Developing a Food Safety Culture: Challenges and Best Practices
By Angie Surtani, EAS Consulting Group Independent Consultant
Food safety culture is a journey that requires significant hard work, time, effort, persistence, and commitment for fruition. I consider food safety culture to be the behavior of employees toward food safety when nobody is watching and supervising them. Food safety culture is certainly not only about food safety audit scores. Each employee needs to fully understand that it is his/her personal responsibility to ensure that food that ships out of their facility has been handled to the highest standards of safety. Cultivating a culture of food safety not only helps companies mitigate risks, but it can also increase customer satisfaction, deliver a better product and save costs. The path towards establishing a productive food safety culture is to assess the current maturity of the food safety culture, take steps to change the attitudes and behaviors toward the food safety culture, and then effectively communicate expected behaviors and consequences.
Challenges and Best Practices
Identifying, and then addressing and removing the hardened beliefs that create food safety obstacles is the key to establishing a strong food safety culture. This happens when employees at all levels of the organization incorporate food safety culture as first nature, and not as an afterthought. This is possible if we work collectively and remove the obstacles that negatively impact the food safety culture.
Audit standards state that the food safety culture should stem from upper management. Consequently, their support is critical and makes it easier for frontline workers to embrace new ways of completing a task, with food safety as the focus.
A continuous training strategy must be developed for staff turnovers, so new employees are on board from the get-go, hardened beliefs are negated, and behaviors are shaped toward a positive food safety culture. During training sessions, sharing real stories of humans affected by foodborne illnesses can go a long way to bridge the gap.
For language barriers, it would be best to have pictorial representations to communicate clear expectations of food safety to employees. Displaying simple posters and messages throughout the facility in hallways, breakrooms, locker rooms, parking lots etc. to reiterate food safety expectations and policies would be an effective technique.
A culture focused solely on profitability can desensitize and deter employees from following proper food safety procedures. Management must walk-the-talk if they want to influence employees’ behaviors and attitudes toward a positive food safety culture.
Cultivate an environment that encourages employees to communicate and report any food safety issues and bring it immediately to management’s attention.
Reward employees who demonstrate implementation of food safety measures to prevent any food safety issues.
The plan to demonstrate food safety culture must be reviewed and evaluated regularly, as it is an organization’s continuous improvement engine.
Since there isn’t a ‘one-size’-fits-all’ method to foster a positive food safety culture, the key is to custom design and then incorporate the food safety culture into the rhythm of every organization, just like HACCP, HARPC, Pre-requisite programs etc. are done. The consequences of not investing in developing this critical element could be irreparable. A food safety culture is like an insurance policy, which one hopes never to use, but it could prevent a public health hazard and keep consumers safe.