Many conversations take place these days on the topic of food safety culture. The conversation sometimes assumes that culture, any kind of culture, for example, organizational, people safety, food safety, sustainability, etc., is homogeneous and therefore more or less effective, independent of the formal and informal structures of an organization. Edgar Schein helps us understand that this can be a false assumption and that organizations are made of subgroups and that cultures have subcultures.[1] This is important for the food safety culture discussion as we, the individuals who make up these subcultures, can make very different assumptions related to the perceived value of food safety, magnitude of food safety risks, importance of the food safety learning programs, etc.

We discover this very gap in the maturity profiling research published earlier this year.[2] A significant difference was found between professionals in manufacturing functions (e.g., production, sanitation and maintenance) and professionals in food safety. Food safety professionals evaluated maturity significantly higher than manufacturing professionals. A similar difference was found between senior leaders and supervisors. Senior leaders evaluated maturity of their organizations food safety culture significantly higher than supervisors. “So what?” you might ask. 

An effective food safety culture is one where everybody understands their specific food safety responsibilities, such as purchasing: recognizes and selects suppliers with strong food safety cultures; finance: places food safety risks at par with financial risks; production: ensures supply resources such that all leaders are trained and certified on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. These specific responsibilities can only develop if senior leaders acknowledge and execute an organizational strategy that includes developing and maintaining such role-specific food safety responsibilities. 

As a leader in your company, your every message and behavior is watched by those around you. By building your understanding of your company’s specific food safety risks and hazards, you can narrow the often-perceived gap in leaders between messages and behaviors, and show that you see food safety at a level equivalent with employee safety and financial performance for the prosperity of your company. Acting on your food safety responsibility can be a fearful act. Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats[3] address such fear of failure as one of the main obstacles of learning. Some organizational cultures have internalized a fear of failure in which learning is difficult, if not impossible, where not knowing is seen as a weakness and seeking help to better understand is not encouraged. Food safety is a serious domain; our colleagues in other functions and roles can be fearful of engaging and showing that they are ready to take their food safety responsibility seriously. As food safety professionals, we must be creative in how we teach and coach others to minimize this fear and work collectively on strengthening our organizations’ food safety culture.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Cultivate Food Safety seminar for senior leaders focuses on these exact points: acknowledging functional food safety responsibilities and deepening your understanding of risks and food safety maturity in your organization. To help you get a bit of a “time out,” we offer this “leaders-teaching-leaders” seminar where you will meet other senior leaders who might have been in similar situations as yourself, debate the complex situation of transforming food safety culture and have access to follow up coaching once you are back in your own environment. Register for the September meeting today!

Lone Jespersen, M.Sc., is principal of Cultivate Food Safety.

1. Schein, EH. 1992. Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2. Jespersen, L et al. 2016. “Measurement of Food Safety Culture using Survey and Maturity Profiling Tools.” Food Control 66:174–182.