Food Technology Magazine | Article

Refreshing Food Safety

In his role as Coca-Cola’s global director, quality and food safety, Jason Richardson is leading efforts to leverage the company’s legacy of quality to refresh and reframe food safety culture across the enterprise’s worldwide ecosystem.

By Julie Bricher
Jason Richardson, Coca-Cola’s global director, quality and food safety

All Jason richardson photos © Joe Boris Photography

When Jason Richardson joined The Coca-Cola Company in 2009, the 137-year-old global total beverage company’s slogan was “Open Happiness.” Careerwise, Richardson has done just that, from his early days as a microbiologist and research scientist at the University of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service through several promotions to scientific and leadership roles with increasing responsibilities around food safety, quality, innovation, and strategic initiatives at Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.

“What I like most about food science is that it really brings out that kid-like curiosity in me every day,” Richardson says with trademark enthusiasm, “and that’s what anchors me and drives me in the area of food science and what I do. Food science has so many layers and dimensions, it’s hard to get bored. We’re ultimately charged with making a difference in the central component of life: food and hydration. How could you not enjoy improving something that’s essential to life?”

In his latest role as Coca-Cola’s global director, quality and food safety, Richardson has been happily working on multiple initiatives that leverage the company’s longstanding legacy of quality with a food safety culture refresh to create and capture value across the enterprise. In part, he says, the happiness he derives from the field of food safety and quality “comes from always striving for the pursuit of perfection knowing you may never get there.” On the food safety side, the focus is on prevention to ensure that foods are produced in a safe and wholesome way, Richardson notes, and on the quality side, the focus is on continuous improvement to ensure that foods meet consumer expectations in the most affordable way possible.

“To me, that’s what grounds me in the quality and food safety side,” Richardson explains. “When I think about the journey, I would say it’s about making a difference in ensuring a safe, consistent, available, and affordable supply of food to so many. I think that grounds us all in the food industry, particularly those in the food sciences and those in charge of driving that food safety and quality across their organizations.”

Food Technology caught up with Richardson to find out more about his mission to refresh and reframe food safety culture to advance future performance and company growth.

Do you think there has been an evolution in how food safety culture has been instituted or perceived across the enterprise over time?

I would say, in short, the answer is yes, because if not, then you’ve become stagnant. You have seen that evolution over my tenure at Coca-Cola, as we lead with a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Within Coca-Cola, food safety and quality has always been entrenched in our system’s DNA to deliver on the promise to our consumers and the purpose of our brands, and that’s ultimately to ensure our products are trusted everywhere.

I think the biggest evolution that I’ve seen over the last decade-plus has really been how do you transfer it? You feel it, you see it, you hear it [across the company] but how are we transferring food safety culture and communicating what it really means to all layers of the organization? When I joined, the majority of the portfolio was beverages with relatively high levels of acidity, which made them very safe and stable by design, particularly when you think about the low risk of microbiological contaminants that comes with higher acidity.

However, as our portfolio has expanded significantly over the last 15 years so has the complexity of our value chain and risks from or across the supply chain. This is really driving that evolution in the transfer of knowledge about food safety and quality from other food industry sectors to meet the needs of our business and to do it in the most sustainable way.

It’s critical that we leverage the passion for what we do in food safety to drive that level of discipline and execution every day.

How do you best facilitate a science-meets-business mindset when it comes to transferring food safety culture across the enterprise?

What I’ve learned over my tenure is that the ‘why’ does matter. And ultimately, when you link the food safety ‘why’ back to purpose, you drive a level of transparency on our collective responsibility that translates into trust and pride across an organization and society to do the right things. We strive to ensure the energy we invest brings an impact to the system, and it starts with hitting the hearts and the minds. If you can hit the hearts and the minds of those who you’re talking to, there’s not many things that you can’t accomplish.

Galvanizing that mindset has really played out across four essentials to food safety and quality culture: leadership emphasis, peer involvement, message credibility, and employee ownership. It’s a very simple framework, but very powerful if used in the right way. First, when you think about leadership emphasis and you look at the Coca-Cola Company’s purpose, which is to refresh the world and make a difference, you see that food safety is strongly embedded in the company’s policies and governance models.

Second, you’ve got to have excellent peer involvement, which means that food safety is seen as everyone’s responsibility. I see this as the biggest opportunity for any food safety professional who’s also a business leader, because those who work outside of the technical field are your advocates. They are the ones who are going to help proliferate the food safety message. If you can get that peer involvement from your commercial, legal, supply chain, marketing, and brand management teams, all engaged and pulling in the same direction, it really helps accelerate what you’re trying to achieve and ensures that the food safety message is transferred to all layers across the organization.

You’ve also got to have message credibility, and this is the science-meets-business mindset. We, as scientists, do have a lot of credibility. Whether it’s in industry or outside of industry, there’s a lot of credibility that comes with what we say, and we must be mindful of how we’re positioning the organization when it comes to these topics of food safety or quality. So, you’ve got to support partners—whether that’s those within the company, suppliers or service providers across your supply chain, or consumers—with the right information, explain the risk/hazard science when it’s not clear to them, and offer insight into macro or micro trends that may be occurring. Once they understand what the potential food safety hazards are, the varying levels of associated risk of those hazards, and how to bring in food safety and quality by design, their involvement in the food safety culture will increase.

Bottle of Coca Cola being openedAnd finally, the fourth essential key to transferring food safety culture is employee ownership, which is all about disciplined execution with excellence. In other words, ensuring that we bring that level of precision and repeatability in what we do, with clarity, across all our operations based on a feeling of ownership and accountability.

