Building a robust food safety culture is essential to preventing recalls and other serious incidents. Most food safety and quality assurance (FSQA) leaders understand that their teams must embrace food safety at every level, they're unsure how to initiate a cultural shift. There are many great theories about boosting company culture, but what actionable steps can spark genuine change?
Below are practical insights you can apply in your company to improve your food safety culture's success. We'll cover:
- The compelling argument for focusing on food safety culture
- What it means to "walk the talk" when it comes to food safety
- Ways to cultivate a culture of food safety through five key dimensions
- Leadership behaviors that can help teams own food safety
- Examples of how other companies are building their food safety culture
To get started, we'll look at what food safety culture is and why building a food safety culture is so crucial in modern food companies.
What Is Food Safety Culture and Why Is It Important?
While the food safety culture movement has been gaining steam among many organizations for years, Global Food Safety Institute (GFSI) Version 2020, the most recent benchmark update, includes food safety culture as a crucial and mandatory element. Many organizations confuse food safety plans and policies with food safety culture. Food safety culture originates in employees' attitudes, behaviors, and decisions that either contribute to food safety or detract from it. Good food safety policies do not automatically lead to safe behaviors, so an organization cannot simply regulate its way to a strong food safety culture.
For organizations just beginning to consider food safety culture, or that need to reassess or rebuild a more robust food safety culture, it is essential to gather some basic information by asking:
- How do employees think about food safety? Do they think about it?
- Do employees have a positive or negative attitude toward food safety?
- Which food safety practices are already in place?
- Are employees and teams willing to learn more and discuss concerns?
- Is enterprise-level engaged, supportive, and ready to make food safety the first priority?
While a food safety culture involves everyone and rests on the employees handling the food and packaging, management must do more than create, educate, and train food safety policies. An employee may know the right thing to do, but if the support and proper tools aren't available, will they follow through? Additionally, are employees invested in food safety to the extent that they will do the right thing even when no one is looking? Food safety culture is rooted in the why of food safety.
Why Focus on Cultivating Food Safety?
Cultivating a culture of food safety helps companies prevent serious issues, such as recalls and illness. In a strong culture, there are 54% fewer mistakes, which means a significant reduction of incidents related to food safety. The way we look at enabling a strong food safety culture is through the cultural maturity of a company. This is measured with a 5-stage maturity model and broken down as follows:
- Stage 1: Doubt—In this stage, doubt about the facility's food safety practices is born from an external source, such as an inspection or customer complaint.
- Stage 2: React To—The organization begins reacting to food safety threats as they are observed. They also start to take ownership of food safety and quality and kick off projects to support it. They don't yet see other functions as having equal ownership over food safety.
- Stage 3: Know Of—At this level, employees have a thorough understanding of the organization's food safety risks. Frontline supervisors can share what they do every day to promote food safety and what their teams do. This stage is built on knowledge and enabling teams to act on that knowledge.
- Stage 4: Predict—An organization in the fourth stage can continue to improve. Adherence to a comprehensive food safety program allows it to spot red flags and predict and address issues proactively. The organization might also begin to critically assess its food safety actions. For example, it may review how often it really needs to swab and what else it can do to minimize risks.
- Stage 5: Internalize—Food safety has become ingrained in the organizational culture, and it is a foremost priority among staff. In this stage, employees understand what's expected of them and the consequences of food safety issues. Food safety is integrated into both major strategic decisions and day-to-day choices. Teams carefully consider risks, and there is a solid knowledge base of food safety across the facility.
Unsurprisingly, the cost of quality decreases as organizations progress through these stages. In other words, building a strong culture around food safety doesn't just help improve safety and quality outcomes, but it can also help you reduce costs.
What Does It Mean to Have the Courage to "Walk the Talk?"
Make no mistake: developing a food safety culture takes effort. And thinking differently about food safety also requires a certain degree of courage. It can be daunting to spark meaningful conversations with leadership teams, but it's necessary to walk the talk regarding food safety.
