The food supply chain is of global importance. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) focuses on providing thought leadership and guidance on food safety management systems along the food supply chain. This thought leadership has extended outside the standard requirements for making safe food to touch on aspects of organizational management, including food safety culture. In the last issue, we examined the importance of creating a culture of food safety; here, we summarize the perspectives of industry leaders and practitioners in the primary production sector of the global food supply chain.

We invited five individuals to help elucidate the challenges around creating a food safety culture: David Barney, Geofresh Ltd., part-time member of the One Harvest Team; Andrew Francey, general manager at One Harvest, Ready-to-Eat Salad production; Megh Bhandari, Ph.D., corporate food safety manager at the Mucci Group of Companies/Mucci Farms; Laurie Beard, Learning & Development Manager, Kanes Foods Ltd.; and Robert J. Whitaker, Ph.D., chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA).

FSM: How do you see your personal role in creating a culture of food safety?

Barney: My role is to contribute experience and expertise gained in other markets, regions and situations to challenge and question current practices and to support the management teams at One Harvest.

Francey: My personal role is to build the food safety competencies and behaviors (employee competency, efficient systems for effective control, compliance and auditing tasks, appropriate structure and development plans for teams, succession planning for technical teams, etc.) in our teams and systems to support our people.

Bhandari: I am responsible in developing, implementing and monitoring corporate food safety policies and programs. Among them, creating and maintaining a good food safety culture is one of the key issues of our food safety management system (FSMS). My experiences talking about food safety culture are that it’s been a tough job to convince two groups of people about the importance of culture: senior management, to obtain enough resources, and middle managers and line workers, to implement and maintain appreciable food safety culture and best practices. However, I am a true believer that food safety culture is the backbone of a successful FSMS, and I am always working to include this element in every corporate food safety plan and matrix.

Beard: My role in the management of training plays an integral part in creating a food safety culture. Food safety is the leading KPI [key performance indicator] of the business. This is the one aspect of the business (other than a physical catastrophe) that could close the business within hours.

Whitaker: My role is to help the produce and floral industries understand the importance of making food safety a part of their business cultures. We have over 2,700 diverse, global member companies representing the entire supply chain from small growers to retail and foodservice buyers; PMA strives to provide our members with the knowledge and tools to help them integrate science- and risk-based food safety practices into their business cultures.

FSM: How do you define food safety culture in your (or any) organization, and do you think these definitions differ between management and line workers?

Barney: I would define “food safety culture” as the ingrained approach that the business takes to managing food safety. My definition would not distinguish between management and line workers, or between the business and its suppliers.

Francey: The food safety culture in our organization underpins our food business; it is not only the foundation of our business for future generations but also a core strength of why our customers do business with us. It is largely a culture in transition from compliance to continuous improvement.

The compliance culture does not differ between line workers and management, and is a clear strength of our organization. We continue to develop a culture of continuous improvement throughout our organization, led by senior management.

For third-party primary production, various levels of culture exist within the industry: from an understanding of its importance through to cultures where food safety is secondary to the commercial and operational aspects of farming.

Bhandari: We believe that food safety culture is the practical awareness of food safety and the meaningful understanding of the importance of food safety and the individual’s role in preserving good food safety practices within the organization.

Our senior management is truly committed to corporate food safety culture and emphasize the “walk the talk” philosophy. However, in practice, there are occasional incidents in which senior managers are overwhelmed with production target/cost issues and (knowingly or unknowingly) compromise food safety, whereas well-educated and trained workers always adhere to the company’s food safety codes and guidelines. Our company has a discipline and reward system, which works impressively to create and maintain a sound food safety culture among the floor workers.

Beard: Safeguards that protect the business must apply equally to management and the shop floor workers—a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Management must, however, have a committed intent and ability to ensure that food safety practices are applied. A key requirement of the company applies equally to management and the operating workforce—the constant readiness for an external unannounced audit—this might be BRC [British Retail Consortium] or customer generated. The first indication of a good audit is when the first operative is asked about his/her role and his/her understanding of Critical Control Points (CCPs) within the role. The company at present holds an AA award from BRC [The top grade of AA is awarded only if the audit reveals no more than five minor nonconformities and provides an incentive to engage in continuous improvement, even for manufacturers with excellent performance], and a major part of this achievement is provided by the ability and knowledge of the workforce and the application of food safety principles by management.