What do you think is the most important message that can be conveyed about food safety culture?

When it comes to food safety culture, it shouldn’t be driven by an event, and in fact, even near misses are just as important to share, as are what investments were made to prevent this risk from materializing in the first place. It should not be an “event” that drives the food safety culture you desire. Too often, when a food safety or a quality incident happens, organizations will move reactively in a rapid manner in one direction or the other, resulting in an imbalanced response to the problem. It’s more effective to have a solid plan and to stay true to that growth mindset of always learning, consistently applying that learning, remaining constructively discontent, and continuously improving on how you do something about [the problem].

And it should be top of mind to everyone that the food safety culture, programs, and processes in place are important every millisecond of the day, every second of the day, every hour of the day. Because that’s how many times we’re manufacturing and distributing products. Keeping that disciplined, consistent focus in the good times and in the challenging times, I believe is critical to driving and instilling a systemic food safety culture. It’s critical that we leverage the passion for what we do in food safety to drive that level of discipline and execution every day. It’s not always glamorous. It’s a continuous journey of keeping the message relevant to everyone.

Speaking of rolling up your sleeves, among your recent accomplishments is resetting the global quality and food safety programs in 2021 to ensure performance and growth by launching an Amplify Quality Framework (AQF) across the Coca-Cola system. Can you describe the elements of AQF?

At the center of our Amplify Quality Framework is food safety. Managing through and coming out of the recent pandemic, one of the tasks we were charged with was taking a new look at a contemporary vision for quality and food safety across our Coca-Cola system to emerge even stronger. We asked a lot of questions during this journey. How can we anchor that future-proof vision on the rich legacy of our existing programs in the system? How do we bring that contemporary vision with the strong foundation we have in place to ultimately drive more value creation and capture for the system? And how do we do it in a way that enables resilience and agility across our network? In other words, how do we bring a simple, commonsense approach to food safety and quality that can be understood regardless of whether we’re talking to a C-suite executive, a line operator, or a merchandiser out in the market?

We wanted to accelerate our transition as a system further towards process assurance versus control for resilience and agility to allow us to ultimately meet the the needs of today and tomorrow. So, although the system is quite complex, the AQF really has one simple goal: Improve quality while minimizing costs and preventing food safety events from occurring. To galvanize our system focus, we built a framework centered on eight key elements.

The AQF really has one simple goal: Improve quality while minimizing costs and preventing food safety events from occurring. 

Can you walk us through those eight elements?

The first two center on change management and culture and capability maturity continuums. Number three was quality and food safety next-generation measures, building the leading and lagging indicators for enhanced insights and foresights, and creating and capturing value through purposeful actions across the enterprise to accelerate our progress and keep the promise into the future. Number four is fit for purpose governance to ensure agility as not everything is created the same way.

The fifth component of the AQF involves innovation and productivity. On the innovation side, how do we bring the new technologies to life across the system? How do we vet them? And, where it makes sense, how do we ensure that we’re investing in those new technologies that prevent food safety incidents or improve overall product quality? And from a productivity perspective, how do we look at our overall ecosystem, where we are removing waste, and how do we ensure we’re doing it the right way?

The sixth element within our amplified quality framework is quality by design. How do we get it right the first time? And then, how do we scale that across all our systems? So, if we’re building a greenfield facility, what is that proper design and key elements critical to assuring quality and food safety? If it’s a brownfield facility where we’re doing line extensions, what do we really want to invest in from a food safety and quality perspective?

The remaining two elements, Quality 4.0 and Cost of Quality, can be characterized as future back thinking. Cost of quality is not something new, but how do we bring Quality 4.0 and Cost of Quality together so that as we’re making the advancements in Industry 4.0 and digital transformation technologies, optimizing our processes, and building our people capability, we can also get a better understanding of the value creation and capture that they will have, and have them work in harmony with the other elements? It’s really grounded in that fundamental quality management systems principle for change management, the first AQF element. How do we look at digital transformation for enhanced decision-making? Every company is data rich. The opportunity is how well we can analyze data and turn that data into insights. And then from the insights, how well are we driving a structured action plan that will ultimately ensure that we’re making the progress and delivering the performance and the impact that we desire?

What are the topline benefits of using this framework?

Ultimately, what this does is drive that clear focus across our system on the present forward and future back priorities to ensure the expected outcomes. At the end of the day, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ here in our AQF; it’s ultimately eight elements focused on people, processes, and technologies. As we did this exercise, we concentrated on how to continue to bring the fundamental, foundational elements of people and processes, the present forward, along with the future back of where we want to invest through Quality 4.0. And then, ultimately, by bringing those two together, we can accelerate the pace of change and the transformation that we want to make across our system, either building stronger defenses to prevent a food safety incident, or building in an optimized way actions that drive toward a lower optimal cost from a quality perspective but that continues to deliver the consumer expectation.

What excites you about the future of food safety?

I think the passion, the energy, and the devotion that I see in the next generation of food scientists is what excites me the most. I mean you see it when they come in, their level of curiosity, bringing unconstrained thinking in how to solve problems, bringing new ways or new approaches. They are actively listening. They are absorbing what you’re sharing with them from your experience and knowledge, but then they bring that digital skill set that they’ve grown up with to complement what they’ve learned from our knowledge, which ultimately drives better solutions across the system. I think our next generation of food scientists will ultimately define our digital and technological evolutions across the [food industry] ecosystem. We will help lay the path, but I really see the next generation of food scientists as the one that’s ultimately going to define what that destination is and the solutions we’ll create.ft

About the Author

Julie Bricher
Julie Bricher is Science and Tech editor of Food Technology magazine ([email protected]).