07/03/2017 5:32 PM IST | Updated 15/03/2017 8:39 AM IST

How To Not Serve Your Customers Deep-Fried Lizards

Lessons from the McDonald's fiasco in Kolkata.

alejandro rodolfo dans

Recently, a pregnant woman found a fried lizard amidst her fries in a McDonald's outlet in Kolkata. The news caused much consternation, given that most people believe McDonald's to adhere to international-level hygiene standards. Thus was clearly a food safety violation that could have caused real harm to consumers.

Now, I have always been a great fan of Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald's) and his example of how to put together a business model which ensures consistent quality across the globe. Indeed, when comes to standardisation and product quality McDonald's is an often quoted case in classrooms. Its success, like all such organisations, is founded on robust quality hardware in place, comprising detailed processes, good restaurant infrastructure, certified equipment, good manufacturing guidelines, supplier quality, a food safety management system such as HACCP (Hazard Analysis for Critical Control Points) and so on.

A company that's serious about food safety can't just have a food safety strategy—it has to have it as a "corporate value."

But why then do such food safety hazards happen despite having all the quality hardware?

The answer lies in employee behaviour. If one were to do a detailed root cause analysis of the Kolkata incident, I would think it would be found that the employees did not do what they were supposed to do.

The objective of this article is to not find out what happened at McDonald's but take certain lessons from the incident for food companies/restaurants that invest in quality hardware yet struggle to change employee behaviour.

Let top management commit to it

Without the CEO and top management owning food safety, it can be a mirage for an enterprise. One way to demonstrate top management commitment is to embed food safety as a "corporate value" that becomes a part of an organisation's way of working. My belief is that a company that's serious about food safety can't just have a food safety strategy—it has to have it as a "corporate value".

Having installed it as a value, top management should ensure it becomes a way of doing business and practiced in all actions by all employees across levels. For example, in Nestle they have something called a "principles of business operation", where product safety features explicitly. These values or principles of business operations should resonate in every action of all employees.

Adopt Reagan's 'trust but verify'

Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the US, popularised the phrase "trust but verify", which he used extensively with respect to the US's relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union. The concept is very relevant in the context of food safety.

The lesson is to trust the processes and people running them, but to verify their effectiveness.

One pre-requisite for embedding food safety is a good management system that prevents the entry of chemical, micro-biological and physical hazards in processes. However, once the systems and processes built, they need to be verified on an ongoing basis through audits (which need to be performed by someone other than those involved in the process).

For example, in Coca Cola, there is a global team which does food safety audits on a regular basis, and top leaders take the findings very seriously. Remember, quality assurance processes are fine but one needs to check their effectiveness through regular audits. So the lesson is to trust the processes and people running them, but to verify their effectiveness.

Align employee beliefs with their actions

It's often seen employees managing a restaurant outlet or those involved in food processing are from the marginal strata of the society where hygiene does not get the required importance. For them the stringent practices required for delivering a safe food product is alien.

My first few working years were spent in food companies. One of the things that we often struggled with was to make the food-processing workmen to wash their hands with soap after they visited the washrooms. We had put display boards at the entrance of washrooms to communicate this to workmen, yet many came out without washing their hands with soap. On probing, a workman who stayed in a slum nearby told me that he found it a wasteful to use the liquid soap every time he went to the washroom—it seemed like a luxury to him given he came from a background where making ends meet was a challenge.

This is an example of Leon Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance—when there is a conflict between what a person believes and what he is expected to do, there is a conflict and the person finds ways to avoid it. This he does by not doing what is expected of him. The way to surmount this is clearly just not training employees on food safety practices but also telling them why and how they have to make things happen.

Fear of retribution until a culture of accountability sets in

The ultimate vision of a food organisation should be to create a culture of accountability, wherein employees take ownership and are responsible enough to follow the practices that meet food safety requirements. To make this happen, one strategy would be to clearly state to employees what is expected of them and how success will be measured and rewarded.

If a senior leader walks into the food processing area without wearing gloves and a cap, even a workman should not shy away from pointing it out...

However, until a culture of accountability sets in, employees should know that if they are food-safety violations due to careless actions, they will be held accountable and penalised. A fear of punitive measures would slowly change behaviour.

Remember, accountability does not just mean the boss holding subordinates accountable but also an employee holding his boss or peers accountable. So if a senior leader walks into the food processing area without wearing gloves and a cap, even a workman should not shy away from pointing it out and this should not be held against him.

Learn from criminology

The broken windows theory was first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. Though originally used in criminology, it has been applied in various contexts. The theory says when a space is left unattended and there are broken windows, after some time a few more windows are broken and even the place is vandalized. It indicates that no one has concern for the place and it is not owned and attended by people. When a space is kept properly, the anti-social activity goes down as the vandals know that there are people who are keeping an eye on it and they can't mess around.

In a food processing workplace, if there is an abnormality which an employee has observed it should be immediately attended to. So if there problem in the workplace, it should be addressed immediately even if the problem is small. For example, if a person has seen a rodent in the processing area, he should immediately take action and not matters reach the point where a customer finds a deep fried version of said animal on her plate, as happened in Kolkata!

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