In my role, I routinely work with facilities pursuing a third-party food safety certification audit for the first time. After four years of assisting and educating people about the audit process, I have noticed that you can recognize early on whether a company’s pursuit is focused more on obtaining the necessary certificate or in ensuring that their products are safe.

Most facilities fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, balancing the desire for food safety with legitimate concerns about profitability. It is not difficult, however, to identify whether a facility sees a food safety audit as another bureaucratic hurdle or an opportunity for growth. That attitude often acts as an indicator of how the company will perform on their audit. Sites that prioritize safety and continuous improvement are likely to have better audit outcomes.

Of course, this is not news to many people. GFSI-benchmarked schemes intentionally look for this quality through objective evidence, with SQF emphasizing “Management Commitment” and BRC clauses mentioning “Food Safety Culture.”

Food Safety Culture refers to the specific culture of a facility: the attitudes, beliefs, practices, and values that determine what is happening when no one is watching. If you want to gauge a site’s Food Safety Culture, try asking yourself how the site typically responds to food safety concerns. Does the staff take potential problem seriously, as if its importance is obvious? Or do they view food safety practices as just one more hoop they need to jump through in order to stay in business? Is their response to simply ask, “How much is this going to cost?”

In reality, no facility can afford not to develop a healthy Food Safety Culture. A strong culture of food safety helps a facility both to prevent and catch deviations in their processes that impact the safety, quality, and legality of their products. This, in turn, has a major impact on the likelihood and severity of a recall impacting that site.

In 2012, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association found that “the average cost of a recall to a food company is $10M in direct costs, in addition to brand damage and lost sales[SK1]  according to a joint industry study.” The costs were significantly higher for larger manufacturers as seen below.

While it is common for there to be tension between Quality Assurance and Operations teams over the allocation of resources in a plant, the data suggests that it is in the interest of both departments to develop a strong Food Safety Culture. Doing so ensures the integrity of food products and protects the bottom line.

How, then, can you cultivate Food Safety Culture in your facility?

As suggested by the SQF scheme approach, a change to company culture always begins at the top. Because senior management has final control over resources, their buy-in on food safety is absolutely essential. Ways management commitment can be seen include:

  • proper money and time are allocated to staff receiving necessary food safety training
  • machinery and tools are repaired and replaced accordingly to decrease the risk of health hazards for the product and employees
  • a food safety plan is well developed and acts as a living document that is regularly updated

Management commitment is also apparent when senior management regularly participate in routine food safety meetings; reviewing customer complaints, results of recent inspections, food safety issue in the industry, corrective actions from previous audits, and progress toward new food safety goals.

Beyond the above listed actions, a truly robust Food Safety Culture requires creative thinking to help the entire staff understand the importance of food safety. At the root, you want the people in your facility to understand not just what they are doing and how they are supposed to do it, but why. Why does an employee need to follow their assigned procedures and protocols? Why should they report any concerns to supervisors? Most importantly, why does their job matter?

For instance, it is possible people on the floor of your facility think of their work as tedious or insignificant. How can you help every member of the staff understand their role in manufacturing safe food? How can you can help them to see that their work helps keep people alive and out of the hospital? Changing a company culture is never easy. It takes time and knowledge to move forward. The eight step process featured below acts a helpful first step towards your adoption of a more food safety focused company culture.

Eight steps to culture change It is important to remember that creating this type of culture is only truly effective when it is backed up with action. Are employees provided with an effective anonymous way to share safety concerns with management? Do they see maintenance and repair tickets being addressed promptly? Are they penalized for doing things right even when that slows them down?

Cultivating a Food Safety Culture is a never-ending process of continuous improvement, but commitment to this area yields benefits for the bottom line, for employee satisfaction, and for the families who eat your product. You can’t afford to neglect it.

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