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By Vikas Menon, Food Safety Professional 

Hundreds of documents have been written about food safety culture, explaining what it is, what you need to do to develop a food safety culture in your facility, why it is important, and the steps you need to implement to ensure a good food safety culture in your company.

During a recent business meeting, one of our customers pointed out that “everyone already has their own food safety culture, whether they recognize it as such or not.” Facilities already have processes and procedures in place, behavior that is reinforced or penalized, and things they do that are unique to them. Therefore, food safety culture is not a new concept or a proposal in which one solution fits all.

This article’s goal is not to teach you how to create your own food safety culture; rather, it is to highlight the elements you should consider while creating or improving your own food safety culture.

Leveling the concepts

We understand food safety culture as the collective of individual and group perceptions of values, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs toward food safety. The values represent the expectations of what the company wants to achieve regarding food safety. The behaviors are the actions toward food safety -“do the right thing even when no one is watching”-, the attitude refers to a person’s mental view regarding the way he/she feels about food safety culture, and the beliefs are the acceptance of the company’s safety processes.

A successful plan cannot be implemented without understanding these four concepts and identifying which obstacles are impacting the behavior, attitude, and beliefs of the employees and removing them immediately. 

Another important point. The food safety culture starts with the senior management team. Among other things, they need to demonstrate their commitment to it, establish smart goals about food safety, and educate their employees. In other words, they need to walk the talk on food safety.

Where to start

As mentioned before, each company has its own food safety culture. As you work to formally structure your food safety culture, use the steps below as a checklist or a guideline.

First, create your food safety culture framework. Handle this like any other project in your company: define how many members you need, which departments should be involved, and what type of training will these individuals need to participate in this initiative.

Become familiar with the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) audit requirements and the scheme under which you will be audited (i.e., BRCGS, FSSC 22000, IFS, SQF). Ask yourself questions such as, what all these requirements mean? How detailed should you get? Do you have something already available? This should determine the basis of your Food Safety Culture program. Remember that any of these schemes will evaluate your food safety culture even though it is not called out specifically in one particular clause.

Make it relevant to the senior leadership team. One way to do it is by matching your company’s purpose, mission, identity, and values to your food safety culture program. Bridge the gap by showing them that food safety culture can align with the company’s purpose statement. The top management team should start by clearly defining their food safety expectations and aligning them with their business model. Identification of the current or potential food safety obstacles and the prevention or destruction of hardened beliefs that align with them is a key activity in establishing a strong food safety culture. Until such steps are taken, any support for or adoption of broader food safety culture initiatives will be mostly denied.

It is all about the people

The most obvious area for partnership to heighten your food safety culture is through the recruiting and hiring process. This starts with the development of a job description, detailing the specific food safety and quality responsibilities and accountability for each employee.

Determine your education and training needs and map the topics and requirements per target audience, the current available resources, and more importantly, the gaps. Work with your human resources department or with a third-party vendor to start closing those gaps and accelerate the employee orientation process.

Communication and awareness are key elements for success. You need to make sure the whole company is aware of your food safety culture program, processes and procedures, expected and acceptable behavior, and final outcome. As people learn in different ways, ensure that the message is delivered through all the communication vehicles you have at your disposal and adapt it based on the audience. For example, consider using cartoons as a communication piece if you know that this will be more effective with your front-line workers.

Identify and map the programs that will support and impact your food safety culture. For example, a reward program will be a great way to reinforce positive food safety behavior, and some resources you might have available for sponsoring include merit increases, recognition budget, and public recognition of the individual during internal meetings, such as town halls.

Define how you are going to assess results. Determine what to measure and use a variety of tools, including an internal audit for food safety, surveys, and GFSI audit results, to determine your current state and areas for improvement after implementing your changes.

The ultimate goal

A site with a strong food safety culture has a fully implemented food safety system and addresses concerns or potential issues as soon as they arise. Employees are encouraged to do the right thing and voluntarily report events that could impact the food safety of the products. Auditors will mostly rely on accurate and complete food safety records, interviews with team members at all levels in the organization, and observations of employee behavior.

This process of establishing a food safety culture does not happen overnight. In fact, it can take years of hard work and commitment from across an organization. By taking an approach that seeks to understand and effectively address these issues at all levels, when changes happen that may challenge food safety, you will be able to enthusiastically respond and affirm the organization’s commitment to your food safety culture.

Available resources

Other resources that may be of use to expand your knowledge about food safety culture:

  • Prepare your team and develop basic Food Safety Culture [Recorded Webinar]
  • Assess the current maturity of your organization’s Food Safety Culture [Recorded Webinar]
  • Use an inspection to identify obstacles to Food Safety Culture [Recorded Webinar]
  • Three key ways to elevate your Food Safety Culture [Blog post]
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