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Cultural revolution

food safety culture

Professor Carol Wallace of the University of Central Lancashire explains the principles behind the new concept of food safety culture and reviews current initiatives to strengthen its impact on food safety performance.

Emergence of food safety culture

Food safety culture is still a relatively new concept in the food industry but has been gaining traction recently as its impact on the success of food safety management systems, procedures and practices has become clearer. Understanding of the important role of culture in food safety performance follows several decades of food safety evolution. Starting with control systems based on analytical test results, the industry has progressed through application of hygienic practices and preventative HACCP-based FSMS (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Food Safety Management Systems).

This has led to the current appreciation of the role of human factors and organisational culture. Yet food safety culture can still seem a ‘fuzzy concept’ that is difficult to grasp. Measuring how good yours is and how to improve and benefit from a strong food safety culture can be a challenge.

Looking more closely at the evolution of food safety and some of the limitations of previous and current food safety management programmes helps to demonstrate why we need to pay attention to food safety culture today (Figure 1). It is well known that HACCP was developed as part of the food supply project for the US manned space programme and that the concept was launched publicly to the food industry in 1971. Early in its development, HACCP was reported as an effective and economical way to prevent foodborne disease[1] and this contributed to the international acceptance of the HACCP principles[2], their adoption in regulations, such as EU 852/2004, and their role as a cornerstone of food safety management programmes. As shown in Figure 1, the food industry’s journey with HACCP really started in the 1980s and usage grew through the 1990s and 2000s as more companies and stakeholders recognised its value. During this period, the international agreement on the Codex HACCP principles was published and the key role of prerequisite programmes or good hygienic practices working hand in hand with HACCP was recognised. Modern HACCPbased food safety management systems have come a long way since the early days, but food safety remains a key public health challenge.

Figure 1 Evolution of Food Safety Management Systems and Culture © Carol Wallace, 2018

Food safety culture can still seem a ‘fuzzy concept’ that is difficult to grasp.

Theoretically, effective HACCP-based food safety management programmes should ensure that food remains safe throughout all stages of the global food supply chain. However, food contamination outbreaks and incidents continue to occur, even in large businesses. For example, foodborne illness outbreak data reported in the EU in 2015[3] show a total of 4,362 foodborne outbreaks, causing 45,874 cases of illness, 3,892 hospitalisations and 17 deaths across 26 EU Member States. This demonstrates that HACCP systems are not always working effectively in practice, a view echoed through analysis of third party audit data[4], and/ or that HACCP-based FSMS alone are insufficient. It has long been understood that personnel working in food operations are key to food safety success[5] but it is through more recent work that the role of culture has come to the forefront (Figure 1). Retrospective investigation and analysis of foodborne illness data has identified employees’ food related work behaviour as well as other human factors and food safety culture as contributing risk factors in food outbreaks[6,7]. Thus, the concept of culture has been recognised as important to food businesses’ efforts to consistently produce safe food and all food safety systems and practices are now understood to operate within and be influenced by the prevailing food safety culture of the organisation (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Evolving Understanding of Food Safety Management Systems Complexity
© Carol Wallace, 2016

Food safety culture builds on work from other fields, including organisational culture, psychology, human factors research, safety science and culture, social cognitive science and national culture. These are well developed fields in their own right and they demonstrate that, like HACCP, food safety culture needs multidisciplinary input from a range of perspectives, in this case involving disciplinary specialists, such as social scientists, psychologists and behavioural specialists, working alongside food safety specialists.

Understanding food safety culture

Food safety culture is generally described as the interlinking of different theoretical perspectives: organisational culture, food science and social cognitive science[8]. Organisational culture concerns the shared values, beliefs and norms that influence how employees think, feel and behave towards each other and towards situations facing the organisation[9]. Food science enables the definition and quantification of food safety risks associated with a given product and process and social cognitive science can define, measure, and predict human behaviours. Thus, working together, all of these perspectives are important in characterising food safety culture. Several definitions have been proposed for food safety culture from the simplest form of ‘it’s the way we do things around here’[10] to more detailed definitions that start to break down its elements, e.g., ‘shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mindset and behaviour toward food safety in, across and throughout an organisation’[11]. Thus, in reality, food safety culture is a multi-layered concept, with elements that are hidden below the surface, and this is what makes it difficult to measure as it cannot be easily monitored using traditional food safety metrics.

