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Dairy Food Safety Victoria Learning Network

Dairy Food Safety Victoria’s Learning Network

By Dr. John Smith

Associate Professor Frada Burstein and Dr Henry Linger from Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology gave the original concept. The Geoffrey Gardiner Dairy Foundation provided initial financial support for the project. 

It was proposed that the industry come together in a collaborative effort to use the collective knowledge of industry, scientists and regulators in a constructive and co-operative way by forming a “Learning Network” with a view to promoting the concept to others, both within and outside the dairy industry, seeking to explore a means of knowledge sharing. 

In the dairy manufacturing sector, it was identified that many links between industry, scientists and the regulator were missing, and inter-company competitiveness restricted many from engaging in meaningful conversation about important issues of a pre-competitive nature – a concept often referred to as ‘open innovation’ (Chesbrough and Appleyard 2003). 

The objectives the Learning Networks project, through adopting the ‘open innovation’ concept, were the development of a suitable forum to: 

  • allow all Victorian dairy industry manufacturers to participate openly in discussions about food safety issues, in particular learning from others’ experiences; 
  • broaden individuals’ network of industry contacts and strength of relationships, and establish an ongoing and trusting relationship between the industry manufacturers, scientists and the regulator; 
  • broaden participants’ perspectives on their own and others’ roles in the wider industry; 
  • help manufacturers enhance their knowledge and performance in areas of food safety by being continuously engaged in dialogue about relevant and emerging issues; 
  • promote the commitment and support of the dairy industry to the concept; 
  • work co-operatively and become involved in the development of further projects; and 

The overall outcome was to build both capability and capacity within the dairy industry using the trusted independent regulator as a facilitator. 

Factors which came into play in this to make the face to face format attractive to as many as possible were: 

  • Varied Geographical Location to allow participation within a region 
  • Developing a sustainable Frequency that gave value, regularity and allowed for differing issues to surface 
  • Ensuring Event Timing and duration were achievable for both large and smaller manufacturers 
  • Making sure Venues were relaxed and comfortable and equipment was sufficient for the purpose. This generally involved projection of information and was supplied by DFSV. 

Once they started, a format evolved consisting of: 

Initial introductions - to aid familiarisation, a list of participants and the companies they represented was provided as well as place names to identify participants. 

Table setup in ‘banquet-style’ face to face arrangement that afforded a closer working environment, especially when attendance numbers were high was found most conducive. DFSV staff attended to facilitate each of the forums, and were strategically placed at positions within the forum rather than ‘at the front’ or as a group. This was felt to be particularly important to encourage open dialogue and reduce any ‘us and them’ perceptions between the industry and the regulator. 

Conducting the Learning Network forums involved a combination delivery of 2 contemporary information on food safety, as well as the engagement and encouragement of all participants to raise their concerns for open discussion. All arrangements for the forums were facilitated by DFSV.

Presentations of current issues were used to raise interest and stimulate discussions. Presenting topics in this manner was aimed at generating further discussion and interaction between participants, rather than following a pre-determined format. Emphasis was given to topics acknowledged by participants to be of concern in preference to pre-prepared material. The range of subjects covered was extensive and diverse, and the choice of topics varied between locations, at times expanding beyond the core subject of food safety into related areas such as quality impacts.

Care was taken to ensure that discussions remained at a ‘pre-competitive’ level and that any perceived or real commercial-in-confidence company information was not disclosed. Similarly, companies that may have been involved in a public incident, such as a product recall, were not identified. However, a number of attendees volunteered information and related their experiences of when similar situations had been encountered. As the forums progressed and the Learning Network matured, industry specialists and consultants with expert knowledge in their particular field, were invited to participate in some forums. This added variety to the forums and provided contemporary information. 

Beginning from the first event in Feb 2007, total company representation at the forums progressively increased for the first four rounds of forums, and the numbers remained relatively constant after the fourth round in July 2007. The average number of companies represented per forum was 33, or 21% of all the 157 licensed manufacturers, with 39 (25%) being the highest level attained. 

Companies were generally represented at a forum by only one or two attendees, however in February 2008, four representatives from the one company attended the same venue. This was seen to be unintentionally intimidating to others attending the forums, and a limit of two participants per manufacturing site was adopted thereafter. 

The total number of companies represented at any one forum has progressively increased. Across all nine forums, 50% of all licensed manufacturers have had a representative attend one or more forums. Attendance data also found that the three country locations attracted a fairly stable core of regular attendees, whereas the metropolitan venues were variable in the regularity of company representation. 

Generally, employees of many large companies are highly trained, have extensive internal network support and are experienced in the field of food safety. Many small manufacturers, while having a basic understanding of food safety, hazards, risks and regulatory requirements, do not have access to the more extensive resources, information and facilities of the larger businesses in the sector. 

A feedback survey was distributed to all participants at the third (May 2007) round of forums. A summary of the responses compiled from the 40 respondents indicated: 

• all (100%) respondents indicated forums a good investment of their time; 

• 97.5% wanted forums to continue; 

• 80% indicated that information gained has been used; 

• 85% approved of the approach used; and 

• 92% preferred quarterly intervals. 

The original outcome expectation was that the increased level of awareness, understanding and knowledge gained by those individuals participating in the forums would contribute to building industry capability and capacity through heightened collective industry knowledge to assist with reducing the risk of food safety incidents. 

As a participant in these Network meetings I have personally seen the increased level of awareness and understanding, particularly in boutique-style dairies with owner operators. 

Comparing to the small family owned companies I service as a consultant, the improved attitude and competence of owner attendees far exceeds those who rely solely on an external source of expertise to run their systems and tell them what to do. 

The success of the Learning Network concept in this instance would indicate that similar approaches could be taken in other food industry sectors.3