By Kevin Meyer
A couple weeks ago I contrasted the process of kaizen (small incremental change) versus kaikaku (large step change), particularly in regards to our current health care reform train wreck. What would have happened if reform was tackled as a series of smaller improvements instead of trying the hail mary?
I had a similar thought while reading an article in USA Today that discussed problems with food safety in public schools. A decade or more ago the government decided standards needed to be improved as the immune systems of children are still developing and were therefore more sensitive to infections.
It has been a decade since the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that the ground beef it buys for school lunches must meet higher safety standards than ground beef sold to the general public.
Makes sense. But what happened?
But those rules, which required that school
lunch meat be rejected if it contains certain pathogens, such as
salmonella, have fallen behind the standards that fast-food chains and
other businesses are adopting on their own.
Moreover, the special protections that the USDA
sets for the ground beef it sends to schools do not extend to other
products the federal government — or schools themselves — purchase for
student meals. No extra testing is required for the spinach, the
peanuts or the tortillas served in schools and, sometimes, those
products present similar health risks.
The mandate, similar to the kaikaku of my previous post, created a step change. A good one in this case… but it remained a stationary change. Meanwhile businesses in the market-driven economy realized they needed to continually improve to protect their business and their customers.
What lessons could the National School Lunch Program learn from the industries, companies and universities that have pioneered breakthroughs in food safety? Among those cited by experts:
It is possible to produce safer food by raising standards without breaking the bank.
Pioneers such as McDonald's.
In 1982, hamburgers from the fast-food chain sickened at least 47 people in Oregon and Michigan. No one died,
Confounded by the discovery, McDonald's hired
one of the nation's best-known food safety scientists, Michael Doyle,
and told him, he recalls, "to bulletproof their system so E. coli never
happened to them again."
McDonald's reconsidered its old assumptions
about food — from how often beef-processing plants should test ground
beef to how well a hamburger must be cooked to kill off pathogens such
as E. coli and salmonella.
The results helped change the industry. For
years, the federal food code said burgers had to be cooked only until
their internal temperature reached 140 degrees; McDonald's tests showed
the safe standard was 155 degrees and that the meat must register that
temperature for at least 15 seconds.
Microbial data also altered the demands
McDonald's imposed on its suppliers. After a couple of years, the
company saw that "about 5% of the suppliers could not get down to what
we considered a reasonable level for salmonella and E. coli," says
Doyle, now director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food
Safety. "McDonald's worked hard with them, but they couldn't get there,
so McDonald's let them go."
The standards have worked, by all accounts.
Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who has been involved in
almost all the major food safety lawsuits of the past 15 years, says he
hasn't sued McDonald's since 1994 for a company-based E. coli illness
and can't think of anyone else who has.
Sorry about the long quote, but that's a great story of improvement.
Improving food safety represented a value from the perspective of the customer, and McDonald's created a competitive advantage by recognizing that value. Once again, profit, quality, and a valuable service all wrapped into
one. And an improvement in knowledge and technology shared with the
industry and public to boot!
No mandates or tax dollars required.
There's another interesting angle to this story, slightly off topic, but still worth mentioning. Congress is once again looking at improving school food safety, but this time aiming to hitch their ride to the businesses that have long surpassed their prior mandates.
She [Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.] and a House counterpart, Rep. Joe Sestak,
D-Pa., also are pressing the USDA to stop using school lunch suppliers
with poor safety records — and to set standards for school lunch food
that mirror those used by fast-food chains and other discriminating
The school lunch program could become the
standard-bearer for food safety, says Carol Tucker-Foreman, who oversaw
school lunch purchases as assistant undersecretary of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture during the Carter administration.
She says that instead of buying the cheapest possible food for
schoolchildren, as it does now, the government could seek out suppliers
that meet high standards.
No longer buying the cheapest possible food? So is there finally a recognition that value is not always determined by price, or even cost? Halleluja! I wonder if those same politicians will remember this concept when looking at other programs.