Food safety is a top priority for food companies anywhere, but how do you know if your organisation has a mature food safety culture?
The Global Food Safety Institute (GFSI) defines a company’s food safety culture as: ‘the shared values, norms, and beliefs that affect mindsets and behaviours toward food safety in, across, and throughout the company’ (GFSI, 2017) GFSI believes that a successful food safety culture within a company is determined by “how spontaneously and unconsciously its practices are made manifest every day, from the CEO’s office to the front lines of service”. It is going beyond formal regulations to become the habitual and systematic culture of a company. “Rules state facts; culture lives through the human experience.”
A poor food safety culture can result in instances that lead to foodborne illness or even death. Companies identified as a source in foodborne illness outbreaks can suffer significant damage to brand, financial losses, and in the most severe cases can result in bankruptcy. A key benefit of a mature food safety culture is to minimise these risks and ensure the safety of food produced for consumers.
Food safety culture is also incredibly important given it is governed by regulatory and industry standards. In fact, the regulatory and industry standards landscape has changed to make companies accountable for a food safety culture by making it an auditable requirement. Thus it’s even more important than ever to focus on food safety culture and meeting requirements.
Regulatory and industry standards
From a regulatory standpoint, the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety includes a prerequisite for a food safety culture. The New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint states that dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne illness cannot be made without doing more to influence the beliefs, attitudes, and, most importantly, the behaviours of people and the actions of organisations. While the FDA does not impose a specific food safety culture design, it identifies tools and strategies to help companies adopt criteria that is consistent with current regulatory requirements and is flexible enough to accommodate the inherent differences in each company. The expectations of a food safety culture align closely with FDA’s FSMA (Food Safety Modernisation Act). Therefore, meeting the food safety culture auditable requirements set forth by GFSI provides a solid foundation for complying with FDA’s FSMA requirements.
But it’s not just US regulatory bodies that are focusing on food safety culture, global industry is as well. GFSI recognised that food businesses need to assess how they are performing and concluded in a summary paper: “…the global food safety initiative believes that to be successful and sustainable, food safety must go beyond formal regulations to live within the culture of a company”. GFSI standards such as BRC Issue 8 and SQF Code Edition 9 contain compliance requirements for a food safety culture. At a minimum, elements of a food safety culture include senior management commitment along with “communication, training, feedback from employees and performance measurement on food safety related activities”.
In October of 2020, the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations (Codex) revised its standard on General Principles of Food Hygiene (CXC 1-1969) to add food safety culture: “Fundamental to the successful functioning of any food hygiene system is the establishment and maintenance of a positive food safety culture acknowledging the importance of human behaviour in providing safe and suitable food.”
The European Union (EU) Commission complies with Codex and has amended the annexes to regulation (EC) No852/2004 to incorporate food safety culture as a general principle, Commission regulation (EU)2021/382.
The emphasis on a strong food safety culture within the industry establishes ways to advance public health goals by reducing foodborne illness outbreaks. This is accomplished through promoting a collective mindset of greater vigilance along with improved risk awareness and management, behavioural modification and personal responsibility to ensure food safety.
Guiding principles of culture management
McAleese and Hargie, authors of “Five Guiding Principles of Culture Management: A Synthesis of Best Practice”, provide a set of general guiding principles to build, maintain or modify an organisation’s culture. The five guiding principles of culture management include formulating an overall culture strategy, development of cultural leaders, sharing the culture with staff by empowering, motivating and providing performance feedback, establishing a measure of cultural performance and continuous commitment to customer satisfaction. These five distinct, yet related, elements are essential if culture management is to be successful.
Having a food safety programme is not the same as having a mature food safety culture which is more than just a document or a plan or a set of SOPs. While documentation of processes and procedures is necessary to comply with food safety rules, they are only effective if they are put into practice. However, it is more than the food safety practices in day-to-day operations. It is a mindset and behavioural change at all levels of the organisation that have an impact on improving food safety and quality performance that can be measured by fewer manufacturing and food safety errors, lower risk, and a positive impact to the bottom line. It consists of actionable approaches and strategies to embed a strong food safety culture within all levels of the organisation.