What does it really mean to walk the talk? Teams within the companies that do so have the willingness and courage to speak up on risks. They're less worried about their brand image than about food safety. Everyone is most focused on whether their team has the means to take action to keep consumers safe.
At the other end of the spectrum, food companies worry most about their self-image and take a defensive approach to food safety. They're unwilling to open up about risks and hazards and reluctant to give accurate answers regarding risks.
Somewhere in the middle are organizations with mixed feelings about speaking up on risks. They tend to overemphasize positive or negative aspects of food safety in order to preserve their image.
While it may be tempting to take the easy way out and gloss over food safety risks, creating a culture in which every person considers food safety a critical priority is important on many levels. And one of the ways you can get there is by using the ABC model:
- Antecedents: the tools and tactics that help us understand what's expected of us
- Behavior: the tendency to behave in a way that's expected of us
- Consequences: the results of our behaviors
One real-life example of the ABC model is speeding. You have a car and know the rules of the road, including the speed limits; these are your antecedents. You want to rush to get home from work, but you realize you're expected to obey speed limits. Your behavior could either consist of driving at the lawful speed or driving a bit faster. The consequences could be getting home earlier—or you might find yourself getting a speeding ticket, or worse, getting into an accident.
To apply this to your company culture, think about the consequences that will occur if an employee chooses to speak up—or doesn't— when they have concerns about a food safety issue. Will everyone listen and, if needed, take action? The answer to that question will influence how likely people are to raise awareness about food safety issues.
To have the courage to speak up, employees must have trust in their companies. The way leaders can build trust with their teams is to recognize behaviors. Research shows that 50% of higher trust companies have 50% less turnover than their industry peers. And 82% of workers who have been recognized for their behaviors in the last month trust their senior leaders, compared to just 34% of those who have never been
recognized. Trust of senior leadership has the biggest influence on culture, so it's up to leaders to influence change.
How Can You Cultivate Food Safety?
When we think of cultivating food safety, it's essential to look at the five dimensions of food safety culture. Each dimension has an accompanying set of sub-dimensions and corresponding tools and tactics that can be used to enact positive change.
Dimension 1: Vision & Mission
To ensure food safety is included in your priorities, it must be woven into your company's vision and mission. The subdimensions of this pillar include:
- Business structure, values, and purpose
- Setting direction and expectations
- Leadership and messaging
Your business strategy should fully integrate food safety, which means it must be a priority at the senior level. Food safety should also be a central focus when considering resource allocation and priorities. The organizational structure and expectations should also align with a vision and mission that encompasses food safety.
Dimension 2: People
The next dimension of your culture to consider is your people, including:
- Stakeholders, governance, and communication
- Learning organization
- Incentives, rewards, and recognition
To drive behavioral change, you must first understand it. Likewise, employees must also understand what's expected of them. Consider using tools such as cross-functional food safety GEMBA walks to address this dimension and the ABC model for behavior change discussed in the previous segment. Encourage conversations around why food safety processes are done the way they are.
This dimension refers to how change is addressed in the organization and encompasses:
- Food safety expectations and current state
- Change, crisis management, and problem-solving
You can navigate changes effectively through written policies and procedures, but assuming everyone knows what's expected of them after new policies are introduced isn't always practical. Implementing a change model, such as Kubler-Ross, can help you roll out changes with success. Additionally, understanding cultural differences will also aid in mitigating risks that come with change.
Dimension 4: Consistency
In a cultural context, consistency refers to:
- Performance measures
However, it's not just these factors themselves but also how they are used and communicated. How should you be communicating about food safety? It's important to set up a standard rhythm to share results. This could include daily huddles, monthly meetings, and so forth, but it should also encompass documentation of what's shared during these gatherings. Once your rhythm is documented, it becomes more reliable. Beyond documenting the process itself, also be sure to describe the consequences (both positive and negative) for each.
