Fulfilling a promise to his father to get a degree before enlisting in the military, Chip Zerr graduated with a B.S. in Food Science and a minor in Chemistry, then went immediately into the US Marine Corps. After 13 years of active and semi-active duty, he retired from service and began working as a quality assurance technician for Snowball Foods. There, Chip also rose through the ranks, working in multiple departments as a supervisor, manager and finally as head manager of the Food Safety and Quality department.
When they shut down their operations in 2006, it was a chance meeting and an honest conversation with Tony Rastelli, co-founder of Rastelli Foods Group, at the equipment sale of Chip’s former employer that would change the course of his career. Chip’s candid reviews of the equipment impressed Tony enough to ask that he turn down the position he had already lined up. When Tony returned from a two-week business trip, he met with Chip and offered him a job on the spot as QA Manager.
True to the nature of the family business, Chip then met with Ray Rastelli Jr., co-founder of Rastelli Foods Group, and took a facility tour with Ray Rastelli III, who now serves as VP of Rastelli Foods Group. That was 13 years ago and Chip, who intends to stay with the company until the time comes for retirement, has seen and contributed to the growth of the company ever since. The QA team has grown as well and is filled with incredibly talented and dedicated quality assurance team members.
“It all started with the commitment that Ray, Tony and the senior management team have to providing premium quality products, developing industry-leading food safety practices and investing in programs, processes and people to make the company even better,” says Zerr. “At Rastelli Foods Group every team member understands that production drives the business forward, but production without the effort and attention to detail that goes into producing safe, high quality food is nothing.”
Q: Why is Food Safety so important to you, the Rastelli family and the company?
CZ: We all eat. Every one of us on the planet eats. As producers and manufacturers, we have to confirm and guarantee the safety and quality of the food, not just that you and I put into our bodies, but the food we provide to our families and deliver to our customers. We have to think of our customers as our extended family. So, I think of my job as making sure that what my extended family eats is coming from a company that is committed to quality and safety. We are part of the SQF System, which is part of the global food safety initiative. Global is the key word – a global standard for safety and food.
So, how is it addressed? How is it addressed from birth, to growth, to harvest, to the packaging level? Our products come from living animals that, like us, carry bacteria. Some of that is good and some is not so good. We focus on the bad bacteria such an E. coli, salmonella, listeria and staphylococcus, etc. to make sure that we can keep it out of our food supply, keep it out of our product and keep our customers safe. Again, at the end of the day it is a global food supply and we are all customers.
“Food safety and quality assurance isn’t just a job for me. My grandmother passed away from listeria monocytogenes poisoning and from that loss I decided to dedicate myself to preventing that from happening again. If the company I worked for didn’t have the same vision, then I would leave. Luckily, I haven’t had to come to that.”
Q: You often say that transparency and honesty are key to your department and that we often go beyond the USDA standards of safety to ensure a premium quality product. What else do you think makes your team and Rastelli Foods Group different?
CZ: The USDA has standards and the FDA has standards, regulations and requirements, but we have our standards too and I like to think, hope and work towards a commitment to standards for Rastelli Foods Group that are superior to all others. I think that is what sets us apart and makes us different. For example, about 7 years ago we started doing small lab set ups to test ground beef and non-intact beef products for E. coli on site. It was a small lab, but we were committed to learning the process and began with two to three tests a day. We are now up to 50 tests a day, so we are testing every batch. Every single batch that is produced from ground product, tenderized product and injected product gets tested and every batch is defined, documented, and lotted.
I am not going to say no one else does that much testing, there are some great companies out there that have the same scrupulous standards that we do. But, the more you test, the higher the chance that you are going to find any potential issues or irregularities and that is the goal. It is better that we find it before it gets out to the public, so we can prevent sickness or spread of bacteria.
We want to be known as a clean and credible operation – the superior brand. We want our customers to know that we do it better than the rest. We have the confidence of the USDA and the FDA, because we go above and beyond the standards and of our customers trust Rastelli Foods Group to provide them with a safe quality product.
Q: What are some daily operations at Rastelli Foods Group that are different from other companies?
CZ: We’ve got a different type of intervention system against unknown pathogens, using a couple different sets of hurdles. We use an application of ozonated water with two onsite systems that generate and inject ozone gas into the water supply. It is applied topically to unopened packages of raw meat before they are opened up to be processed. Our belts and our trimlines are also treated consistently throughout the day and the product gets washed as it passes on these conveyer belts to continue processing.
For our grinding operations, we also use different interventions above and beyond most known standards. We have two to three technicians checking the product that comes off the line before it goes into the master cases all day long – is it labeled correctly, does it have the right dates, is it the correct packaging film, the right documentation and sell by dates? There are so many checks and each one represents another element of our workflow, but they are all critical.
“Sometimes, I look back on all the paperwork that I created for my staff and wonder, ‘Why did I do all of that?’ The answer is simple. We do it for you, our customers, and we have to keep that commitment to going above and beyond.”
