The latest discussion document P1053 Food Safety Management tools from the national food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand wants an improved food safety culture with food service, hospitality, aged care and food retail. One of the issues flagged in the document, is that the rate of food-borne illness hasn’t gone down. This is alarming given that each one of us are consumers too, and it is concerning to think if we can really trust the safety & quality of the food that we are consuming and feeding people whom we love.
As Albert Einstein once said, “By doing the same things over and over again, we can only expect the same results”. The time has come for food businesses to think beyond the traditional training and relying on inspections, as a way of managing food safety risks. It is simply not enough and moreover, it is tiring to play catch up every time regulations change. It is time for businesses to think differently about the way they approach food safety and think of a sustainable way of maintaining safety standards that is not reliant on external checks but rather on their own people & systems and is ingrained as part of who they are. This is a short-hand way of describing what ‘food safety culture’ is about.
Any organisation that succeeds in establishing a strong food safety culture, not only stays clear of food safety and reputational risks, but gains respect and loyalty from employees, customers , regulators and even the society at large. In fact, their culture becomes their point of difference, and elevates their overall performance as well as brand image.
In this article, we will touch upon what food safety culture means, why it is important and outline some key ingredients for creating & maintaining a safety conscious culture.
The core reason why we got together as a team, is because we noticed that there are apparent gaps in the proposed approaches due to the lack of integration of food safety risk management with organisational development and culture change.
Culture is how we act, not what we say
Culture is commonly understood as ‘how we do things around here’. But it goes much deeper than that. ‘How we do things around here’, i.e. an individual’s or group’s behaviour is driven by their traditionally held norms & strategies (habits), underlying attitudes & perceptions (how they think & feel) and underlying values (what they actually care about).
For instance, an organisation where the leaders value and reward efficiency over safety will have very different staff behaviours, to an organisation where leaders value and hold people accountable to safety standards first.
Similarly, an organisation/team that promotes a culture of trust and open communication around food safety, will have open conversations around safety risks and resolve issues through both top-down and bottom-up communication. On the other hand, in a team/organisation that lacks trust or engages in blame, staff will keep quiet about safety risks.
Culture goes beyond having robust food safety processes, and procedures. It is reflected in the way every person on the team thinks, feels and acts in their daily job to ensure the food they produce is safe.
Key aspects of a strong food safety culture
There are several factors that influence the development and maintenance of a food safety culture. Some of the key factors include:
- Leadership commitment to producing safe food: Culture is driven by what the leaders and managers at all levels care about and is reflected in what they focus on in their daily work, where they invest their time & resources, and what conversations they have or not have with their team members. A strong food safety culture starts with the commitment of leaders and managers, to make ‘food safety’ a lived value/priority through their actions.
- Training and establishing safety processes: An important way of making food safety a lived value, is investing in providing resources and training support to ensure staff have the necessary skills, knowledge and competence to perform their roles. Training needs to go beyond covering food safety standards & procedures using an online training module or even a classroom. It needs to be incorporated as part of induction training even before an employee begins their formal responsibilities, followed up with regular refreshers/skills upgradation in line with industry norms. Clear and updated food safety procedures and systems need to be in place to embed the training into everyday behaviours. In the context of building a food safety culture, training also needs to include leadership development training for team managers & leaders (starting from the top) to equip them to manage the invisible but powerful aspect of managing human behaviour and creating the right team culture.
- Clear and open communication: Each person’s role in maintaining the expected safety standards needs to be clearly communicated and understood by all staff along the food supply chain (from farm to the plate). In this context, it is important for managers to promote a culture of trust and open communication, rather than that fear and blame. People need to feel safe to ask questions, clarify expectations and speak up when something feels off or share ideas to improve safety standards. Conversations around food safety risks need to be actively promoted and encouraged as a way of adopting ‘food safety’ as a shared value.
- Creating shared accountability: Clearly communicating expectations around food safety requirements, setting up safety procedures and supporting employees through training & communication as outlined above sets them up for food safety success. A key aspect of building shared accountability is establishing clear benchmarks of what success looks like, and assessing performance on safety periodically. Providing individualised feedback to let team members know how they are progressing makes people want to go the extra mile, take pride in and own their safety outcomes. This also means, not tolerating wilful negligence and repeated lack of compliance, through clearly established consequence procedures.