In order to effectively measure food safety culture, it is important to be able to break it down and understand more clearly the elements that make it up. Key work on this was undertaken by Jespersen et al[12], who reviewed the content of eight organisational and food safety culture evaluation systems, investigating what they were testing and looking for commonalities and differences across the different systems. This resulted in a proposed framework of five dimensions of food safety culture (Figure 3). The dimensions are:

Dimensions of food safety culture

Values and Mission includes management and employee commitment to food safety, how the leadership sets direction for the organisation, including objectives for food safety, and how leaders motivate staff around food safety. In addition, the perceived value and priorities towards addressing food safety and food safety ownership sit under this dimension.

People Systems includes aspects, such as knowledge, qualifications and training, pertaining to food safety and risk, integration of new employees and expectations  of competency levels, team effectiveness, expectations of tasks or behaviours,

communication between leaders and employees around food safety, and actual and expected involvement, autonomy and degree of team member input.

Adaptability looks at how the organisation either embraces or resists change as well as how food safety problem solving is approached.

Consistency includes degree of rule following and enforcement of systems requirements vs. allowing by-passing of requirements. Elements that support the achievement of good consistency include having good procedures and instructions in place, access to the right tools and technology to enable behaviour and investment in infrastructure.

Risk Awareness looks at whether risks are known and under control, as well as whether employees are alert to actual and potential food safety risks.

Figure 3 Food Safety Culture Dimensional Framework
Source: Jespersen et al, 2017, 12

These dimensions were all found to a greater or lesser extent in all the organisational and food safety culture measurement systems assessed[12] and have since been accepted by industry stakeholder groups[11]. In this way the dimensions are providing a road map for what to measure in order to understand food safety culture.

Current initiatives

Over the last 5-10 years much research has been ongoing to try to understand food safety culture and how it impacts food safety performance. There are still many questions to be answered but studies demonstrate that businesses with more mature food safety cultures demonstrate better food safety performance[13] and maturing and strengthening food safety culture can impact profitability[14]. Progress is facilitated by networking of academic and practitioner groups and key current initiatives include:

• Salus, the Food Safety Culture Science Group was formed in 2015 and is a group of researchers with interests in understanding the workings of food safety culture and its role in the provision of safe food. Salus members are passionate about delivering underpinning rigour to practical solutions that measure and strengthen food safety culture. Recognising that collaboration is critical to progress in understanding food safety culture, Salus promotes networking and sharing of research findings and is open to all active researchers in the field of food safety culture and/or associated research fields. The group is chaired by Prof Carol Wallace from UCLan.

• The Global Food Safety Initiative Technical Working Group (GFSI TWG) on food safety culture is an industryled initiative set up in 2016 to provide guidance and requirements to industry around food safety culture. The TWG published a position paper in 2018 outlining the GFSI position on the organisational dimensions that drive the maturity of food safety and how food safety maturity can be sustained over time through the organisation’s culture[11]. This builds on the dimensions work mentioned above[12]; the GFSI dimensions are Vision and Mission, People, Consistency, Adaptability and Hazards and

Risk Awareness. The position paper provides guidance on why each dimension is important to advancing food safety culture as well as including critical content areas that organisations wanting to understand and strengthen food safety culture can examine and work on. Future work of the TWG is likely to tackle further deliverables that the GFSI Board has asked for, including benchmarking content for comparison of the requirements of food safety standards, and a voluntary measurement system. It is expected that progress will be seen on these in the near future.

• The British Retail Consortium was the first GFSI-recognised certification programme to add a clause on food safety culture to the 8th edition of its BRC Global Standard for Food Safety published in 2018. The new version requires a manufacturing site to have a clear plan for the development and continuing improvement of a food safety and quality culture. This means that certification body auditors will not be auditing food safety culture per se but will be looking at how businesses are planning, monitoring and reviewing their food safety culture on an ongoing basis.

• Following recommendations from an expert colloquium hosted by the Government of Finland in 2014, the Codex General Principles of Food Hygiene (CXC 1-1969) and HACCP principles annex were opened for review and update following the 46th meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene. This process is still ongoing, however, food safety culture is also included as an important feature in the draft documents. Food business operators are asked to apply the hygienic practices and food safety principles of the Codex document to cultivate a strong food safety culture by demonstrating their commitment to providing safe and suitable food and encouraging appropriate food safety practices.

