Food safety culture is a topic that has been discussed within the food, beverage, and retail industry for decades. Books have been written, videos created, surveys developed, position papers published; Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarked standards have incorporated requirements into their clauses and, most recently, regulations have been passed. Most notably, the European Union enacted regulations requiring organizations to “establish, maintain, and provide evidence of an appropriate food safety culture” (Regulation EC 852).
Closer to home, organizations throughout the United States will remember the announcement made by FDA in April 2019 that introduced the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative and gave shape to the four key areas of focus—an exciting and innovative approach to food safety that leverages technology and other tools, including core element four, which focuses on a culture of food safety. The New Era of Smarter Food Safety makes this important point: “We will not make dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne disease without doing more to influence the beliefs, attitudes and, most importantly, the behaviors of people and the actions of organizations.” Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner, has been a vocal advocate of food safety culture throughout the industry and has been quoted as saying “you can have the best documented standards in the world, but if they’re not consistently put into practice by people, they’re useless.” This is an important reminder on why a culture of food safety is a prerequisite for organizations throughout the food, beverage, and retail industry.
So, how do you develop a culture of food safety in your organization? First, we need to define food safety culture. Second, we’ll unpack some of the common myths and misunderstandings related to the topic of food safety culture that many organizations struggle with. We’ll start by breaking the topic into the two key areas:
- Food safety: The handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illnesses; and
- Culture: The shared values, beliefs, and norms that an organization has established, throughout the entire organization, which is strengthened through various methods that shape employee perceptions, behaviors, and understanding.
Defining Food Safety Culture
The GFSI Technical Working Group defines food safety culture as the “shared values, beliefs, and norms that affect mind-set and behavior toward food safety in, across, and throughout an organization.” The key point of this definition is “…that affect mind-set and behavior toward food safety,” which many organizations describe as the “why” in their food safety management systems. Many have struggled with the purpose behind the requirements, processes, and procedures of their food safety management system, not understanding why they were being asked to follow a specific rule or requirement. They also often have challenges with empowerment, fear, and communication, which, unfortunately, reflect the organization’s existing culture, rather than the culture they are striving for.
The GFSI benchmarked standards that exist today are very clear in articulating the “what” required from a site with regards to food safety culture. For example, BRCGS Food Safety Standard Issue 8 states: “The site’s senior management shall define and maintain a clear plan for the development and continuing improvement of a food safety and quality culture. This shall include the defined activities involving all sections of the site that have an impact on product safety.” In other words, the site’s senior management must understand food safety and know how to define and maintain clearly delineated plans for the development and continuing improvement of food safety and quality culture.
Despite the need to lean on top management for the planning and development of a food safety culture, many organizations consider that a major challenge; engaging senior management and gaining the support and commitment needed to implement the necessary programs designed to support positive changes to affect their culture of food safety can be challenging.