- Hiring, promoting and rewarding desired (food safety) behaviours: Culture gets embedded by paying attention to who gets hired, promoted and rewarded within the organisation. By hiring and promoting people who value ‘food safety’ and want to be part of a team that takes it seriously, the organisation creates a win-win relationship. It leads to higher job satisfaction, a strong sense of purpose and belonging for the staff. In turn, the organisation enjoys higher productivity, staff engagement and loyalty. Recognising and rewarding food safety behaviours sends a clear signal on expected behaviours and attitudes.
- Seeking and responding to consumer feedback: Consumer attitudes to food have changed significantly over the years. Today it’s a combination of factors: locally sourced, humanely produced, the nutritional value, convenience, price and safety. Seeking customer feedback is key to assessing and improving food safety standards. The best food businesses not only use social media to market their products but are quick to respond to safety incidents and promptly manage customer experience.
If serving safe food to your clients matters to you deeply and you are curious to explore more about how you can go about building a food safety culture and lead the market, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to supporting you!
Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at Kansas State University who resides in Brisbane, Australia. He received a PhD in food science from the University of Guelph in 1996. Powell has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers, book chapters and a book and has written over 10,000 entries for barfblog.com since 2006. He teaches courses in food safety risk analysis, policy, communications and culture, and works with a lot of graduate students.
Andrew Thomson is a director of Think ST Solutions a food safety consultancy that creates food safety solutions for the food service, hospitality and food retail sectors. Andrew is a former board member of a not-for-profit community food service operation and a contributing writer on food safety matters for wf Media.
Madhu Jeyakumaran is a director of Think Stride advisory firm that specialises in helping leaders build high-performing teams and thriving cultures. She delivers evidence-based leadership courses at the University of SA. Previously, she worked for PwC and HSBC Bank specialising in driving culture change and talent development. She has a master's degree in HR, and is accredited in world-class training/coaching methodologies, acclaimed culture analytics, and leadershi
- Oct 13 2022 07:08 PM
- by Simon
Food safety being a shared responsibility of all supply chain participants in farm to fork continuum, is not always technical but also behavioural. Food service operators share equitable responsibility of ensuring safety of food in the supply chain. Every year, an estimated six hundred million people are sickened by contaminated food. Studies have documented poor management commitment and improper food handling practices as major causes of food safety failures in food service facilities. Food poisoning accusations have cost food service operators loss in consumer base, reputation damage and product liability litigations. Increase in number of food-borne illnesses and outbreaks have emphasized the need for stricter food safety interventions to protect public health. Therefore, the need of the hour necessitates food service leaders to establish food safety organizational culture as a food safety intervention to facilitate production and service of food in safe and sanitary environment and protect customers from food safety hazards. Food safety culture reflects organization's genuine commitment the food safety compliance and noticeable safe food handling behaviors, attitude and practices embedded in employees.
Model an Upstream Food Safety Cultural Framework
Well first of all, food service leaders must create an organizational structure that effectively manage organizational resources. Blend organizational vision for food safety compliance, performance benchmarks and key performance indicators to track and accomplish food safety goals. It is important to implement and document food safety management system that outlines the processes, instructions, procedures and reports required to ensure food safety. Food service leaders must develop competency model by determining factors that contribute to food safety failures through efficient root cause analysis, identifying key processes and team members and establishing clearly defined reporting structures. This will help in laying the groundwork for effective food safety leadership and communication. Put emphasis on standardizing processes and procedures (Time temperature requirements, cleaning and sanitation control, allergen control and employee hygiene- to name a few) to eliminate risk of deviations and implement a monitoring system to ensure reduction in possibility of food safety issues. It is worthwhile to invest in continuous improvement activities to achieve optimal levels of proficiency and viability in performance and processes. Emphasize on recruiting food safety focused employees and build their capabilities and competencies by determining training need. Create reward systems that encourage employees to consistently practice safe food handling behaviours. Long-term culture sustainability can only be achieved by evaluating current culture's effectiveness, identifying gaps and taking consistent corrective action.
