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Delivering a food safety culture

Sterling Crew, Vice President IFST and Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods Ltd, explains the importance of developing a positive food safety culture.

Culture is increasingly cited in reports and papers relating to food safety incidents and outbreaks and is being identified as a significant emerging risk factor. It is becoming ever more appreciated that the key objective of any food business is to create, deliver and maintain a food safety culture. Food safety cannot be guaranteed by a simple standards based approach. A strong food safety culture will ensure that good practice is not only understood but, more importantly, being followed. It can be instrumental in delivering compliance and is a prerequisite to any continuous improvement programme. So what is it? To paraphrase the Health and Safety Executive ‘The food safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to and the style and proficiency of an organisation’s food safety programme.’ Maybe a simpler definition might be ‘it’s what we tend to do around here’.

When you start talking culture to most food scientists and technologists, there is the automatic assumption that this is something you would find growing on a Petridish. Behavioural and cognitive science is not an area we have traditionally operated in. Times are changing and the standard food safety tool box of training, audits, testing and risk management needs to be supplemented by an understanding of behavioural dynamics. This relates to the behavioural operating characteristics of individuals and teams and how they are conditioned by their working environment. Appreciation and effective management of these interactions are essential to develop positive attitudes and the necessary behavioural changes to drive food safety. Training and knowledge alone do not necessarily result in behavioural change. Unsafe behaviour simply equals unsafe food.

The human behavioural element clearly cannot be divorced from a food safety programme. We are all influenced by behavioural enablers. People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel. It is essential to create the right ‘feelings’ if we are to change behaviours. After all, real food safety is what happens when managers and supervisors are not present and individuals are left to their own devices.

Food handlers will demonstrate the correct behaviour if they understand the consequences of getting it wrong and they have confidence in their knowledge and its relevance. The gap between knowledge and its application in the workplace can be a potentially dangerous one. Although the terminology used may be new to the food safety professional, the descriptions will resonate and be only too familiar. For example:

• Optimistic bias – ‘It will not happen to me’,

• Illusion of control – ‘Nothing has gone wrong. I know what I am doing’,

• Cognitive dissonance –‘I am doing wrong but there is a reason’ and

• Attitudinal ambivalence – ‘There are more important matters’.

The increasing recognition of cultural impact on food safety was reflected in a recent Campden BRI training survey of 25,000 global food manufacturers and processors, which revealed that 90% of respondents believed that the primary purpose of training was to develop a food safety culture. Strong senior management, leadership and demonstrable commitment are essential ingredients. It is the senior management team of an organisation which sets the food safety moral compass. Development of people and their training needs should be at the very heart of a business and must always be on the table for discussion in any organisation serious about delivering a food safety culture. As with any behavioural cultural based approach, it starts at the top of an organisation.

A food safety culture can only be delivered as a result of concrete action. It will not evolve by accident. You do not build a food safety culture, you build the team and they build the culture. It must be imbedded in the business values. Priorities may well change in an organisation depending on the circumstance but imbedded values do not. All food organisations will have a food safety culture even if they do not recognise it. The food safety culture maturity spectrum ranges from passive at one end to driving positive behavioural change at the other. The challenge to the food safety professional is to measure where your organisation lies within the spectrum and to take the necessary steps to develop it. A progressive approach can be what separates market leading performers from average performers and, if the right steps are taken, the food safety culture can be turned into a competitive advantage. As every food safety practioner will know, if you cannot measure it how can you manage it? Although behavioural dynamics might be considered as a ‘soft’ tool, there are simple measures that can be adopted. An organisation needs to develop a deck of food safety culture key performance indicators (KPIs). These could include, for example, percentage of staff that wash their hands when entering a food preparation area when observed overtly and covertly. To measure employee engagement you can use independent third party Sedex ethical audits, which give an insight into staff engagement.

The challenges of creating a positive food safety culture are significant, but the inevitable consequences of not investing the necessary time and effort to achieve this may be great. A strong food safety culture is part of an organisation’s continuous improvement engine and not only delivers greater assurance in food safety but also contributes to a halo effect of increasing customer satisfaction and delivering a better product and service. It is now becoming more widely accepted that only by understanding and changing dynamic behaviour will we be able to embed food safety within an organisation’s culture and bring about sustainable improvement.

Sterling Crew is Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods, 308-310 Elveden Rd, Park Royal, London, Middlesex NW10 7ST, UK
Tel: (0) 208 965 5331

IFST's 2015 Spring Conference, 'Food safety in the court of public opinion', will take place on 23 April 2015 in London. View the full programme and book today.

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