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Food safety and company culture

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

Lately, we have been hearing a lot about “food safety culture” and the role it plays in keeping companies out of trouble (recalls, regulatory citations, etc.). But what is it, how do we identify it, and does it really matter? The concept of a food safety culture is not a “flavor of the month” ideal. To make our food safety systems work, it is critical that we ensure we have a strong food safety culture within our operation.

Food safety certifications, such as any of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) schemes (e.g., SQF, BRC, FSC22000, etc.), are often looked at as the Holy Grail. They are seen as a means to fulfill customer requirements, attract new customers, or generally “prove” their food safety programs are solid and compliant with current regulations. It is true that these certifications require programs that form a good backbone to a company’s system; however, they don’t always guarantee the operation is compliant, safety measures being taken are adequate, or that the system is followed every day and not just during the operation’s certification audit.

A food safety culture ensures that the system is supported each day by both management and employees. It includes implementation of effective documented food safety programs, necessary resources to support those programs, strong communication systems, and empowerment of all employees in production, warehousing, shipping and receiving, the laboratory, or any other area in the facility that handles product or packaging. The crucial elements I will discuss include:

  1. A strong and effective food safety plan that considers all applicable risks,

  2. Management that models the food safety protocols,

  3. Resources provided by management that fully support the implementation of the food safety plan,

  4. Communication systems that extend from the top down and reflect back from the bottom up, and

  5. Proactive management of the food safety systems to correct non-conformances and prevent them from reoccurring.

Effective programs are the backbone of the culture

Food safety programs must be well-documented and be developed to mitigate all foreseen and unforeseen risks. This risk evaluation must be comprehensive and oftentimes scientifically backed. It requires a great deal of up-to-date knowledge in the areas of potential contamination, food defense, adulteration, or substitution risks based on historical company or industry events, regulatory changes, and new discoveries within the industry to include all the proper food safety event mitigations.

Necessary resources must be in place to support the food safety plan

Another aspect of management commitment, and unfortunately one that is the most overlooked, is ensuring appropriate resources are in place. Resources include:

  1. The right number of quality/food safety personnel that are leaders that are empowered to enforce actions on the floor and obtain employee buy-in to food safety,

  2. Equipment and utensils that are in good condition, in sanitary condition, and easy to clean and sanitize,

  3. Involvement in the purchase of production equipment, changes in production processes, and changes in processes to maintain a food-safe environment,

  4. 3rd party training or other learning opportunities for food safety personnel to keep them up to date, and

  5. The time necessary to complete the numerous tasks involved in maintain the operation’s food safety programs.

Top-down, bottom-up communication systems involve the entire operation

Maintaining a food safety culture involves both management and employees. Both top-down and bottom-up communications systems are key. Not only must management model their commitment through resources, they must provide employees to communicate their observations or ideas to management. These communications should be followed up on so that the employee knows they have been listened to, their comments acknowledged, and any issues addressed.

A proactive stance to food safety helps prevent adverse events

A food safety culture is proactive, going further than the typical food safety plans by developing preventive actions that go above and beyond just implementing a simple corrective action. For example, if the corrective action for a non-compliance is "employee training", perhaps the preventive action is empowering employees to correct co-workers on the floor, as needed. A strong preventive action program takes time to develop, but the more proactive actions that are taken, the less reactive actions will be required.

For more information on food safety culture, I found GFSI's position paper on food safety very interesting.

Results of a food safety culture

Food safety culture is not defined by the fact an operation has all the appropriate food safety programs documented, nor by the fact the company can pass a certification audit. Developing a food safety culture may require initial investment in resources, but can ultimately reduce costs. Examples include (but are not limited to) decreases in downtime due to well-maintained and sanitary equipment, decreases in labor costs resulting from lower turnover due to employee satisfaction, and decreased risk of a costly recall. With these benefits, why would you not ensure your company has a strong food safety culture?

Kidder Consulting Services

Kidder Consulting Services works with food companies and private equity firms (clients in the food industry) to bring a strategic, risk-based, proactive approach to food safety challenges. With over 20 years in industry, our experience includes food safety, regulatory compliance, supply chain management, operations, and due diligence work. Call or email us today to find out how we can help you address your food safety needs.

Phone: (513) 265-3185


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