Showcase Commitment Based Food Safety Leadership
Employee's values and opinion on food safety often differ from those of the organization. It is commonly seen that individuals with positional power demonstrate more safety-related behaviors in comparison to individuals down the hierarchical level. Main obstacles in implementing and maintaining food safety culture are casual behavioral approaches, practicing non-standard processes and poor managerial commitment and attitude towards food safety. Food service leaders must demonstrate strong leadership by committing to food safety compliance, allocating resources and communicating food safety expectations clearly throughout the organization. Build leadership at all levels by encouraging managers to oversee food safety processes and reinforce food safety behaviours. Emphasize the importance of being proactive about food safety and getting involved in training, inspections and other food safety related activities. This will help in strengthening employee commitment to food safety. Sanitary design criteria should be considered an essential prerequisite for food safety and integrated into the planning and design process. Sanitary design standards, a strategic consideration of premises and equipment facilitate maintaining hygienic environment that is essential to mitigate food safety risk. Providing sanitary working conditions demonstrate senior management's commitment to food safety culture and can help influence employee behavior and increase commitment to food safety.
Showcase Leadership Centered Towards Risk-Communication Approach
Effective communication and engagement is important for survival of food safety culture. It is important to know how concerned employees are about food safety and how aware they are of consequences of food safety failures. Employees must realize their role in food safety and their accountability to food safety failures. Food service leaders must effectively communicate why food safety is important and how food safety is one of the top organizational priorities.
Employees should be given clarity on work responsibilities, critical control points, food safety policy and conformance standards. They should have complete understanding on risk associated with food products, the possibility of a hazard arising in the event of a loss of control, and the seriousness of the resulting illness or accident in order for them to understand how their poor food handling practices may jeopardize public health safety. Positively influence employee attitude and behavior so that food safety remains at the forefront of their minds and they consider it as their social responsibility. Food safety culture cannot be integrated and ingrained in employees when the sole focus is just to meet minimum applicable statutory and regulatory compliance. It is vital to train employees in risk and hazard specific to their area of work. Developing employees through training and awareness programs on hygiene and sanitation, supply chain risk assessment, preventive measures, food safety, corrective process behaviors and regulatory conformity will drive food safety culture. Food service leaders must shift from competency model to capability model by empowering skills, driving accountability and creating collaborative teams. Empower employees to respond to food safety concerns when there is an occurrence of process deviation.
Recognizing employees for safe food behaviors and practices is critical for boosting morale, improving engagement and strengthening food safety commitment. Posting posters and signs in the kitchen outlining food safety behaviours and practices is one major intervention to inspire staff and increase attention to food safety. Comprehensive involvement of quality control, purchasing and internal audit teams with food safety-focused responsibilities is principle to long term survival of food safety culture. Employees feel valued and have a sense of acceptance when they are educated, kept informed and recognized, resulting in increased employee engagement. Restaurant audit schemes consider food safety culture a key component in food performance management. Prevalence of an active safe food culture and employee’s knowledge on food safety hazards and practices could easily be evaluated in audits through observations and interviews. To be audit ready at all times, food service facilities must demonstrate success in the context of food safety related activities and strengthen food safety culture as part of continuous improvement.
The primary aim of establishing a food safety culture is to share common values and belief and eliminate behavior and procedure-based food safety risks. The culture must be integrated within organizational structure as a preventive measure. It should also be noted that implementation, monitoring and enforcement under dedicated leadership is pivotal for culture to grow. Once integrated and maintained, it benefits organization in form of improved governance, increased dedication, better cooperation and consistent compliance with operational processes and standards at all levels and by all team members. In view of legal obligations, food service leaders must strive to leverage behavioural change to improve food safety standards. As a matter of fact, customer may differ in food preferences but the pursuit of safe and wholesome food is universal.
Dhruv Kishore Bole
MBA - Hotel Management I CGSP I PCQI I HACCP I ISO 9001:2015 I FSSC 22000 V5 I Lean Six Sigma I cGMP I FPM I Revenue Management I Allergens I OHSMS I FOSTAC - FSSAI
Dhruv Kishore Bole is a hospitality and food safety specialist with qualifications in hotel management, food safety and quality management system. He has extensive experience spanning over twelve years in operational and training roles. His expertise centers on hospitality operation, food and beverage services and food safety. He has attended numerous workshops and conferences on customer service, leadership and food safety and quality and is certified by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in food safety competencies. He is an empanelled trainer with Hero Mindmine and IL&FS Skills. He is a member of Quality Council of India and an instructor and proctor with ServSafe for India region.
- Apr 06 2021 06:11 AM
- by Simon