Whitaker: For the produce industry, it is important to remember that it is not a single industry; the produce industry is really a collection of industries. We have all shapes and sizes of growers, and the practices and cultures of these growers depend upon where they are located, the crops they grow and the customers they serve. We have harvesting, cooling, shipping and distribution companies in the supply chain, each with a special focus on the commodities they handle. We have packing operations that range from seasonal packers to year-round operations that are state of the art. We have “mom and pop” processors to multibillion-dollar food companies and everything in between. On the buying side, our collective industry serves all forms of foodservice and retail from roadside stands to chains to club stores. We also have numerous service providers that supply everything from pallets to whole-genome sequencing services to our industry. Each of these types of operations has different business characteristics and therefore different business cultures and different views on food safety. So food safety culture needs to be considered within the framework of this complexity and frankly is defined almost individually by these companies.

What we try to do is to interact with these companies to help them understand the importance of food safety prioritization in terms of protecting their business, their customers and consumers. We try to translate sometimes-complex food safety science into best practices, help them understand regulatory requirements and guide them through the intricacies of what is really change management for many of them.

FSM: Using the maturity model (Figure 1), where do you think your company is on the scale? Your industry? And why?

Barney: I’d say that we’re between stages 3 and 4. (We understand the major drivers and manage them in line with industry best practices but may not be proactively driving a food safety agenda.) We’re leaders in the Australian industry on this and compare pretty well with fresh-cut providers in other markets. In the last 10 years, the industry (worldwide) has woken up to the fact that food safety is an issue for fresh produce. The extent to which this has influenced supplier development has depended on the immediacy of food safety incidents and local perceived risk.

There are significant differences between suppliers—making it difficult to generalize. I’d say that we’ve got everything from stages 1 to 4. This is, I’m sure, common across the industry (in Australia and elsewhere). Factors that have held back the development of food safety culture among fresh produce growers include age and education of the people involved, the nature and scale of many farms (often smaller businesses with limited resources), lack of direct exposure to the end user, the fact that fresh produce has only relatively recently (last 10 years) been recognized as a major food safety risk, lack of local food safety incidents, etc.

Francey: Our company is between stages 2 and 3. Perceived Value and People System are a 3; Process Thinking and Technology are a 2; and Tools and Infrastructure are a 3.

The ready-to-eat salad industry can be split between more advanced processors, likely to be at a similar stage as ourselves, and smaller grower/packers that are likely to be between stages 1 and 2.

The third-party primary production industry is largely at stage 1. A core focus of our organization is to lead food safety initiatives, and improve food safety culture, at the farm level in our industry.

Bhandari: Going through the chart, our Perceived Value is stage 3, identifier 0.7. Food safety is the top priority of our business operations. We have significantly invested in establishing a dependable food safety system, and all decisions are based on factual data from risk assessments.

Our People System is stage 4, identifier 0.5. Our company has employed qualified individuals (Ph.D. and master’s degree holders) in its food safety department and encourages skills development by providing opportunities to participate in professional training, workshops and seminars. A bottom-up approach is used to design food safety programs; comments/feedback are welcome, even from junior workers. Roles and responsibilities for each employee are clearly defined in a written Standard Operating Procedure; the company has well-established, two-way channels of communication.

Process Thinking is stage 2, identifier 0.8. Food safety elements are incorporated into each business plan and matrix. FSMS are managed through a “process approach.” In managing food safety programs, the PDCA [plan-do-check-act] principle is used as a tool for continual improvement, and root-cause analysis methodology is used to solve the identified problem or issues.

Technology Enabler is stage 3, identifier 0.5. Food safety tools, equipment and software are used to manage food safety programs and information. Employees are trained on the use of equipment and software. All food safety data are stored in a central database and used as necessary to formulate new policies or programs.

Tools and Infrastructure is stage 4, identifier 0.9. The company is significantly investing in food safety infrastructure, including buildings, equipment and testing tools. We have our own in-house laboratory for quick and day-to-day food safety testing and monitoring.

Beard: The business sits between “Predict” and “Internalize” on each of the subheadings. Over the past 4–5 years, we have moved away from the everyday “firefighting”/unstructured problem-solving behaviors to be in control of food safety processes. This has happened via major investment in Technical and Training functions.

