Copyright © Global Coalition for Sustained Excellence in Food & Health Protection, 2011 and ALL subsequent years: Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s authors and/or owners is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Global Coalition for Sustained Excellence in Food & Health Protection with appropriate and specific reference and/or link to the original content.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

"COMPLIANCE": A Corrupted Good Concept

In its pure and resolute form, "compliance" with food safety standards and regulations can be reassuring to
customers and consumers. Unfortunately, the idea has become dangerously watered down within the food industry. 

Compliance Corruption and Mental Degeneration

Compliance has degenerated to the point of being nothing more than a game with many players who do nothing more than merely conform. Simply complying with the rules has become the only extent to which many food businesses go. The resulting superficial compliance is now endemic and holding many otherwise sharp minds captive. A distinguishing mark of a compliance-captivated mind is the treatment of compliance as a goal. Compliance is also deadly on many levels. On one level, what is done with the idea of compliance has created a system that takes away the individual's responsibility and motivation to think. Many people have been led to almost religiously believe in simply following the rules as if doing so is virtuous. This, unfortunately, is the evidence of something sinister. The expanding corruption of compliance is captivating, subduing, overtaking and enslaving too many minds.

The idea of "conformance" that many system assessment programs appear to revere is worse. While compliance relates to rules set by others, conformance represents an enslavement to the practices of others.  In certain circumstances and/or environments, simply conforming to the practices perceived to be ideal elsewhere could very well produce effects that are the opposite of what is desired. Simply conforming could be outright dangerous for some food businesses. For example, due to the location, circumstance or situations at some sites, dangers that lurk beneath the surface are not listed in the generic rule books, and are therefore not addressed during compliance and conformance assessment activities. Many conformance-enforcing programs do not give sufficient thought or allowance for this possibility.

Commitment is the alternative to compliance or conformance. Commitment, the demonstrated true passion for doing what is right at any time and any place, is rarely sustained by those who have set compliance or conformance as their main goal. 

While personal commitment to doing what is right is adaptive to particular circumstances, situations and environments, people who wish to simply comply or conform tend to adopt an inflexible attitude of simply following the rigid rules even if a cliff is ahead.  Devoid of the freedom or desire to independently think or observe anything besides and beyond the set rules, they may not even see the cliff.

Possibility of Superficial Compliance without Commitment:

Compliance must have a pre-determined (fixed) set of rules as its frame of reference. The necessity of such a fixed frame makes compliance fall short as a satisfactory goal. The fixed frame of reference imposes both limited and limiting boundaries within which compliance takes place. These limiting boundaries, incidentally, pose the greatest danger for a food business that pursues compliance as the only food safety and quality management goal. No set of rules proposed by humans can completely cover the scope of possible situations and circumstances. Thus, when situations that fall outside the scope of the rules are encountered, compliance-focused minds are baffled and they fail. Even when all of the generic rules have been met and both conformance and compliance have been assessed to be excellent, they fail. 

Full compliance is easily achievable on the surface but danger lies beneath the superficiality.

A compliance frame of reference is additionally limiting as problem-solving creativity becomes bound within the limited “frame”. The compliance-focused mind is typically unable to think outside of this frame. Once the compliance-captivated mind has done what the rules say, it rests and seeks to go or do no further. It is not uncommon to find individuals who almost permanently struggle with understanding the rules. Thus, completely engrossed in working to understand and comply with the set rules (often complex rules), they are trapped. Compliance-captivated minds repeatedly fail when the set rules fail to address the contingencies, unscripted and unexpected challenges faced. Sadly, in such instances, the effort and resources spent on correcting the repeating failures are seen by some as "good investments".

Assessment of Compliance and Commitment:
In the food industry, compliance is typically measured through snap-shot regulatory inspections and/or 3rd party audits. While compliance can be measured in this manner, commitment cannot. Both the demonstration and confirmation of commitment require long periods of observation and evaluation. For the evaluation of commitment to be reliable, it must be done by those who have close and enduring connections with, and accessibility to the evaluated parties. The relationship is unlike that of strangers as is the case between the hired hands who conduct inspections or third party audits and the audited parties.

When assessed, commitment is either concluded to be real or it is not commitment at all. Conclusions about compliance from inspections or audits are not so straightforward. They generally produce pseudo-realities on both the failure and success sides of things. Apart from taking away the urge to do more, “success” with a compliance inspection or audit often gives a false sense of goal accomplishment. For example, some food companies erroneously think that by “passing food safety and quality audits” they are ensuring the delivery of safe and quality products. So they set goals like “passing the audits” with specified scores or ratings. They then proceed to spend much resources on “passing” audits. Meanwhile, the actual assurance of product safety and quality on the plant floor suffers from inadequate provision of time and other resources. Examples are numerous of companies with large scale product recalls soon after passing compliance audits with high scores. Some of these examples are provided in the post "What does certification do for a food operation?

On the audit failure side of the pseudo-realities, companies do fail compliance audits. That does not automatically mean that their products are unsafe and are of unacceptable quality. If that was the case, many existing food companies would no longer be in business. 

Compliance Periods of Grace:
Another demonstration of compliance corruption is seen in the time allowance games played by regulatory agencies. For example, compliance date extensions (or periods of grace) are frequently granted if respect of new regulatory mandates. If compliance to the new mandates is as crucial as it should be, why allow companies these “periods of grace” during which they may continue to produce and sell products without the enforcement of compliance? Do such periods of grace (or time extensions) not seriously undermine the protection of consumers? Case in Point: Compliance Date Extensions and Clarifications for FSMA Final RulesOn the other hand, if compliance to the new mandates is not crucial, why bother with them?

The idea of compliance grace periods is also problematic on the legal liability front. Where any length of time is allowed for companies to be out of "compliance", this may be taken to imply that a company is off the hook if, due to a failure to meet regulatory stipulations, the company’s product harms a consumer. Clearly, this is not the case. Which means that a company that may think that it is off the hook due to “compliance date extensions” is deceived and consumers of its products are endangered.

Compliance and Complicity in Negligence:

Current compliance manipulation practices have also given rise a sort of complicity in negligence among various parties. This may be why there are so many recurring food safety failures that could otherwise be stopped. Whether intended or unintended, the periods of grace granted by regulatory bodies is a good example of collusion and complicity in negligence. What happens during product recalls clearly demonstrates this fact. For fear of being wrong and being taken to task, regulatory and 3rd party auditors often choose to “tread carefully” with the publication of recall informationSituations like the one reported by Coral Beach in The Packer, August 08, 2013 do not help matters. In that report, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was said to have erroneously blamed tomatoes for a salmonella outbreak later linked to hot peppers from Mexico. According to the report, the tomato growers proceeded to sue the federal government for $40 million in losses.

On the surface, and for the sake of the companies involved, treading carefully with information provided to the public may seem like a good idea. However, in such instances, the negative reaction of consumers is treated with greater importance than their safety. For similar reasons, 3rd party auditors are also reluctant to publish situations observed that could undermine the safety of consumers. If protecting companies does not take precedence over protecting the consuming public, such findings would be shared publicly. Sadly, many findings are not shared because of company protection (often styled "brand protection"), and the fear of being wrong. This fear raises the question of why those who are unable or afraid to confirm "compliance" and "non-compliance" given the task of doing so? 

The corruption of compliance is happening at many levels and in many places. It must be stopped.

The food industry must refuse to sing the old and worn out
“comply or else” song.

Food businesses must collectively raise the resounding anthem of genuine commitment and collaboration.

For what food businesses should do with the idea of compliance, read "Product Safety - Beyond Compliance".

Posted by Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is currently the chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection, and a sworn SSQA advocate.