Line workers are an integral part of a food safety culture, because they are ultimately responsible for making sure plans are put into action. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/industryview
Image courtesy of Global Food Safety Initiative position paper
Frank Yiannas is acknowledged as one who has brought the food safety culture philosophy to the forefront. During his time in the industry at Walmart and Disney, he emphasized this as an integral element for ensuring the production, purchase and sale of safe food. He is now with the United States Food and Drug Administration, where among his duties are implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Anyone interested in food safety culture should consider searching for Yiannas’s books and published articles, one of which is titled “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System.”
So, there are two basic questions that need to be answered for processors, handlers or retailers wishing to implement a food safety culture in their operation. These are: What elements should be included in a company’s food safety culture, and how does one go about implementing the program?
As noted earlier, the ISO 22000 standard emphasizes the importance of management in the Food Safety Management System (FSMS), so the first element for management support and commitment to the program. This emphasis on management commitment is mirrored by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)², which over the years has seen the different food safety audit schemes that they have approved adopted more and more of the elements making up ISO 22000 including Management Responsibility. In fact, in 2018 GFSI developed a position paper entitled “A Culture of Food Safety.” The document was assembled by a GFSI working group of 35 industry experts.³
But, let’s talk about the role of management. Management must establish the necessary food safety policies; provide the funding for training and education, equipment upgrades or new purchases; establish policies for communicating internally and externally; and find the right people to manage not just the food safety programs but to build the culture.
Dr. John Kotter describes eight elements that should be adopted to change a company’s culture.⁴ This change will not happen overnight, so the management team should establish timelines and intermediate goals, plus assign responsibility to those charged with managing the different elements. The eight elements are:
1. Establish a sense of urgency
2. Create a guiding coalition
3. Develop a vision and strategy
4. Communicate the change vision
5. Empower employees for broad-based action
6. Generate short-term wins
7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
8. Anchor new approaches in culture
Management must establish the necessary food safety policies and clearly communicate them to the workforce.
In the GFSI position paper alluded to above, the authors developed a figure (above) that addresses five dimensions of the food safety culture. As may be seen, there are several points in this figure that we have already discussed—specifically, management commitment, communication, education, documentation and change management. A food safety culture will include concrete expectations such as the procedures that were alluded to, but it is also an entity that should be evolving constantly. And, it must not and cannot stagnate because that will create a situation where something will go wrong—that is, a visit from Mr. Murphy. This is why the fourth dimension is entitled adaptability.
The status quo is unacceptable so strive for continuous improvement, make a commitment to educating the workforce and reinforcing that they are an integral element in the food safety equation, and make sure that problems are not only solved but become a learning experience. The food industry has been quite good when it comes to learning from their mistakes. The Schwann’s salmonella incident of 1994 led to the emphasis on the importance of tanker wash facilities and the need to validate them; outbreaks of salmonella from raw almonds resulted in the Almond Board of California mandating processing of almonds to ensure safety using approved equipment and recognized process authorities; and a series of food poisoning outbreaks attributed to unpasteurized juices lead to the juice HACCP regulation and the production of safer juice products.
The biggest challenge with adopting and proper maintenance of a food safety culture is the line workers, especially if a company has a relatively high rate of turnover. New employees, be they temporaries, persons on track for full-time employment or full-time hires, need to be properly educated on company policies and expectations. This orientation must include quality and food safety policies, including the company commitment to a food safety culture, the basic elements making up a food safety program such as allergen management, the HACCP plan and prerequisite programs. And, then each and every person must understand the procedures they are to follow. Assigning a mentor who knows the system and has shown that he or she is fully committed to the program is a great tool for bringing the new hires along.
Emphasize what is expected of each person and the metrics for evaluating performance, and do let them know what is unacceptable. For example, let people know that the company has a policy that no cell phones are permitted on the production floor, in the warehouses or loading/receiving docks. And, make sure that they understand why. And, emphasize the importance of each employee’s role in ensuring the production of safe and wholesome foods, beverages or ingredients, which includes empowering them to make decisions if necessary. If someone is doing something stupid or that could compromise safety, stop them.
Establishing a food safety culture has become an integral part of a food safety management system. The ultimate goal is to establish a company culture where each and every person working in the facility is part of the system; all for one and one for all. This is not something that can be implemented overnight, so management must make a long-term commitment to developing the program following Dr. Kotter’s eight elements for implementing change. As noted, perhaps the key issue for following this roadmap for changing culture is communication: up, down and horizontally. Proper communication will help ensure that the program is properly implemented and that each and every person in the company not only understands their role but realizes that they are an integral part of the overall food safety equation. FE
1 International Organization for Standardization, (2005), ISO 22000: “Food safety management systems — Requirements for any organization in the food chain,” ISO, Geneva, Switzerland
2 Global Food Safety Initiative, (2018), “A Culture of Food Safety”: https://mygfsi.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/GFSI-Food-Safety-Culture-Full.pdf
3 “A Culture of Food Safety”: https://mygfsi.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/GFSI-Food-Safety-Culture-Full.pdf
4 Dr. John Kotter’s eight elements for implementing change: https://www.kotterinc.com/8-steps-process-for-leading-change/