While concern about food safety is nothing new, the concept of creating a food safety culture is a top priority in food manufacturing today. It's an initiative that has gained traction and attention on a global scale. However, as companies work to create their own food safety culture, there’s no clear-cut definition of what it means or how it should be accomplished.
At the Global Food Safety Conference in Japan in March, Professor Robert Gravani of Cornell University’s Department of Food Science pointed out that food safety culture means different things to different people.
“It is still poorly understood, and we need to understand that not one size fits all,” he said. Still, he emphasized, it needs to be pursued by companies of all sizes.
“In general, when speaking of ‘culture’ in your organization, you’re talking the same core principles applied around different topics,” says Chris Keith, VP of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at FlexXray.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s food safety, sanitation, quality, productivity or workplace safety, you’re talking about the same kind of cultural attributes and commitment throughout an organization.”
Four Steps to Creating a Food Safety Culture
“Creating a food safety culture doesn’t happen overnight, or without careful thought,” Keith says. Here are the steps every company can take to begin developing a culture built around food safety.
Step 1: Commitment
Creating a food safety culture starts with commitment, but not in the corporate-speak "top-down" sense. It requires a full commitment at every level. That level of commitment can improve not only the safety of the product and the efficiency of procedures, but it also can boost the overall well-being of the workplace.
Step 2: Transparency
Greater operational transparency is critical to establishing a food safety culture. Being able to provide accurate, precise and documented information about all aspects of operation and production can help create trust with suppliers and consumers.
“If your organization is not transparent about its business operations, its HR policies, the data behind the product and how it moves through the supply chain, then it comes off as disingenuous,” Keith says.
He adds that today’s consumers are getting smarter about the food they eat and the way products are manufactured and marketed. Providing transparency into your company’s mission and operations can help keep existing customers and win over new ones.
Step 3: Empowerment
Providing the proper training and equipment is the only way that a food safety culture can be successfully deployed. Without thorough training and proper follow-up, companies can unknowingly set themselves up for failure.
However, this is a fine line in food manufacturing. Companies must have the proper level of procedural execution to ensure things are done consistently and, sometimes, empowering employees in that setting is difficult as front-line work tends to be very linear and task-oriented.
“Employers must also remove obstacles that limit someone’s ability to come forward and present problems or risks,” says Keith.
“Does your approach to quality or food safety in your organization inadvertently justify employees staying quiet about potential issues through short-sighted metrics or goals? These are important things to consider in evaluating the impact those approaches have on the overall culture.”
Step 4: Continued Training
When a company implements a culture of food safety, training becomes part of the daily operations. Ongoing training engages the workforce, provides consistent reminders of the company’s objectives and demonstrates support for the employees.
Documenting and reporting on employee progress in the areas of food safety, both as individuals and as part of a specific department, can help keep employees diligent while simultaneously reminding them of how important their role is. This reporting ensures that the entire company is up-to-date on best practices and leads to greater accountability for each employee.
When approached correctly, introducing new guidelines for creating a food safety culture can boost morale, with employees feeling greater ownership of their daily tasks. As the eyes and ears of your company, giving employees on the line the empowerment to immediately flag a safety issue so that corrective action can be taken also gives them greater power and pride in their job duties.
“If you effectively develop a positive food safety culture, then every person in your company, from the janitor to the CEO, is doing their best work every day,” Keith says.
“They’re doing their job with the product, the consumer and the company in mind — and that will show in the end. And, everyone sleeps well at night knowing that they’re doing their best, doing what’s right, and putting out a good, safe product.”