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Faces of Avena: Sneha Nathani

Sneha Nathani, Vice-President of Quality Assurance and Food Safety at Avena Foods, may be the newest member of the Avena Leadership team, but a rookie she is not.

Sneha Nathani has been a strong quality assurance professional for many years. Nathani arrived at Avena in 2020, after years of experience in the consumer goods industry, most recently as Director, Quality Assurance with global health-food giant Hain Celestial Canada.  She is skilled in Quality Assurance and Food safety, Sensory Evaluation, Food & Beverage, Consumer Products, Food Science, and GFSI. Nathani holds an M.SC. in Microbiology from India. She brings a wealth of know-how and a flurry of energy and ideas to Avena as she gets to know the company’s unique strengths and build on them.

We sat down with Sneha to chat about her role at Avena and her unique perspective as the Vice-President of Quality Assurance and Food Safety:

What drew you to Avena?

I have been in quality control all of my life, but always dealing with retail products for consumers. Essentially, I’m in the same world of quality and food safety, but have added the new challenge of applying that knowledge to a new field – a manufacturing customer base. I was drawn by the scale of this, as well as the robust quality program at Avena – starting with Purity Protocol. Also, the company is expanding and there is nothing like the feeling of standing at the ground level of something that is taking flight. That really attracted me.

What does Avena Purity Protocol mean to you?

Purity Protocol goes from ground zero to a finished product. That means not just testing a finished product, although that is done rigorously, but from the seed level to the ingredients that arrive at a manufacturer, we have controls in place for the exceptionally high standards. We take steps at each level to insure we stand by the quality that we finally achieve. That includes everything from the way we source our grain, the way we ensure its grown in a pure manner, our checks with the farmers, seed reports and pre-harvest samples that we look at, all the testing that’s done even before product comes in. Then it follows through with how we handle products during transportation and finally the safety tests done on the lines in the mill and on finished products before they are shipped. But even more, Purity Protocol is in place not just to satisfy a paper trail. It is a way of believing in what we do here.

What excites you about working here?

Everybody is open to change and new ideas. I can go to any department with a new set of checklists and they do not push back. They understand why we need to do it and they do it.  That is new for me compared with other places I’ve worked. When putting product out in the market, you want to run as fast as possible and take some shortcuts, but here I do not see that. Here there’s a defined quality process that is working well. Yes, I’m coming in with a new set of eyes and I’ll find room for improvement, but it’s not that things were not getting done. I’m just finding better ways of doing the same thing.

What is your primary role here?

As a microbiologist, my eye always goes to food safety. The systems at Avena are very robust. The core is solid. A big part of my role here is to bring in new efficiencies to make it easier for everyone. One part of that is troubleshooting as issues arise. Another focus right now is to harmonize corporate policies at Regina, Portage and Rowatt. Food safety programs for each of the three facilities are structured differently. For example, something this company excels at is responding quickly to customers. It’s done instantly and customers get a response rightaway. But how we managed to do this was handled very differently in Regina than it was in Portage. The goal is to bring in uniform new procedures across the three facilities.

What do you wish other people knew about Avena?

We are doing a lot of things that we can boast about, like the way we are testing, the way we manage our quality system and the way we keep our documentation. We have a solid food safety program. We are GFSI certified. We have customer audits. We need to talk a little bit more about how we excel in each of these things.

Where do you see Avena in 10 years?

There is a lot of potential when you look at the skyrocketing demand from consumers for products manufactured from ingredients that Avena provides. Consumers eating preferences are changing. They’re looking for healthier options that still include gluten-free but also add fiber, and move away from meat and dairy. People, especially the younger buyers, are choosing what they want to eat and that is what is driving the market. I see that in my own family. I am from India where a lot of our food is fried. I have two sons, ages 26 and 31. They are looking at our traditional Indian foods and making decisions to seek out healthier options. They are telling me to do the same. They are changing my generation, but they’re also changing future generations. The influence that they have will make Avena’s products go a long way. It means there is a lot of growth ahead.

How has COVID19 changed the way you work?

Before the pandemic, I hated the thought of working from home. Even at Hain, where we had a company policy that employees were allowed to work one day from home, I always thought working from home was not going to be productive enough and I shied away from it. I want to talk to people. A lot gets solved when you can just have an impromptu conversation when passing in the hallway, rather than picking up the phone or sending an email.  But since last March, I’ve gone through a huge shift. Now I feel I can get certain things done much faster at home than at the office. For instance, when I need several hours to concentrate on policy writing, that I think actually work better when I’m at home.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

I love cooking. When I am at home, cooking is my stress buster. I like to try out new cuisines (both cooking and eating) and have been experimenting a lot since I was in school.  And I like to broaden my outlook through travelling. I go to India every year to visit family, have being going on regular vacation trips with family and friends. One element of my career has been having the opportunity to pay regular visits to remote areas of China, Europe and South America to meet suppliers and really get a sense of how things work at the ground level. And I’m still on the move, splitting my time between Avena’s plants in Regina and Portage and my home base in Vancouver. I like to be on the go.