Time is a valuable resource and can be a major motivator, too. Case in point: Holthouse Farms in Willard, OH, — an operation that dates back to 1903 — had to prepare for the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) audit so the farm along with its marketing operation, D.R. Walcher Farms in North Fairfield, OH, could be GFSI certified. Robert Holthouse, son of co-owner Ken Holthouse, had opted to return to his Ohio roots in early 2012 and tackle food safety tasks for the farms. Getting ready for the GFSI audit seemed like a doable project at the time, or so he thought.
With a degree in media productions, on the surface Robert’s background didn’t seem to fit the job at hand. Little did he know, however, that with the help of his wife Kate and his friend, Brad Chase, a software engineer, it was a perfect fit. “My dad had been talking about what the farm was doing with food safety, and I needed a challenge,” explains Robert. He accepted the challenge in February 2012, knowing he needed both farms certified by July. Between the two operations, more than 1,400 acres of peppers, cucumbers, squash, gourds, and pumpkins are produced and packed.
What followed was a significant amount of research, writing food safety procedures, and compiling 600 pages of standard operating procedures (SOPs). “It seemed insurmountable. I kept telling myself that I just would write one [SOP] at a time, but then every one of those SOPs needed a corresponding log to validate it,” he says.
It all came together, however, and Holthouse Farms received its first GFSI certification on Aug. 1, 2012. Robert points out that both farms had been getting GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certifications for years before they went to the GFSI audit. “We have always been concerned with making sure our products are safe. Passing audits is just a bonus for safe food. GFSI is a more active and robust safety scheme so we adopted it not only for the audit itself, but because it helped us be even safer,” he says.
Part of that process includes tending to more than 60 logs every day at each location. Robert says between 120 and 150 log entries must be made per day. “Documentation is very important. And to outside people, it validates that a practice is being done. To me as the food safety director, it gives me a better picture of what is going on,” he says.
Keeping track of what was going on required mountains of paperwork. With the SOPs in place and toward the end of Robert’s first year as food safety director, he and his wife noted that numerous hours were required to make sure that what people are writing down actually happened and then checking paperwork to make sure it was done correctly. It was usually after employees went home when Robert had the time to check the books to be sure everything was in order and all the logs were properly filled out. This time-consuming process needed to be sped up and streamlined. “The first thought I had was to have the information entered digitally and have a digital tracking system,” he says. “The problem you run into, and the reason why I didn’t do it this way the first year, is the data can be changed, and I may not be able to see that it was changed.” That was a significant drawback for maintaining valid records of food safety procedures.