An interview with Dr Bizhan Pourkomailian

Dr Bizhan Pourkomailian is currently Global Director of Food Safety, Restaurant and Distribution at McDonald’s. Bizhan has been a member of the Microbiology Society for over 20 years. Here, Bizhan tells us about his current role, the importance of raising awareness of food safety and the role of microbiology. He also tells us why he joined the Microbiology Society and what the Society does well.

© Bizhan Pourkomailian

What are the key responsibilities in your current role?

As Global Director of Food Safety for Restaurant and Distribution at McDonald's I have responsibility for defining standards and systems for restaurant and distribution of food safety globally.

How important is it to raise awareness of food safety?

The United Nations (UN) initiative to raise awareness by announcing World Food Safety Day is a most welcomed step forward. I believe food safety to be a shared responsibility and we all play a role in raising awareness, as everyone on a daily basis deals with food. Understanding food safety will help drive down incidences of foodborne illnesses and protect all of us. This awareness day is only the beginning. We, with the knowledge, need to be more proactive in educating everyone on food safety and there are many levels of education that can be easily deployed. Hygiene adverts, documentaries, short courses, for example. The more we know, the better we can manage food safety, leading to a reduced risk of foodborne illness.

Tell us how microbiology plays a key role in food safety.

The number one cause of foodborne illness across the world is from bacterial contamination such as pathogenic E.coli, Listeria and Salmonella. The study of and research in the field of microbiology drives the understanding of how micro-organisms function. This knowledge will assist in the innovations to manage microbes, leading to the enhancement and development of practices that will mitigate the risk of microbiological foodborne illness.

At school, students learn about micro-organisms and their relationship to hygiene and food safety. This association can be lost between school and university, where students focus on in-depth microbiological study. The resulting graduates and postgraduates will have a good understanding of the relationship; however, non-microbiologists may forget what was taught to them at school and how critical food safety is.

In the food industry, both public and private sector, microbiologists and their role as the subject matter expert (SME) in food safety is fundamental. They need to be empowered to make decisions and be held accountable. They should be provided with the opportunity to debate the subject and provide factual evidence. The position of the SME can be questioned but only by those with an appropriate informed opinion.

What are some of the key challenges you face accross the supply chain locally and internationally?

Working within a global company naturally has its challenges. Assuring the same message is reached in the right way by all is one factor that requires thorough analysis. After all, I deal with about 119 different countries with different languages and cultures. The translation into the local language is the first step, but the method of communication, the follow up, education, training, monitoring and verification are the next steps. As best as possible the information has to be standardised, but I must also accept the different approaches too. The ages of colleagues range approximately from 20-60 years and naturally the three generations within this age group work differently. Another layer of challenge is the level of education and experience. Communication to the markets from a global perspective is the first layer. The next is to the local market transfer across their organisation. Procedures have to be in place to make sure the message is not lost.

However, within our organisation transparency, honesty, trust, sharing and partnership are very important. Not only do these criteria of our ethics help with communication, it also allows for feedback and learning from each other, leading to continuous improvement.

How does microbiology play a key role in food secruity?

Food security can be addressed separately to food safety. Assuring that food is not tampered with and is under strict control allows for the security of the food from contamination, intentional or unintentional. We all need to eat and drink for sustenance and as such require strict control on its safety. If the food is compromised the resulting issue for the consumer can range from minor to fatal. The numbers affected can be from one to unbelievable levels, depending on the food concerned, and the consumer may be affected. It is critical to manage food security to avoid public health issues, which would lead to economic issues too as there is a domino effect. People who are ill would reduce the active workforce, possible restriction of movement of people and access to resources, for example.

McDonald's recently held their Global Supply Chain and Sustainability Summit. What do you think the role is of a company such as McDonald's in working towards achieving a sustainable future with regards to food safety?

We believe food safety to be a shared responsibility and as such all in our supply chain take steps to understand it. Everyone is empowered to make sure food safety is maintained every single day. We are encouraged to raise any issues of concern, and share innovations and best practices. Externally, we also need to share. Whatever we do to mitigate food safety risk should be shared with the industry, public and private. Food safety should not be used for a competitive advantage, we must share and learn from others to drive down the risk of foodborne illness. By sharing, learning and innovating internally, we move forward and safeguard our consumer’s health from foodborne illness. The same actions exist as a citizen, to work together to reduce and safeguard people’s health from foodborne illness. After all, variety is the spice of life and we all eat and drink in many different places.

And finally, a few questions about your membership. Why did you join the Microbiology Society?

To have clear, relevant and up-to-date scientific information on microbiological topics to assist in assuring the safety of our products and sharing knowledge with colleagues.

What are the main benefits of membership for you?

Access to relevant and up-to-date scientific information on microbiological topics.

What does the Microbiology Society offer that other membership organisations don’t?

A focus on microbiology, but relevance to all sectors and connections to reputable researchers.

How do you keep up to date with the latest microbiology news?

Through the Microbiology Today magazine and research papers from many different sources, as well membership of societies such as Campden BRI, Leatherhead Food Research, International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and others.

Resources supporting the promotion of food safety can be found on our website.

Bizhan will be talking about 'Why microbiology matters in the food industry' on 26 November at Reading University as part of our UK and Ireland Roadshow with President Professor Judith Armitage. Register your interest today.