What Does It Take to Build a Strong Food Safety Culture?

Brian Sharp
Contributing Writer

Cultivating a food safety culture has always been critical to successful operations in F&B companies. Now, however, the need for a strong culture surrounding food safety is not only key to making your plant run efficiently — it’s also a matter of compliance. Governing bodies like the FDA and food safety organizations like GFSI are rolling out directives in 2020 and 2021 that callout specific requirements for food safety culture, and for the vast majority of companies, some adjustments will need to be made to accommodate these changes.

For most F&B facilities, food safety is already a prized company value because leaders know that an open and supportive food safety culture is essential to reducing recalls and accidents. Yet, the challenge lies in getting all employees throughout the organization to adopt beliefs and change behaviors that stick in the long-term. Lone Jespersen, Principal at Cultivate, an organization dedicated to bettering food manufacturing operations and studying how culture affects food safety performance, teamed up with Laura Dunn Nelson from Intertek-Alchemy to advise food industry professionals on how to embed a lasting and powerful food safety culture in their companies. Watch the free webinar here.

What Is a 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.” Note the word shared; after all, a culture can’t evolve unless values, norms, and behaviors are widely shared. These factors affect how we think about things, as well as how we act.

Why Is Building a Food Safety Culture Important?

Of course, the recent GFSI and FDA updates are key drivers for refining food safety culture. In particular, under clause FSM 2 of GFSI requirements, “Management commitment and food safety culture,” senior management is required to 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.

There are also financial payoffs to becoming more safety-driven. The cost of quality will ultimately decrease as food safety measures improve, though it’s possible to experience temporary spikes as you become more efficient at spotting potential issues with food safety.

Yet, cost of quality is an external motivator not valued equally throughout organizations. To reach a stage in which the entire business is truly committed to food safety, it must become ingrained in the company strategy and everyday activities.

How to Evolve Your Food Safety Culture

The maturity of a company’s food safety culture is measured across five realms outlined by GFSI, which include:

  • Vision and mission

  • People

  • Adaptability

  • Consistency

  • Hazards and risk awareness

Each company is unique and may therefore need to focus on certain areas more than others. For example, if the areas of vision and mission and people are weakest, the goals might be to get leaders to “walk the talk” and take accountability. Strategies such as leader education and one-pagers on key topics such as physical hazards or allergens could help to enforce a food safety culture built on accountability from the very top. Weekly food safety check-ins from managers could also help to improve in the realm of consistency.

If the area of hazards and risk awareness needs improvement, then instituting a near-miss program that engages employees from all functions can help to empower the workforce to take ownership over food safety.

No matter which area needs the most work, people always factor into the equation in one way or another. You can promote the people dimension of your food safety culture by focusing on the following key areas.

  • Employee capability: Aim for specific training content based on the employee’s function. Ensure the content is fully understood by testing knowledge and documenting behaviors on the floor.

  • Effective training: Perform routine and ongoing training using blended strategies (both in and out of the classroom). Hold employees accountable for completing required training, and use documented metrics to track training effectiveness.

  • Training reinforcement: Ensure food safety is modeled at all levels and have ongoing food safety communications. Address both negative and positive behaviors.

How to Start Building a Stronger Food Safety Culture Now

Evolving company culture may sometimes seem like an ambiguous goal. Yet, with tangible steps, it’s entirely possible to make measurable improvements. Here’s what you can do to start supporting a stronger culture of food safety in your facility:

  1. Use the GFSI Food Safety Culture position paper as a maturity checklist.

  2. Identify a dimension or area for improvement.

  3. Seek out best practices and/or consultants for specific tactics to use.

  4. Leverage newly learned change management experiences.

  5. Measure results and assess progress.

  6. Repeat!

If you’re curious about how software can help you promote a strong food safety culture, learn more about our powerful digital plant management platform.