Food Safety Culture: An Overview

Having a strong food safety culture is something to which all food and beverage companies aspire. Yet, while everyone agrees that food safety is a critical value, behaviors on the plant floor don’t always reflect these ideals. These behaviors aren’t isolated, and as a result, governing bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food safety organizations like The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) are adopting new directives around food safety culture.

Establishing food safety principles isn’t where the challenge lies. However, what has proven difficult is getting beliefs and behaviors to stick. An organization with a robust food safety culture is one in which the entire organization follows correct practices even when no one is watching because the pursuit of safe food has become an intrinsic value that’s inextricable from day-to-day operations. We’ll begin by exploring the concept of anchors and how they affect our approach to food safety.


Anchors & Food Safety

Anchoring refers to the adopted practices we follow every day or our psychological shortcuts. For instance, we don’t have to think about putting pants on one leg at a time. We take many of these shortcuts every day with food safety, too. Yet, sometimes we have to challenge these anchors and ultimately lift, shift, and drop them in a new place.

When anchors go wrong, they can have disastrous consequences. For instance, in 2008, cold cuts from Maple Leaf foods were contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. Tragically, 22 people lost their lives, while dozens of others fell ill. The food safety incident did not happen because there were no protocols in place; instead, there were anchors around food safety that had to be changed.


What Is Food Safety Culture?

According to GFSI, “A company’s food safety culture is the shared values, norms, and beliefs that affect mindsets and behaviors toward food safety in, across, and throughout the company.” The keywords here are “shared” and “affect.” It’s in sharing values, norms, and beliefs within a group that culture occurs. These factors then affect how we think about things as well as how we act. 

However, while the employees on the plant floor are the ones directly affecting food quality during each shift, the enterprise-level must lead by example and exhibit the behaviors it wishes to see throughout the facility. When employees feel that everyone is held to the same standard, they are more likely to feel that the desired behaviors matter. Employees will also feel supported by policies that come from management and reinforce safe behaviors. Creating and developing a thriving food safety culture hinges on both employees and management working together. Guidelines and support from the top can bring out the best or worst behaviors from employees, and asking them to do the right thing when it may come at the expense of their time or performance can hamper the organization’s efforts. Food safety culture is not only about the things that are visible and the existing procedures, but about the values that guide good decision-making and judgment.


Embedding a Powerful Food Safety Culture


The 5 Stages of Food Safety Culture Maturity

Recently, food safety culture has shifted from simply being beneficial to being a standard requirement within specific programs. According to clause FSM 2 of GFSI requirements, “Management commitment and food safety culture,” senior management must maintain and implement elements of a food safety culture, which must consist of “communication, training, feedback from employees, and performance measurement on food safety-related activities” at a minimum.

The shift from a beneficial and idealized set of practices to a practical program is a compelling incentive for companies to adopt a food safety culture. Still, it’s only an external motivator. To reach the later stages of the food safety culture maturity model, leaders should be driving conversations that get the organization out of reactive mode and into settings that can proactively promote food safety internally through the culture.


Here’s a brief look at the five stages of the food safety culture maturity:

  • Stage 1: Doubt—In this stage, internal pressures motivate actions and behaviors. There are no significant improvements in performance.
  • Stage 2: React To—The company reacts to food safety threats as it observes them. There are slight improvements, but they aren’t sustained and embedded in what the company is doing. There may be individuals in strong technical roles, but food safety is likely within the jurisdiction of a single department responsible for putting out “fires.”
  • Stage 3: Know Of—In this stage, people in other functions, such as finance and product development, are beginning to engage in food safety. At this point, leaders should attempt to engage the various departments or teams and formalize their roles in food safety.
  • Stage 4: Predict—The company strategy includes food safety by stage four. The plant may use predictive analyses to stay on track with its food safety objectives.
  • Stage 5: Internalize—Food safety has become ingrained in the organizational culture and is a foremost priority. This stage is considered aspirational, but even working towards it can help companies make food safety a pillar that translates to business success.

It’s important to remember that moving through this maturity model takes time. For example, a company won’t be able to jump from stage 2 to stage 4 in a year. Yet, when you break down improvements into manageable, simple actions, the entire organization can come with you and take ownership of food safety.

food safety culture maturity graph - food safety

How Do You Develop a Food Safety Culture?

Many organizations erroneously assume that food safety culture will simply arise from the enforcement of a food safety plan. Getting employees to make sometimes fundamental changes in their behaviors can be very challenging, and multiple factors affect behavioral tendencies and outcomes. Employees need to actively and independently choose to do the right thing regardless of observation. Still, even well-intentioned employees can struggle if they cannot access the proper tools, or the facility’s design and equipment make doing the right thing extremely difficult or time-consuming. 

However, educational and training programs alone may not be sufficient in guiding food-safe behavior. Employees need support from management, along with proper guidance for dealing with illness. A significant number of outbreaks in the US each year are due to infected employees handling food. In fact, two-thirds of the outbreaks originating from restaurants have been traced by the FDA back to infected employees who dealt with the food. It is crucial that workplace policies regarding illness must support appropriate workplace behavior. 

