Food Safety KPIs—Are They Driving the Right Behaviors?

Mary Hoffman
Contributing Writer

In the food industry, what you measure tells a story about what you value. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. This sends a strong message from the top that food safety is a priority for the organization. Establishing and communicating objectives and KPIs related to food safety can influence a facility’s food safety culture. But how do you know if your KPIs are driving the right behaviors? And are there better KPIs you could be setting?

This blog will go over:

  • The difference between objectives & KPIs

  • Measuring Food Safety Culture

  • The Cobra Effect

  • Two Examples of Using KPIs to Drive Outcomes

  • How to Make KPIs Count

The Difference Between Objectives & KPIs

Objectives are results the organization seeks to achieve. On the other hand, KPIs are measurements that tell you if you’re on your way to accomplishing those objectives. If your objective is to reduce customer complaints by 5% from the previous year, then one KPI you might examine would be the pick-pack accuracy rate. When setting your objectives, consider the crucial tasks and behaviors for meeting those goals and make those your KPIs based on those. 

Measuring Food Safety Culture

Anything you measure will compel a person to optimize their score on that metric. A combination of measurements is needed to provide food manufacturers with a comprehensive evaluation of food safety culture, including insights into variables that drive safety behavior. Integrating a self-assessment survey, semi-structured interviews, and food safety program performance measurements can deliver those insights. 

When we talk about food safety program measurements, what do we mean? Many food manufacturers have many focus areas already in place. Common examples include:

  • Cleaning and sanitation

  • Proper storage and handling

  • Ensuring no cross-contact of allergens

  • Monitoring temperatures and humidity

  • Personnel practices

  • Documentation and recordkeeping

Each food manufacturer should consider its specific focus areas for objectives and KPIs. Your KPIs should be particular to the processes in your organization. Think about the areas where there may be gaps or opportunities for improvement. 

How to engrain a new set of food safety beliefs into our company culture that translates into measurable reductions of accidents, rework, and recalls

The Cobra Effect

Be wary of the unintended consequences of setting targets. You want to avoid incentivizing the wrong behaviors, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Think through the desired behavior and communicate the why behind your goal when deciding on your targets. 

One enduring example of how we should be careful what we wish for is now known as the Cobra Effect. Under British rule, the city of Delhi had a terrible infestation of cobras. British officials offered a bounty on cobra skins, believing this would help reduce the snake population. However, people began to farm the cobras to take advantage of the monetary reward. When officials realized what was happening and stopped paying the bounty, people released all the cobras they were farming, resulting in a higher cobra population than ever. The authorities had a specific goal and created an incentive but did not consider all the loopholes. The results were the opposite of the original intention. It’s crucial to think through the desired behaviors when designing incentives and setting targets.

Two Examples of Using KPIs to Drive Outcomes

Example #1: Food Safety Incidents

You set a goal for less than five food safety incident reports per month. A potential unintended consequence would be that personnel may hesitate to report incidents when the desired behavior is to identify, investigate, and resolve food safety issues as they occur—and to prevent future problems. Key performance indicators that can assist would be:

  • Near miss reporting and follow up

  • Incident investigation: CAPA and RCA

  • Repeat issues or issue types

  • Cross-functional involvement in problem-solving

Food safety is so often about what people do when nobody else is looking. An employee on the floor might be the only one who sees a food safety issue, but if they see reporting it as a negative, they may not say anything. The goal is to get everyone in the team involved in the conversation and the solution.

Example #2: Food Safety Sanitation Program

Your goal is to obtain a pre-op inspection pass rate of greater than 95%. But this sends a message that failing a pre-op inspection is bad. The unintended consequence here would be an overwhelming incentive always to record passing results, even though the goal behavior is to support an environment for the safe production of food by completing sanitation tasks. In this case, consider the following KPIs:

  • Program execution: measuring how well you’re adhering to the Master Sanitation Schedule

  • Response to undesirable results or trends

  • Training and assessment: measuring how well employees understand how to perform their tasks

Make KPIs Count

Consider what is most critical for your situation and frame your KPIs to encourage the desired behaviors. You’re investing a lot of time and effort into capturing these measurements, so make it count with a more mindful approach to creating your KPIs.

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