In a factory where tons of macadamia nuts are processed annually for export, food safety is not only a top priority, but making sure standards remain high demands a particular style of management that includes almost fanatical attention to detail, says group Food Safety Manager at Green Farms Nut Company (GFNC) Claire Taylor.
Taylor is responsible for ensuring every box of nuts leaving the group’s three South African factories meets stringent quality and food safety standards set down by both international and domestic market customers.
With an innate aversion to germs or more aptly put, a self-proclaimed germaphobe, Taylor said she has all the attributes one could wish for in a food safety manager.
“Food safety is very much about consistency. Procedures must be followed consistently every single day at the same high standard and with the same dedicated attention to detail. I have to operate as though I am going to be audited every day. This means it really is necessary to have an ingrained understanding of what it actually means to produce food that is safe for consumption and which includes, but is not limited to, personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitising,” she said.
Taylor is a natural at her job and how she ended up in the profession despite following her decision to study veterinary science once she left school seems to have been written in the stars.
“When I left school vet students had to study for a full BSc degree before they could study veterinary science. So I completed a BSc majoring in botany and zoology and was all set to continue with the course, but then, as they say, life happened! I took a job at a juicing facility in Tzaneen, which meant I had to move from Johannesburg to this subtropical valley. Once here I studied for a BTech degree in quality management. By then the dream of being a vet was permanently in the past.”
Tzaneen, however, proved a welcome change for her since the outdoor activities were to her liking and the beautiful area meant she had plenty of opportunities to follow her love of running and mountain biking.
While she wouldn’t have considered herself as a runner at first, Taylor said when she was told she would never finish South Africa’s legendry Comrades Marathon, her stubborn side kicked in and she decided to prove people wrong. She put in the gruelling training and in fact, did complete the event.
“Finishing that race is such a mental thing, and of course your body takes a pounding as well. If your brain can push through then you will get there. I believe anyone can run the Comrades as long as they put their mind to it. So it’s definitely my stubbornness and my strong will that got me through,” she said.
An invitation to join a cycling tour through Namaqualand during the spring flowering season also stoked her passion for mountain biking and she again started taking on more challenging routes. “The most extreme ride I did was a tour organised by the Louis Trichardt cycle club from Venda to Louis Trichardt, over the mountain. The first day we did about 120km – it was really tough, I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry, but I learned so much from that trip. You just need to keep on keeping on, no matter how hard the journey may seem. This is also something I learnt from my mom, who is a strong-willed woman herself. She is a real go-getter and after retirement, used her pension to open a primary school. I got this go-getter spirit and stubbornness from her and my creativity and soft spot for animals from my father.”
And these character traits, she said, have carried through into her work
“For me there are no grey areas, it’s either right or wrong. I believe this is a good attitude to have when involved with food safety and quality control because you need to be quite rigid. There is no flexibility with food safety. It’s a high risk environment because doing it wrong can have dire consequences. While I enjoy the job, it is very stressful. I have to put the final stamp of approval on every product and vouch for its safety.”
This natural affinity meant she was then appointed as a quality manager at Tzamac Macadamia Processors in Tzaneen, before being appointed in 2019 as the group quality manager at GFNC. Although GFNC has factories across three provinces – Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal – the job required a move to White River to the company’s head offices. Here she is responsible for the food safety audits, making sure all of the factories comply constantly with food safety standards.
The move to the Lowveld was another in the right direction, she said, as the area provides ample opportunities to indulge in her love for the outdoors and adventure sports. Also, working with the Green Farms team has meant taking the job profile to another level.
“Everyone I work with is so passionate about what they do. They are always looking to achieve a higher standard. They are so on the ball. And I have support to help me do the best job that I possibly can. The people here work hard and they do it right. The best part of my job is certainly the people I work with – they are fun, but hard working and very knowledgeable.”
And while it may seem cliched to say the bottom line is about making sure what you say is what you do, Taylor said it was fundamental to her success. “Food safety hinges on trust and integrity. Trust is attached to a brand and if you don’t have the trust of the buyers and consumers, you don’t have a market for your product.”