Implementing a PDCA approach can help organizations sustain an effective food safety culture. Viewing policies and behaviors through the lens of continuous improvement can provide the foundation and framework to help support the correct behavior even through natural employee churn and change. Using the PDCA procedure to design a new food safety plan or shore up an existing program can ensure that food safety goals are not finite. PDCA stands for:

  • Plan: If there is no food safety plan or the food safety culture is ineffective, it’s best to begin with a plan. Organizations can view this as an opportunity to move from reactive to proactive and thus are more likely to integrate supportive goals.
  • Do: The plan should include some changes or tests. Begin with a small-scale test and then expand to more extensive studies.
  • Check: The organization must check to determine whether the new plan policies are achieving the hoped-for changes. At this stage, it should generate analyses from measurable data.
  • Act: If the planned changes worked, fantastic! The organization can implement these changes to continue nurturing a positive food safety culture. However, it is not uncommon for the changes to fail or deliver mixed results. 

Whether the PDCA procedure generated the desired outcomes or not, it is a method that produces a cyclical process helping organizations drive continuous improvement. Even successful policies can benefit from regular checkups or small changes that make it easier for employees and management to make good food safety behavior choices.


The Financial Impact of Building a Food Safety Culture

Measuring the cost of quality can help you put into perspective the importance and actual value of a food safety culture and help you progress through the maturity model. For the best results, your company should at least be in stage 3 before you start measuring the cost of quality; before then, most companies don’t have the knowledge network needed to get an accurate analysis.

In some cases, facilities may have to slightly increase the cost of quality before decreasing it. This method can help organizations become more efficient at spotting potential issues with food safety, which can cause costs to spike temporarily. Rest assured that the investment in quality will lead to an even lower drop afterward. Moreover, since the cost of quality is a metric that can effectively capture leadership’s attention, measuring it could be an effective way to engage stakeholders. Once you’re able to gauge where you are in building a food safety culture, you can then lift and shift your company anchor to drive improvements.

food safety financial impacts graph - food safety


How to Evolve Your Food Safety Culture

While each F&B company is unique, it can be helpful to look to other companies for inspiration. One company, which started in the early stage of maturity with a score of 2.2 (on a scale of 1-5), was able to increase its score by 19%. The maturity is measured based on the five dimensions of food safety culture outlined by GFSI, which include:

  • Vision and mission
  • People
  • Adaptability
  • Consistency
  • Hazards and risk awareness

Each dimension gets a slice on the wheel of maturity, and in a perfect organization, each of these dimensions would be “full” at stage 5. Of course, this is only aspirational. In our first example, the company needed to improve in the areas of vision and mission, and people. Consistency would likely improve as a natural byproduct. After all, the dimensions are on a wheel, and all components influence each other.

With this first example, the goal to lift and shift the anchor was to get leaders to “walk the talk” and take accountability. One core tactic they focused on, therefore, was leader education. They implemented one-page guides outlining expectations and critical messaging, which management could take into meetings to drive conversations with teams. Education might be on physical hazards and allergens, for example.

The company also worked on establishing a rhythm and timely, routine habits to support food safety better and more consistently. Messages would come from the CEO quarterly, leadership monthly, managers weekly, and supervisors daily. This tactic was simple yet effective, especially since the company could measure it as a key performance indicator (KPI). The company saw noteworthy progress by implementing these strategies, improving its score to 2.7 within 16 months.


Progress Early Maturity

maturity score chart - food safety

In the second example, a different company started with a baseline maturity score of 3.1. It needed to drive change around hazards and risk awareness as well as people, with the goal of also improving consistency. The organization would have to ensure it could share food safety behaviors across all levels and roles to shift its anchor. In addition, it would need to ensure everyone understood the effect of their actions on food safety risks by participating in a near-miss program.

The company implemented a series of tactics to target specific behaviors, such as using the “carrot vs. stick” approach to use positive consequences for problem prevention. Its near-miss program also made risks personal, engaging people from cross-functional groups. The objective was not simply to have people go out and look for near misses only to report on them—but to empower employees to act on issues immediately.

As a result of these tactics, the company’s score went up to 3.4 within 18 months.

These examples help illustrate that focusing on the company’s greatest asset—its people—is the most effective way to support a more robust and healthy food safety culture. In the coming section, we’ll take a closer look at how you can specifically nurture the people dimension.


Promoting the People DimensionDemo-On-Demand

Recently, many organizations have pivoted to adjust to the unique circumstances that arose in the wake of COVID-19. Currently, many organizations have focused on:

  • Increasingly embracing E-learning versus group-based training technology 
  • Less training overall, as many companies have had to pause and address the challenges of COVID-19
  • A change in content to prioritize social distancing protocols
  • An increase in communication, including tools to observe how employees are implementing protocols and procedures around COVID-19 risks
  • More reinforcement, such as signage, decals on floors, and posters
  • An increase in HR involvement to ensure the organization is conducting training and employees are exhibiting appropriate behaviors

Organizations have implemented these changes rapidly, as many companies have had to quickly adjust their strategies to align with the needs set forth by the pandemic. Although the nature of the pandemic continues to change, many of the policy shifts are likely to continue to be relevant. Perhaps we can learn from these examples of developing employee health and wellness and apply them to our food safety culture efforts, too.