It all starts at the top with the commitment and involvement of senior management. Until now, the responsibility for developing and leading a food safety culture fell on the food safety or quality managers. GFSI standards identifies the shift in responsibility now lies with site senior management who define and maintain a clear plan for the development and continuing improvement of a food safety and quality culture. It is also important to be aware that commitment to food safety is not the same as execution. This is fundamental in the ongoing management of product safety. Commitment of senior management demonstrates the value and significance of a food safety culture and sets an example for employees to emulate.
Communication is central to the functioning of any organisation, but it’s not enough to tell employees that specific tasks are necessary for food safety. Explaining why specific protocols are necessary to protect lives is important in understanding the reasoning behind these rules and results in higher motivation and compliance. Ongoing food safety training and education will emphasise management’s priority and commitment, provide continuous updates, refresh food safety initiatives and goals and keep food safety at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Visible representations of food safety through posters, KPIs or other charts can also remind employees of the importance in living a food safety culture. Employees need to be empowered to carry out food safety practices and understand the expectation and obligation in raising issues relevant to food safety. It is imperative that management demonstrate to employees that all food safety issues raised are taken seriously and addressed immediately. Every employee should have a personal sense of pride for their role and responsibility in keeping food safety risks to a minimum.
Maintaining a Food Safety Culture
To stay on top of food safety concerns, there needs to be a dedication across the organisation towards continual assessment and improvement. The first step is determining your food safety culture baseline to identify strengths and areas of improvement opportunities. This can be accomplished through an assessment of your organisation’s performance against the criteria set forth by regulatory and global standards. Once the baseline is determined, a company can measure progress towards achieving new goals, closing gaps and making improvements. KPIs and other communication methods keeps everyone informed and on top of the company’s performance.
A strong food safety culture is ongoing and evolving which is why It is important to stay current with changes in regulations and standards. Companies need to be sure they are using the most current version of GFSI standards to maintain compliance and institute the most current regulatory requirements. Responsibility to stay current should be assigned to accountable individuals as part of their jobs.
Companies need to develop a plan to focus on systems, processes and procedures; employee training and development; up-to-date analytical tools and equipment to prevent food safety related issues; and a structure to conduct assessments, information gathering and risk analysis. The effectiveness of a food safety culture should be verified on a regular schedule through internal audits. Risk level should determine the frequency of audits for each food safety activity with a minimum of yearly audits.
Maintaining a food safety culture is an ongoing process. “A strong, companywide measurement system comprised of organisational, functional and individual metrics, will help to capture the underlying mechanisms (artefacts, espoused values and beliefs, and underlying assumptions) that can influence the effectiveness of food safety implementation.”
Benefits of a mature food safety culture
A strong food safety culture ensures a high level of standards are established for all food and safety processes. It facilitates the prevention of deviations from the standards or other non-compliances that impact the safety, quality and legality of products. It emphasises the importance of everyone’s role in attaining a high level of food safety. The benefits of engraining a food safety culture also include increased customer confidence and trust, lower manufacturing costs by reducing costly mistakes, lower risks to consumers, and a positive financial effect on higher margins and profits. Additionally, when the food safety values of the organisation and the individual are in sync there is an increase in the level of job satisfaction.
In summary, senior management must be at the forefront of commitment to a food safety culture with leading by example and through communication throughout the organisation. Development of a food safety culture provides the framework for all employees to share in the responsibility. Food safety training and implementation are vital components and provide attention to detail for a successful food safety culture. The goal is for a shift towards mindset and modification in behaviour-based approaches to food safety rather than system-based steps. A thriving, mature food safety culture is a way of life and key in achieving the operational goals of your company.