Building a food safety culture

Think ST Solutions

By Dr Douglas Powell, Andrew Thomson and Madhu Jeyakumaran
Tuesday, 08 November, 2022

Building a food safety culture

Why food safety culture and why now?

With rising consumer awareness, ever-changing regulatory standards and emerging threats to food supply and sanitation, the conversation for food businesses is shifting from what we make to how we make what we make.

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 foodservice, hospitality, aged care and food retail. One of the issues flagged in the document is that the rate of foodborne illness hasn’t gone down. This is alarming given that each one of us is a consumer too, and it is concerning to think if we can really trust the safety and quality of the food that we are consuming and feeding to the people 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 and systems, and is ingrained as part of who they are. This is a shorthand 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 and 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’, ie, an individual’s or group’s behaviour is driven by their traditionally held norms and strategies (habits), underlying attitudes and perceptions (how they think and 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 food safety culture

There are several factors that influence the development and maintenance of a food safety culture. Some of the key factors include:

1. 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 and resources, and what conversations they have or don’t 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.

2. Training and establishing safety processes

To make food safety a lived value, it is key to invest in providing resources and training to ensure staff have the necessary skills, knowledge and competence to perform their jobs. Training needs to go beyond covering food safety standards and procedures using an online training module.

It needs to be incorporated as part of induction training even before an employee begins their formal responsibilities, followed up with regular refreshers/skills up-gradation 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 and 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.

3. Promoting 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 of 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.

4. Safety success through shared accountability

Clearly communicating expectations around food safety requirements, setting up safety procedures and supporting employees through training and 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 personalised feedback to let team members know how they are progressing makes people want to go the extra mile and 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.

5. Hiring, promoting and rewarding desired behaviours

Culture gets embedded by paying attention to who gets hired, promoted and rewarded within the business. 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 and 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.

6. 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 they are quick to respond to safety incidents and promptly manage customer experience.

When a tree is faced with an obstacle, it simply grows around it. Nature’s way of dealing with uncertainty and obstacles is growth. In the same way, the best food businesses and retailers will use the stringent food safety laws as an opportunity to step up their game and stand out as the leader in the market.

About the authors

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 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 the owner of Think ST Solutions, a food consultancy that helps protect and grow food businesses through innovation and risk reduction strategies, and is a contributing writer for industry publications. Andrew has proven abilities in the food regulatory, foodservice, commercial and education spheres in roles that encompass training, quality assurance, auditing and consultancy dealing with food safety management, education and policy compliance. He is a former board member of a not-for-profit community food service operation.

Madhu Jeyakumaran is the director of Think Stride, an HR 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 leadership assessments.

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