholesale Corporation operates membership warehouses world-wide, that offer a selection of branded and private label products in a range of merchandise categories. Prior to joining Costco Wholesale, Craig worked as a Special Projects Director for Frigoscandia Equipment Food Safety Systems for over 24 years. Craig is the recipient of the Gia/Matek, Global Excellence in Food Safety Award and serves on the Steering Committee for the National Food Safety Consortium as well as the Technical Committee of the Global Food Safety Initiative.

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