Why Culture Causes Food Safety Problems

…And What You Can do About It

By Brita Ball, PhD

Food safety is mainly a people problem”, said Dr. Mansel Griffiths, Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety and Professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph.

At a special World Health Day 2015 session on food safety challenges and opportunities, hosted by Public Health Ontario, Dr. Griffith stressed that the food industry has not learned from continuing outbreaks. Recommendations in the report on the 2008 listeriosis outbreak from deli meats in Canada were similar to those on the 1987 salmonellosis outbreak from lunch products, he said.  

“The greater element and the greater challenge of food safety is people,” said Dr. Griffith quoting from yet another outbreak report. “Systems are of no use without the skill, vigilance and commitment of individuals.”

“Corporate and national culture drive food safety culture in organizations,” says Sara Mortimore, Vice President of Product Safety, Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs at Land ‘O Lakes.  “Having a strong food safety culture means that every employee knows how to, and will, do the right thing for food safety, even when no one is looking.”   

A new operation, such as Cargill’s palm oil refinery in Malaysia, doesn’t need a culture change if a food safety focus is integrated at the start.

“Building the facility with food safety in mind and understanding the influence of national culture has ensured the Cargill employees are true stewards of food safety,” said Tina Brillinger, President and CEO of GFSR, who toured Cargill’s operation as part of the Global Food Safety Conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in March 2015. Food safety culture is strengthened from the top down and the bottom up. One way doesn’t work without the other.

If your operation is like most, your food safety system was implemented in an existing corporate and national culture. You’re unlikely to shift the national culture, but there are two areas of focus to help your company improve its organizational culture of food safety and have people doing the right thing all the time.

Management Commitment to Food Safety

Management commitment to food safety is a requirement for food safety systems but it isn’t just a letter of support in a file for the auditor to see. To have a positive influence on food safety culture, this commitment needs to include visible actions and physical evidence that communicate commitment to employees and others.

Managers with a food safety mindset always act in a way that is consistent with the food safety rules. They wear hair nets and wash their hands even if they’re just walking through a processing area. And, they don’t use or ship product that’s on hold.

When the highest level of management at an operation gives a talk to new employees about the importance of food safety, employees see the commitment.

Committed managers also do what they can, while balancing the financial needs of the business, to provide the tools, equipment and training for employees to do their jobs effectively and follow food safety rules.

Management actions, evidence and direct communication with employees, suppliers and customers about the priority the company puts on food safety – and what’s being done to improve – help strengthen the food safety culture.

Work Unit Commitment to Food Safety

Food safety culture is strengthened and maintained from the top down and the bottom up. One way doesn’t work without the other.

A company-wide culture of food safety means everyone – executives, R&D, purchasing, maintenance, production and others – understands his or her role in producing safe food and acts accordingly. The various job roles of the diverse audience means developing different training content and delivery approaches.

Training is just the start. Follow-up is needed for training to stick.

Supervisors need to catch people doing things right; and give corrective feedback ideally in a positive and encouraging way to gain compliance. Training supervisors to give feedback effectively can support culture change without creating fear in employees.

It can take several years for a full food safety culture change initiative to take hold. The goal is for the positive shared beliefs and values about food safety to become ingrained as the way to do things. If there’s been a true change, the new culture would stick even if the people who drove the change left the company.  

About the Author

Brita Ball, PhD, supports food businesses wanting to improve their culture of food safety and bottom line. She is a food scientist, principal consultant at Brita Ball & Associates, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Guelph. Brita is a regular contributor and an Industry Advisor to Global Food Safety Resource. 

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