We take the same high standards approach with all our standards for our vendors. All of their site documentation, records, recall history, or withdrawals of product from the marketplace – we want to know everything about our vendors before we buy product. If we do not adhere to certain standards of food safety prior to product coming in from a new vendor, then all of the measures we take in our building won’t matter – we haven’t done our job or our due diligence.
People are going to look at the Rastelli brands and our competition next to them at the grocery store. They are going to make a decision based on appearance of the product as well as how is it presented within the package and whether they are familiar with the brand and its reputation. Is the label put on straight and neat? Are they cheap labels? Is the film on nice and tight? Are the steaks cherry colored with nice marbling? Those are the things that sell people initially, but once they open up that steak or eat that hamburger with the Rastelli name on it, that’s when they make the decision to buy the second and the third one.
“We sold them on the packaging. We sold them on the marketing. Now we have to sell them on the product. If it doesn’t perform, they are not coming back.”
Q: How many people are on the team now from when you first started?
CZ: When I started, we had two. We now have a team of 15, which is a significant amount of growth and we will continue to grow, especially as we complete the planned addition to our facility. My lab will double in size and we will have more instrumentation and asset capabilities. We will also have the space to test for E. coli, salmonella, listeria, staphylococcus and more. We can test for every known pathogen and we intend to do that.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed food safety, QA processes and day-to-day challenges?
CZ: We have been very fortunate that no one on my team has come down with the virus or close to it. The supply source coming in we know has had challenges. Some of the bigger beef producers have faced major challenges. There have been stories in the news about their issues supplying beef due in part to having employees who were impacted by Coronavirus.
When we were first talking about this, I remember thinking that it was going to be contained and not turn into anything major. I was very wrong. This is something to be taken seriously and it is a global issue. We didn’t wait for it to hit the United States. We began implementing additional safety measures once we heard about the precautions being taken by Italy and other countries as it began to spread. We immediately started doing our due diligence and worked with the CDC and the USDA, based and their guidelines and recommendations, to put together updated processing and safety procedures.
Today, we’ve all got masks and we are maintaining 6-ft distancing. That goes for all of our production and operational people. And, we have taken a number of other safety measures to protect our people, products and clients.
- Before they step inside the door for the day to work, that mask must go on and their temperatures are taken – a process that we are working to automate with an infrared scanning system.
- If our team members have any type of fever, cough, cold or visible evidence of respiratory issues, we will not let them work.
- If anyone tests positive for COVID-19 or comes in contact with someone who has tested positive, they must be quarantined and get tested.
- Handwashing has always been a hot topic here, but we have increased our protocols, monitoring and enforcement of all sanitation practice. We added in more sinks, more hand sanitizers and additional methods to sanitize.
- We’ve added dividers to our lunch areas, so people that were once facing each other now have a plastic partition separation them.
- We added a huge tent outside with tables and chairs for people to take lunch breaks.
- No visitors are allowed in the facility here and we have full restrictions on out of state travel.
- We employ a third-party food safety organization called Food Safety Net Service to perform an environmental swabbing to test any surfaces for COVID-19. We have done it multiple times now and every location has come back negative.
- We have a preventative natural chemical (Hypochlorous Acid – electrocuted salt-water) applied into the air during off hours of operation. We do this in the office area multiple times a week, we do it in the operation facility daily, and all areas of the plant itself is applied after the last application before we start up every morning.
Q: Where do you think the future of food safety is headed?
CZ: Food safety programs are going to get stronger and expand. COVID-19 brought more awareness to what can cause and spread a pandemic in the global world we live in. A contaminated food supply can cause a worldwide pandemic depending on what that food commodity is. I think the risks are being taken more seriously and more companies and operations are forcing and facing the food safety and employee safety issue.
We have to protect our employees, the food and our customers. A virus can cause a shut down, not just impacting one or two workers with the virus. It can quickly spread across thousands of employees as well as the products and people they come in contact with. If there are some positive outcomes of the pandemic, I think the fact that it is going to expand food safety globally would be one. It will make things very interesting in the food industry over the next couple years.
Rastelli Preferred Ribeye Steaks. Before, I could never cook a steak. I brought home my first box of Rastelli Ribeye Steaks the week I started working here. They were in and out of the freezer and the fridge. I did everything in the world to destroy the meat and it was still amazing. That’s when I realized that it was not me, it was the quality of the steaks.
Rastelli Premium Pork. I was not a pork person, but this product changed my mind. It is fool-proof, easy to prepare and always juicy. It is manufactured by one of our trusted co-packing partners. I would buy this every day.
Rastelli Faroe Islands Salmon. I cook it to a medium-medium rare with a little pink inside. I wasn’t very interested in fish as a kid. Working here and learning from Lynn Arnold, I now look forward to seafood.