Dimension 5: Hazards and Risk Awareness
This final cultural dimension includes the following subdimensions:
- Foundational hazard information and education
- Employee engagement
- Verifying hazards and risk awareness
Role-specific risk competencies and food safety near-miss systems can be used to encourage teams to look for risks continuously within your culture.
When we put these five dimensions together, one linked plan emerges. While we've reviewed some tools and tactics, it's up to you to decide who owns which processes, when these processes will be completed, and how you'll track progress. Again, ensure complete documentation, so you can engage teams internally and track performance.
How to Measure Food Safety Culture
While moving beyond the food safety plan to cultivating a food safety culture can initially feel unmooring, there are, in fact, very tangible ways to measure food safety culture within the organization. GFSI's five dimensions mentioned above help provide direction and structure, but organizations can also employ metrics to determine whether food safety culture is improving. Let's look at possible metrics an organization can use based on the five dimensions:1. Vision & Mission:
- Effectiveness of internal communications via survey
- Food safety certificates
- Performance evaluations based on food safety activities
- Food safety training plan assessment
- Documenting the percentage of nonconformities from each supplier
- Documenting the percentage of completion of the analysis plan
- Response when a failure happens
5. Hazards & Risk Awareness
- The percentage of nonconformities based on employee behaviors
- Information about hazards and risks identified by the organization within the organization
GFSI audits can also be a helpful tool. Auditors will be looking for insights into an organization's food safety culture. The auditor may interview employees or oversee a portion of production and look into training schedules.
Finally, employees must have a voice. A thriving food safety culture creates the space for employees to speak honestly and deliver feedback about their perceptions and needs. Creating anonymous or confidential surveys and forms can help employees feel more comfortable openly expressing concerns about unsafe processes and practices rather than hiding them. By standardizing certain questions, an organization can measure food safety culture over time to determine if conditions and attitudes are becoming more positive.
How Can You Help Others Define Their Food Safety Ownership?
We can help leaders own food safety through each dimension, encouraging food safety ownership throughout the organization. In the examples below, we'll look at how organizations can use each of the dimensions to promote leadership behaviors that support a food safety culture. In particular, we'll focus on how you can strengthen your environmental monitoring program. However, organizations can apply this approach to many other aspects of food safety and quality.
Mission & Values
- Put a swab in everyone's hands to encourage food safety education for the entire plant. Consider holding an annual competition, making a game of the exercise to determine who has the most findings.
- Establish a multidisciplinary team
- Leaders ensure all employees take company food safety education as part of their role-specific competencies. Ensure all teams know what it means to swab, for instance, and encourage employees to ask questions.
- Leaders make sure teams from multiple functions investigate all environmental monitoring insights (good and bad).
- Carrot vs. stick: Most experts agree that you don't have to be fully on one side or the other but that striking a balance is most important. Using 80% positive reinforcement and 20% corrective guidance tends to work best.
- Team leaders use indicator sites and positive consequences (i.e., rewarding findings), resulting in problem prevention and continuous improvement that builds trust in the food safety process.
- Communication rhythm: There should be an ongoing conversation about what can be done to improve environmental monitoring.
- Leaders design food safety and environmental monitoring into the company rhythm (i.e., board discussions, leadership meetings, plant huddles, and frontline team discussions.)
Risks and Hazards Awareness
- Environmental monitoring of pictures and stories are shared with teams to encourage engagement.
- Technical team members generate ongoing messages and stories for others to use in team member onboarding and regular communications.
Food Safety Culture Is an Ongoing Process
There is nothing static about food safety culture, and that's a good thing. Whether
an organization is just beginning to progress beyond the food safety plan into food safety culture or hoping to expand the existing culture, viewing the process through the lens of continuous improvement is key. The food industry continues to work toward producing safer products for all consumers, and benchmarks will continue to evolve to reflect this work.
When organizations embrace a dedication to food safety, they take a proactive approach to success.
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