Whitaker: The produce industry runs the gamut of the chart. We have thought-leading companies who are at stage 5 and others that are just now beginning to understand the importance of food safety. The fresh produce industry is still relatively “new” to the issue of food safety. It was only in the late 1990s that the industry began to see the first impact of a foodborne illness outbreak related to produce. The public health systems and the state of the science were insufficient to really ascribe illness directly to produce items, and most incidents up until 2000 were one-off issues that were easy for the industry to shrug off or to consider as something that only happens to others. During the early 2000s, there was still a great deal of denial, and the industry generally thought of food safety as a commodity-specific issue with some products being “riskier” than others or food safety problems being only an issue for large growers or just processed products. Much of this seeming lack of concern was driven by the fact that there simply was a deficit of food safety data and research aimed at produce, with most research in the U.S. directed to meat, poultry, dairy and other products. When buying groups became engaged in produce food safety, the emphasis was placed solely on an operation’s ability to pass a food safety audit, and the requirements for supplier audits were highly inconsistent between and among buyers. The net result was that “passing an audit” became the goal for many suppliers, and they did not develop a fully engaged sense of what food safety really is: a top management commitment to risk- and science-based programs that mitigate the risk of contamination. Larger companies that were required to provide food safety audits and later to have written food safety plans have progressed toward developing food safety cultures over the last decade, but there is still a gap between a true food safety culture for most companies and a company with a food safety program that can achieve appropriate scores on an audit. In many companies, top management may not really be involved in food safety, and the chore is assigned to the food safety team, creating inevitable conflicts and fractured decision making. Still, others that fall outside a buyer’s requirements are virtually at the starting line, and even some simply move products to outlets that do not require food safety systems. Many of the latter companies also fall outside the Food Safety Modernization Act requirements as well.
Certainly, highly publicized and sometimes tragic food safety events have focused the industry on food safety, and, correspondingly, C-level executives have gotten more involved in food safety issues, though mostly intermittently. Again, a lack of science and transparency from regulatory officials following illness events and a failure of top executives to recognize the impact of these events have slowed the advancement of food safety culture development. Produce is a fast-moving industry with many highly perishable products, no kill steps as implemented with processed products and where margins are narrow and year-round supply demanded. These characteristics create opportunities and challenges for adopting a true food safety culture. Therefore, while great strides are made every day, we still have a way to go to develop true food safety cultures.

FSM: Is your company (grower base) where it needs to be in terms of prioritizing food safety? If so, how do you maintain that level of commitment? If not, how do you think you should go about getting there?

Barney: We do pretty good; we have a clear commitment and Good Manufacturing Practices in place. The next step would be to improve and cascade a real understanding of food safety through the organization.  

We must continue to build partnerships with committed growers and involve them in the (One Harvest) business to the extent that they become exposed to customers and customer concerns about food safety. We need to establish and discipline expected standards for primary producers, and work with industry to raise the profile of food safety and emphasize the importance of primary production in the supply chain. Education is key.

Francey: From a prioritization of food safety, the commitment and understanding are where they need to be. Improvements in systems, communication and continuous improvement processes are required to move to a proactive “next practice” culture. A significant investment is being made to develop food safety systems at the farm level.

Bhandari: Food safety is a core value of our business operations and has been given top priority. Food safety concerns and issues are being discussed in company executive meetings and operational meetings.

Per company food safety policy, our entire supply chain must be audited and certified for a GFSI-benchmarked scheme. This applies to all our external vendors and suppliers as well.

The commitments come from top management “to do the right things in the right way,” which is a big inspiration in maintaining sound food safety culture within the organization. However, in the big picture, the motivating factors for inducing such high-level commitment are 1) customer expectations, 2) brand goodwill and loyalty, 3) sales and marketing tools, 4) competitive advantage over peer companies and 5) regulatory compliance requirements.

Beard: The level of commitment is supported by providing food safety training from the “bottom up” and “top down.” New staff are presented with food safety requirements at induction. This is reinforced by introductory training at the operation site and by ensuring that all staff are aware of the CCPs relevant to their operations.

Whitaker: While incredible progress has been made in a relatively short time frame, the produce industry is still evolving in terms of food safety culture. As already indicated, the produce industry is evolving. Change comes difficult for an industry as complex as the produce industry; this is not an excuse but a reality. For a business to achieve a food safety culture, there must be a willingness to embrace change: to acknowledge that the way business has been conducted for generations is not appropriate any longer. Our knowledge base on food safety and produce has expanded, and technology has permitted us to detect, measure and share data like never before; hence, we are able to recognize failures in food safety and their impacts on public health in an unprecedented way. Therefore, while we have companies in all stages of the journey to developing true food safety cultures, some are still finding it difficult to do more than just “pass audits.”

