Bill Lachowsky and Romina Zanabria
Bill Lachowsky and Romina Zanabria

When an outbreak of food-borne illness makes headlines, it impacts consumers and food producers. To help keep consumers healthy and improve food safety, Loblaw Companies Ltd. teamed up with the University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science to develop the Loblaw Academy.

The program offers international food safety training to Loblaw suppliers from around the world. Bill Lachowsky and Romina Zanabria, food safety co-ordinators in the Department of Food Science, developed an online learning program with Loblaw. The program is designed to give participants “a very good, consistent educational experience,” says Lachowsky.

Now in its second year, the program consists of modules that include reading material, assignments, quizzes and an interactive discussion forum. Each module builds on material covered in the previous one, which helps reinforce knowledge and understanding of key concepts.

The reading material covers the latest information about food safety practices and regulations from journals and government agencies. “Science always changes,” says Lachowsky, adding that the program is constantly updated to reflect trends in food safety and technology. Topics cover everything from good manufacturing practices and labelling to incident management and risk assessment.

The assignments focus on real-life scenarios. “We try to make them very applicable and useful for the participants,” says Zanabria. Participants are asked to find out how their own facility would deal with each situation. If there’s room for improvement, they can present their findings and suggest solutions to management. They can also print online materials to share with their colleagues. “We’re challenging them to learn more about their facility and to use this information to make it better,” says Lachowsky.

The final “big picture” assignment asks participants to choose from among potential food safety-related scenarios and explain how they would address them in their own facility. The scenarios range from developing a new food product and introducing new pieces of equipment to restructuring a facility and dealing with a potential product recall. The assignment is designed to allow participants to apply what they learned throughout the program.

“It also helps them notice and understand all the relationships between the different food safety elements, because even though they are presented separately in different modules, at the end they are all related,” says Zanabria. “Everything connects.” Developing a new food product, for example, would require the facility to conduct a risk analysis, produce new labels and determine its shelf life.

The discussion forum allows participants to ask questions about current issues in food safety. Instead of competing with each other and withholding information, participants are encouraged to share their knowledge in the interest of consumer safety.

“Most participants are very forthcoming in sharing their own personal experiences but also reference materials,” says Lachowsky. He adds that participants often share information about how their facility handles certain safety concerns and protocols. Some discussion topics have received hundreds of posts.

“The feedback has been phenomenal,” he says. After completing the program, up to 90 per cent of participants said they had learned more about food safety and that they would recommend the program to their co-workers. “Loblaw is also very happy with the academy, and they are looking to expand it to more of their suppliers,” adds Zanabria.

The Office of Open Learning helped develop the online program. More than 400 participants registered for the second session of the Loblaw Academy last September. Graduates of the first session in 2012-13 may take three new modules in 2014 covering topics such as how to avoid Listeria contamination.

“There are key concepts that everyone is going to have to follow,” says Lachowsky, referring to common food safety elements such as maintaining the facility in which the product is made and monitoring what happens to the product after it leaves the facility.