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How Food Safety Culture is Reflected in Document Management Maturity

Imagine, it’s your first day in a new Food Safety & Quality (FSQ) role at a new company. You're anxious to review things like the HACCP and Food Safety plans and review supplier approval documents to understand the current plan and the critical elements of your food safety programs. You ask another person on the team where to find the documents. They aren’t sure. They think they are in the binder, on someone’s hard drive, or maybe on the company shared server. Given these are documents required by law, you know there must be a copy somewhere, yet they aren’t at anyone’s fingertips. You spend several hours talking to a half dozen people who all do some form of searching to scrape together the core food safety system documents. Ugh. To top it off, you’re not sure if they are the most current version.

Now imagine you start a new FSQ role at a company with a formal document management system. On the first day, you’re provided a user name and password to access the system. Inside the system you find a logical approach to searching and storing documents. The system automatically sends notifications, flags out of date items, and accepts your vendor and supplier documents as well. You’ve got all your FSQ documents at your fingertips within seconds!

Two completely different experiences regarding documentation for required regulatory documents for any food manufacturing facility in the United States! It begs the question: at a time in the world of food safety when we’re detecting parts per trillion of contaminants, initiating recalls within minutes, and focusing on food safety culture, how does the first scenario even exist?

Every company is on its own journey to the ideal food safety culture state. Some are further along while others are similar to the company in the first scenario. It’s real and it’s happening every day. We know document management alone doesn’t tell the whole story of where an organization is at on its food safety culture journey. In fact, you can check out Cultivate’s Food Safety Culture Maturity Model (1) which outlines many factors to take into consideration for the maturity of a food safety culture. This model includes data and reporting and technology enabled success - two categories document management would fall squarely into!

Back to our scenario above….since I was the FSQ Leader starting in new roles in the scenarios mentioned above, I don’t have to imagine what the person in scenario one above was thinking or feeling about food safety culture since it was my real world experience! It was frustrating, annoying, wasteful, and a bit embarrassing to not have these critical documents at the drop of a hat. What surprised me most was the disarray of the overall system! It said volumes about the food safety culture I was encountering confirmed that document management is indeed an important part of food safety culture.

Based on my experiences, my client's feedback, and discussions within the industry, it seems there are several levels of maturity related to document management that may coincide with food safety culture maturity:

1- Mostly paper based. This very basic approach may have files stored on an individual’s computer or perhaps even a network. Document reviews are laborious, time-consuming, limited, and often on a need-to-be-done basis. Typically there are rows and rows of binders in the FSQ office that are in prime condition as using/referring to controlled documents is not part of the work culture. While this system is no-frills and can work well, it doesn’t allow for sharing across facilities, accessing remotely, or the automated ease of things like version control.

2- Electronic based. This approach has most files stored on a shared network or sharing type service that wasn’t necessarily designed for the rigor required for document management - think Excel, Word, Sharepoint. Documents for regulatory requirements are often found in binders to make them easily accessible for inspectors and auditors. This system is often difficult to manage as people manage both the electronic versions and the paper versions. It’s often extremely time-consuming to create new documents or revisions as everything is manual. More than once I’ve seen documents overwritten or version numbers out of order.

3- Document Management System based. A formal electronic document management system specifically designed for this purpose is used. The system is easy to use, intuitive, and secure. The system tracks versions, easily shares across the facility and organization, and is easily accessible in production areas and remotely. While there may be printed copies of regulatory documents, the system can also track where paper copies are held and flag when they need to be replaced. A formal system will also integrate to manage supplier documents and streamline customer requested documents.

While each system can work, there’s no doubt that electronic systems designed specifically for document management make life easier for everyone in the organization contributing to the food safety culture you dream about. Think of it like this: it’s like when you need a hammer but only have a wrench. The wrench can pound in a nail, but it doesn’t work well. Using the right tool makes everything easier, more efficient, and more effective. The same concept applies to your document management system.


About the Author

Jill Stuber, the Food Safety Coach

Since 2019 the Food Safety Coach has supported people who work in Food Safety & Quality live the life they want - one step at a time. After more than 20 years in FSQ, Jill believes the “crazy” in FSQ is an outdated story, and people in FSQ deserve to be set up for success. Jill brings forth personal experience, curiosity, and meddling into unrelated fields to build better systems for people to thrive in FSQ. If you’re trying to figure out how to make a practical difference for your FSQ Team, or you’re tired of struggling and having resistance as a leader in Food Safety & Quality, then look no further. You deserve the life you want. You are worthy of the life you dream about. It IS possible even in FSQ!



  1. Cultivate’s maturity model for data and reporting, and technology enabled success

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