Specifically, learning organizations should focus on employee capability, effective training, and training reinforcement. Below, we’ll discuss what each category looks like in a mature versus immature culture.


Employee Capability

employee capability chart - food safety

In an immature culture, employee capability exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Universal training content: There is an assumption that everyone needs to know
     everything regardless of their role, so people become inundated with often irrelevant information.
  • Lack of comprehension: People rely on attendance as a metric rather than understanding.
  • Lack of confidence: Employees are unsure of the right things to do and are afraid of making decisions.
  • Lack of behavior evaluations: Formal classroom training simply checks a box.


For mature cultures, on the other hand, employee capability is made up of:

  • Specific training content per job role or function: Information is provided purposefully on a need-to-know basis.
  • Complete comprehension: Regular skills testing ensures knowledge of the material, including relevant industry updates.
  • High confidence: Employees know exactly what to do and confidently make decisions.
  • Documented behavior evaluations: Regular observations confirm employees actively apply knowledge on the plant floor.

It is typical to expect new employees to have a low understanding and low confidence regarding food safety culture. More senior people may have high confidence but an inadequate knowledge of the current best practices if they do not receive supplemental training that incorporates the newest changes. The objective, therefore, is to move everyone to a place where they have a high understanding and high confidence. It’s possible to get there with coaching, mentoring, and effective training, which brings us to our next point.


Effective Training

In an immature organization, the training program is:

  • Curated exclusively by the QA department and may include facts and figures that are too technical to create a compelling learning experience,
  • Given only upon induction and on an annual basis, regardless of industry updates,
  • Offered only in the classroom with no hands-on opportunities,
  • Overseen by QA for compliance without involvement from other departments,
  • Lacking key metrics.


In a mature organization, training becomes more effective through:

  • Cross-functional development
  • Routine and ongoing learning
  • Blended learning (in and out of the classroom); for instance, employees might act out correct versus wrong behaviors or practice in a regular workspace
  • Employees becoming responsible for training compliance; for example, management may direct them to complete courses independently within six months or risk termination
  • Documented metrics for training effectiveness

Remember, training isn’t a “one and done” activity. Simply being committed to food safety isn’t the same as executing a program that cultivates a strong food safety culture. Organizations must reinforce and update training routinely.


Training Reinforcement

Training can use checkboxes, but it will be unsuccessful if employees aren’t practicing the behaviors that support food safety on the floor. According to one global food safety training survey, in two-thirds of organizations, at least some employees don’t follow food safety programs on the floor, despite efforts in food safety training. If this is happening in your company, it’s essential to perform a root cause analysis to get to the heart of this trend and ensure your company emphasizes training.

Here’s what reinforcement looks like in immature cultures:

training reinforcement graph - food safety
  • Food safety modeling is lacking
  • Induction training is the sole form of training
  • Only addressing negative behaviors
  • Supervisors provide corrective action instructions


Mature food safety cultures reinforce their training by:

  • Modeling food safety at all levels
  • Having ongoing food safety communications
  • Addressing both negative and positive behaviors
  • Supporting peer-to-peer corrective actions


Building Culture in Companies with Low Morale and High Turnover

Unfortunately, high turnover or churn is a reality for many F&B companies. For some, the average worker may only stay on for a year. Building a strong food safety culture in a company where people come and go so frequently may seem impossible, but it can be done.

First, start by identifying the small core group of people who do stay with the company. Nurture and reward these veterans, and educate them on their responsibility as role models. Empower them to speak up and embody the values of food safety through their actions.

Whether they work on the floor, in the warehouse, or as decision-makers, these employees will be working alongside others who will likely be temporary colleagues. The employees in this core group can take on a mentoring role for new people from the very beginning. 

Secondly, when there is high turnover, focus on simplicity and standardization. For instance, it is impractical for SOPs to be seven pages long for employees who are unlikely to stay more than a year. Aim for simple messaging about what to do versus what not to do to avoid overwhelming these employees and promote compliance with the most critical food safety behaviors.


Actions You Can Take to Promote a Stronger Food Safety Culture Now

Looking at the food safety culture maturity model can be daunting, but getting started doesn’t have to be complicated. You can take the following steps immediately to begin promoting a more robust culture around food safety in your company:

  • Use the GFSI Food Safety Culture position paper as a maturity checklist.
  • Identify a dimension or area for improvement.
  • Seek out best practices or consultants for specific tactics to use.
  • Leverage newly learned change management experiences.
  • Measure results and assess progress.
  • Repeat!


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