• The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) created a Professional Development Group on food safety culture in 2017. Its mission is to provide an international forum to advance food safety culture science and best practices. The group has identified priorities of understanding and measuring food safety culture and the need to evaluate its role in outbreaks and recalls. A workshop on the GFSI organisational dimensions was held at IAFP’s 2018 annual meeting, sharing best practices, successful tactics and roadblocks to progress. The group continues to plan knowledge sharing opportunities in 2019.

These efforts by academics, stakeholder groups and standards’ owners are helpful in adding science-based understanding of food safety culture, publicising the importance of food safety culture and sharing best practices, as well as laying down requirements for food businesses to understand and strengthen their food safety cultures.

Improved knowledge and best practice sharing is helping businesses to visualise and improve their food safety cultures.

Impact on food safety management

In summary, the impact of food safety culture on food safety management systems is becoming better understood and improved knowledge and best practice sharing is helping businesses to visualise and improve their food safety cultures. This will help to strengthen the application of food safety management systems and improve food safety performance.

Much focus so far has been on measuring culture, but this has been switching to ways of improving and strengthening culture so that organisations can mature their food safety culture alongside efforts to review and strengthen food safety management systems. In order to drive this agenda forward, a toolkit of options will be needed depending on the status of food safety culture in each business.

This is likely to include a number of established and novel approaches within businesses:

• team building approaches and people development techniques;

• application of behavioural theories and interventions;

• clarification of vision and strategy and linking it to what leaders actually do and say;

• application of systems theories and interventions;

• provision of necessary resources, structures, systems and equipment to enable an effective culture.

In order to do this convincingly there is a need for both further research and the sharing of best practices. This means that it is essential that industry and academic stakeholder groups continue to work together to improve knowledge and practice around food safety culture.

Prof Carol A Wallace, PhD, CSci, PGCE, FRSPH, FIFST, FHEA, Professor of Food Safety Management Systems, Co-Director, Institute of Nutritional Sciences and Applied Food Safety Studies,

School of Sport and Wellbeing,

University of Central

Lancashire, Preston, PR1 2HE


Telephone +44 (0)1772 893657



  1. World Health Organisation, 1980, Report of the WHO/ICMSF Meeting on Hazard Analysis: Critical Control Point System in Food Hygiene, VPH/82.37, Geneva, World Health Organisation.
  2. Codex Committee on Food Hygiene, 2009, HACCP System and Guidelines for its Application, Annex to CAC/RCP 1–1969, Rev 4, in Codex Alimentarius Commission Food Hygiene Basic Texts, 4th ed. Rome.
  3. EFSA and ECDC, 2016. The European Union summary report on trends and sources of zoonoses, zoonotic agents and food-borne outbreaks in 2015. EFSA Journal 2016;14(12):4634
  4. British Retail Consortium, 2014, Food Safety: A Global View, BRC Global Standards, 21 Dartmouth Street, London SW1H 9B.
  5. Mortimore, S.E. & Wallace, C.A., 1994, HACCP – a practical approach, Chapman & Hall, London
  6. Pennington, H. (Chairman), 2009, The Public Inquiry into the September 2005 Outbreak of E. Coli O157 in South Wales, HMSO,
  7. C.J. Griffith K.M. Livesey D.A. Clayton, (2010), Food safety culture: the evolution of an emerging risk factor?, British Food Journal, Vol. 112 Iss 4 pp. 426 – 438.
  8. Jespersen, L., Griffiths, M., Maclaurin, T., Chapman, B. and Wallace, C.A. (2016) Measurement of Food Safety Culture using Survey and Maturity Profiling Tools. Food Control, 66. pp. 174-182.
  9. Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109-119.
  10. Yiannas Frank (2009), Food safety Culture - creating a behaviour-based food safety management system. Springer, New York
  11. GFSI Technical Working Group, 2018, A Culture of Food Safety, V1.0,
  12. Jespersen, L., Griffiths, M.W. and Wallace, C.A., 2017, Comparative analysis of existing food safety culture evaluation systems, Food Control, 79, 371-379.
  13. De Boeck, E., Jacxsens, L., Bollaerts, M., Uyttendaele, M., and Vlerick, P., 2016, Interplay between food safety climate, food safety management system and microbiological hygiene in farm butcheries and affiliated butcher shops, Food Control, 65, 78-81.
  14. Jespersen, L., Butts, J., Holler, G., Taylor, J., Harlan, D., Griffiths, M. and Wallace, C.A.,  2019, The impact of maturing food safety culture and a pathway to economic gain.

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