Walk the Talk: The Role of Human Behaviour in Safe Food

By Allie Gallant

Culture can be described as a shared system of beliefs, values, and behaviors that members of a society use to define and cope with their surroundings and each other, passed down through intergenerational learning.

Lately, there has been much talk of developing a “food safety culture” within food processing and foodservice environments.  One of the key points to take away from any discussion about food safety cultures is this: the successful translation of food safety jargon into actionable safe food behaviors embedded in the day-to-day operation of personnel.

Behavior has been studied in situations where there is less perceived control – for instance the behavior of consumers has been studied and published for over 20 years.  It has been readily accepted that perceptions and opinions about food safety sometimes trump the facts and result in consumers engaging in unhealthy or unsafe behaviors.  However, within the actual food processing environment behavior has been studied less, perhaps due to an illusion of control.  With stringent training and procedural specifications, every individual employee should be behaving in a uniform, correct manner…right?  Yet, we still see food safety issues related to incorrect or unsafe behavior.  Despite having the correct knowledge, there is still a lack of control – where does this originate?

The Difference between “Say” and “Do”

Studies have painted an interesting picture.  Observations have shown that despite having food safety training and knowledge, personnel still engage in unsafe behaviors, such as improper hand washing.  This reveals that the real question is not one of knowledge – it is one of behavior.  Really, it’s the age-old wisdom that what we plan or say we are going to do is irrelevant, ultimately all that matters is what we actually do.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution that can be easily employed to manage human behavior.  Behavior is based on the complex interrelation of numerous variables, both internal and external to the individual, and it’s not always logical.  It’s the same reason people “yo-yo” diet: we have the tendency to trade off long-term goals in exchange for the benefit of short-term gratification.  Whether that means eating that piece of chocolate cake instead of the salad, or choosing to wash your hands for only 5 seconds instead of 25 seconds, the consequences add up.

Opening a dialogue about the impacts of human behavior on food safety is the first step.  The question of how management can foster certain behaviors while discouraging others, in such a way that personnel make the right decision every time, is being passed around among some of the largest and most influential groups in the industry.  At the recent 2011 IAFP meeting Dr. Randy Huffman, Chief Food Safety Officer at Maple Leaf Foods, spoke about the company’s Food Safety strategy, which spans the organizational level (management commitment and infrastructure) and the workgroup level (food safety training and workgroup commitment).  The interactions of these factors constitute the resulting food safety behavior of workers.  As an example of the impact of commitment on a measurable food safety outcome, Dr. Huffman’s presentation highlighted observed decreases in the presence of Listeria environmental positive results across the plant network based on long-term trending data.  “We believe these downward trends indicate an overall process shift in the ready to eat meat plants based on employee behaviors,” according to Dr. Huffman.

To go back to the dieting analogy (a multi-billion dollar industry based largely on predictably illogical human behavior), the best solution is not a patchwork experiment of slogans and plans, but a “lifestyle” change that informs conscious and subconscious choices (emphasis on the subconscious).  The entire mindset needs to change – and this is where the term ‘food safety culture’ originates.  Food safety is not just mandated, is it tied to the personal life and values of each employee.

Food safety training should be relatable, persistent and inclusive.  From the first day of training, it needs to be emphasized that food safety is priority number one.  The message needs to be reinforced constantly, and not just on paper either.  Do personnel have a place to go if they spot a problem that needs fixing?  Will they be made aware not just of slipups, but also their positive contributions to food safety?  Is there a clear line of communication that allows their voices to be heard, so that they can feel they are an integral part of the wider goal to attain food safety?  A culture, to function successfully, needs to obtain a sense of inclusion and a common identity.  Each individual contributes to food safety, and they should be aware of that fact.

In the bustle of everyday operations, day after day and hour after hour, the big picture can get lost in the blur of minute details – and emphasis on speed – that invariably characterizes the food processing and food service industry.  Dr. Huffman pointed out in his presentation that communication and training in the form of briefings, meetings, signage and updated materials are critical to support the organizational and workgroup level.  “To achieve real progress in creating a corporate culture that supports great food safety behaviors, the employees must feel a personal connection to doing what is right.  Simply providing training on food safety is not enough — leaders in the firm must go further to provide the motivation and positive incentives to encourage great behavior, as well as delivering the negative consequences in a timely manner when appropriate,” according to Dr. Huffman.

Cultures, and behaviors, are dynamic things.  Dr. Huffman cited a popular book in his presentation called “Switchpoints: Culture Change on the Fast Track to Business Success”, a must-read for anyone looking to implement cultural change in their organization with leadership tactics.  The book likens corporate culture to a train in motion on the tracks, which encounters many switchpoints along its route.  Each switchpoint constitutes a decision to be made, and an opportunity to change course.

Ultimately, culture provides members of a society with a sense of identity.  If a company chooses, it can base its’ corporate identity on food safety.  With enough perseverance and commitment from management, building that food safety culture – creating an identity that is shared among all members of the organization – can inform and influence behavior to make sure that every decision, every time, is made with food safety in mind.

 

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