Food safety 101: Building a best-in-class Food Safety Management System

Catering 9 min read

An interview with Sterling Crew and Jo Betts

At Olio, we’ve spent the last 7 or so years building out a cast-iron food safety management system (FSMS). 

That means we can say with confidence that all food redistributed through Olio – whether that’s cooked meals, sandwiches, frozen food, fresh or loose ingredients – is safely handled and shared by our brilliant volunteers. 

But one of the most common questions we hear from businesses is, “how can you guarantee that our food is safe”?

To answer that, we thought we’d call in the experts. 

Sterling Crew and Jo Betts are two experienced food safety professionals with over 50 combined years of experience in the food safety field. Both  have been central in helping us create the innovative approach to food safety that’s allowed Olio to have the impact we’ve had to date. 

We sat down with them both last week to hear their thoughts on food safety at Olio.

Could you tell us how you both started working with Olio? 

Sterling: Back in 2017 I was approached by Saasha Celestial-One, Olio’s COO and co-founder. Saasha was looking for someone to come in and help her and her team construct a solid Food Safety Management System. The Olio team really know what they’re doing, but she felt they needed an expert to help make sure they were on the right track, and then to hold Olio accountable to that. 

It’s not just about food safety though – it’s also about risk management, and navigating the HACCP system (which stands for Hazard analysis and critical control points). I’ve got experience in that area, so it felt like a good fit. 

Jo: I started working with Olio several years ago when I joined South Derbyshire District Council as their Principal Environmental Health Officer.  We act as the Primary Authority for Olio. In the last three or four years I’ve been working with you, a lot’s changed – the business has grown so much, so it’s almost unrecognisable now to how it was when we first started.

Can you tell us a bit about how you approached building Olio’s Food Safety Management System? 

Jo: At Olio, your business model is very different and very unique. It’s not like a retailer or a supermarket, or an online distributor. It’s one of a kind. 

Your system – where volunteers collect food, take it home, and redistribute it from their doorstep to people nearby – pushed the boundaries of what had been done before, to be totally honest. 

When we took on the role of Primary Authority, we looked at the Food Safety Management System that Sterling had helped to build and said yes, that complies with the law. If you follow that framework, and your volunteers (or Food Waste Heroes) follow that framework, then food safety shouldn’t be compromised. You’re reducing the risks, have controls in place, and have a due diligence defence around food safety. Working with us as the Primary Authority gives assurance to businesses, app users, and local authorities across the country that  you’re a compliant business.

Sterling: Working with Jo was great for us. It was – and still is – really valuable to have another expert checking what we’re doing is the right thing. Jo and the team also give us what’s called “assured advice”.  This is basically regulatory advice that other authorities have to respect, which is really helpful for liaising with local authorities around the country.

It’s great for consumers and businesses because there’s a regulator involved. And no one’s sitting there waiting for something to go wrong –  we’re in touch with each other all the time. Every month we have a call to discuss our approach. What we’re all after is continuous improvement. We spend a lot of time asking ourselves – “how can we make this more secure? How can we improve?”. It’s not like we’ve got a system, we put it in place, and we walk away. We’re always developing it. 

What were the main challenges or head-scratchers you had to overcome? 

Jo: Like I said, Olio’s model is unique. Our priority is making sure that food safety is never compromised – and food is safe for the end user. Given the redistribution element of what you do, we had to look really carefully at some of the legislative controls around shelf-life and use-by dates, to work out how this could work for the Olio model.  

Ultimately, we were keen that the maximum amount of food could be safely redistributed.  We developed a number of procedures with Olio and Sterling so that could happen. 

Working out the exact role of your volunteers was also critical to the success of the business. We needed to be 100% confident that they followed the procedures within the documented Food Safety Management System. As  Olio is the “Food Business Operator” by definition of the legislation, that meant that volunteers didn’t need to register as their own company.  Plus, we’ve developed an excellent, ongoing training package for them, which gives guidance on what to do and how to do it – safely- at all points of food collection and redistribution.  That includes everything from temperature control to safe storage.

Working out the exact role of volunteers in Olio’s redistribution model was also critical to the success of the business.

Sterling: I think that the biggest challenge we’ve had is building confidence – because what we do was – and still is for lots of people – completely new. For many businesses that have come on board with Olio over the past few years, our approach has been a little bit alien for them, and they (understandably) have a lot of questions. 

Some start from a position of saying “well, surely this can’t work”. And they’re right to be skeptical – it’s a new concept that can be difficult to get your head around. But when we get chatting, peel the onion and go a layer down, they can see we’ve got volunteer training in place. They can see we’ve got monitoring in place and full traceability of food across the app. And we’ve redistributed millions of meals worth of food and not had any problems. And that’s when they start to get it. 

We welcome those questions – after all, it’s helpful for us to have a chance to scrutinise our processes every now and then.

And ultimately, once we’ve talked through their concerns, businesses tend to see the benefits quite quickly. For them, there’s a commercial incentive, because addressing their food waste makes them look good. Being able to say they’re working towards zero edible food waste with Olio is a very powerful statement – especially when it comes to corporate and social responsibility.

What would you say to a business that had concerns about redistributing hot food via Olio’s volunteers?

Jo: I think I’d say – trust them!

Olio has been running for quite some time now – it’s not like they are a new company anymore. They have a documented Food Safety Management System that’s been developed in partnership with a Primary Authority, and with inputs from real experts like Sterling.

Plus, they’ve got competent staff who really know their stuff. They’re doing all the diligence you can possibly do. So I think I would say that the reassurance is there. 

There is an element of trust, and you’re almost asking businesses to broaden their minds to see what’s possible. But Olio has developed a really brilliant redistribution concept which means food doesn’t end up in landfill. We’re proud to have supported them to make sure this can be done safely. 

Sterling: I’d say – Olio has done its homework. There’s a due diligence system in place that makes sure we’re doing everything we can to mitigate against risks. 

Lots of businesses just want to know exactly what happens when they donate their food. If something were to go wrong, it would damage their brand, and we understand that. So I’d just remind them that we’re always willing to sit down and have a chat, to talk them through the process, and reassure them that at every part of the process, we’ve taken steps to make sure that their food is safe.

We understand just how important food safety is for businesses. But getting food into bellies, rather than bins, should feel equally important. And there is a way – through Olio – that they can do this simply, safely and impactfully. So it should feel like a no-brainer. 

About our interviewees

More about Jo Betts

Jo is a Charted Environmental Health Officer who qualified from Greenwich University in 1992.

 She then worked in several local authorities across the country in different fields of environmental health, deciding eventually that food was something that she was most passionate about.

Jo now works at South Derbyshire District council, as a Principal EHO, where she’s been since 2020. She’s an active member of the Hospitality Primary Authority Group, and actively involved with  the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

More about Sterling Crew

Sterling  has over 40 years’ experience of working in the food industry in the fields of food safety, governance, compliance, horizon scanning, sustainability and innovation. He started his career in government before a successful track history in retailing with Marks and Spencer and Tesco. He has also worked in the branded environment for Coca-Cola and Disney and as a Technical Director at two manufacturers.With experience as a regulator, retailer and manufacturer he has a unique perspective on the development of the global food sector.

Sterling was recently elected as the  President of Institute of Food Science and Technology. He has previously served as Vice President of the Institute and, until recently, chaired its Food Safety Special Interest Group. He was awarded Honorary Fellowship of the Institute in 2020 for his contribution to the food sector. 

Since his his retirement, he has sat on the board of a number of other food companies (including Olio!), giving independent advice from a  scientific and regulatory standpoint.