An issue for many on the supply side is an uncertainty of what buyers are doing for food safety. It seems sometimes to suppliers that the burden and the costs get pushed to the supply side in the form of audit costs, testing, sharing records, facility improvements, personnel costs, etc. Suppliers feel like they are held to a certain level of responsibility (which is legally theirs), yet buyers purchase from those with food safety programs, and sometimes from those without, based on price. Indeed, many in the produce industry favored the Food Safety Modernization Act simply because they saw it as a way to level the playing field between those who have invested in food safety and those who have not. In my role, I see why they would think that, but I also get to see the investments many on the buy side of the industry make in food safety. Amazingly enough, in this age of instant communication, buyers often neglect to demonstrate their investment in food safety, and we instead talk of buyer requirements rather than food safety investments being made across the supply chain. Sustainable commitment to food safety culture will be based on partnerships between suppliers and buyers where roles and joint responsibilities are well communicated and understood.

Commitment is also going to be dependent on growing our food safety knowledge base. As food safety practices have evolved in the produce industry, many required elements in audits and standards have little relationship to actual science and even less to actual public health risk. This has been improving in the last decade, but growers still find audits and checklists full of things they must do without the benefit of understanding why. It is important to use the data being developed around food safety to create risk models to help the entire industry better assess risks and prioritize where investments in resources are needed.

Lastly, sustainable commitment to food safety culture will come down to people. There is currently a lack of qualified or trained personnel to meet the industry needs in food safety. Produce is a 24/7 industry, often in less-than-comfortable conditions, and it has proven difficult over the last decade to draw the next generation of employees to fill these needed positions.

FSM: What are your major challenges in maintaining a solid food safety culture among primary producers?

Barney: All the usual ones: the daily job, competency and turnover of staff, resources, etc. Plus, the fact that much of our food safety performance and risk are determined by what goes on in the field and with our growers. We have to establish an effective food safety culture within our own business—but we need to help our growers do the same thing. [This is a fairly unique feature of the fresh-cut industry: We do relatively little to the product and (one could argue) have no real CCPs.]

Other challenges include a lack of influence over their operations (in some cases). Mixed messages are sent and received: Primary producers are not necessarily getting the same pressure to improve from all of their customers/markets. Where there’s a problem, the blockage is nearly always at the top: Farms are frequently owner-managed and the owner has to be fully bought in to the concept before anything happens.

Francey: Competency of employees, efficient systems for effective control, compliance and auditing tasks, enablement of continuous improvement work, appropriate structure and development plans for teams, succession planning for technical teams.

Third-party growers remain a major challenge. Resource-challenged, often without professional technical skills, little visible “owner” commitment, driven by a cost-first, reactive approach with “band-aid” solutions.

Bhandari: 1. Training and education (training materials and language)

2.    Competency of employees (hard to get food safety graduates)

3.    Resources (new tools, lab equipment and infrastructure)

4.    R&D (research and extension services on emerging food safety issues)

5.    Lack of government funding and support

6.    Access to knowledge and information resource (research articles, webinars, workshops, etc.)    

Beard: The major challenges include:

1.    An ever-changing workforce at the operations level—the conditions of working (cold environment and a deteriorating fresh product) are not the best for staff retention. The company has tried to avoid using agency labor, as this exacerbates the problem of maintaining a “safety” culture, and we have traditionally mistrusted the role of “gang masters.” As trainers, we must ensure that all staff have received the necessary level and content of training to ensure that food safety is protected as well as guaranteeing the quality of the product and the safety of the employees.

2.    The changing technical requirements of customers are a constant pressure. As trainers, we must be aware of all changes and ensure that these are incorporated into the training procedures. An essential part of this process is the training of quality controllers within the factories.

3.    There are time constraints in processing fresh produce, and it is necessary to recognize these constraints to make sure that operatives are able to perform within a comfort level that ensures quality, personal safety and food safety. Training procedures are designed to ensure that these factors are not compromised.

4.    The company has four distinct factories within a single site—there is a flow of work in process between these factories (the product of one factory can become a material of the receiving factory) and circumstances relating to certain materials (e.g., allergens) become relevant to a receiving factory. As trainers, we need to ensure that producers and receivers are aware of the food safety implications of all vulnerable materials and operations.

Whitaker: In the end, I think the major challenge in maintaining a food safety culture is a company’s continuous commitment to improvement. It is important to stay current on new and emerging food safety science and technology, and reflect on how the science can be used to update and improve operational practices in production, distribution and point of sale. Part of this continual improvement also resides in creating awareness of the importance of food safety practices, educating employees, trading partners and consumers.    

Food Safety Magazine thanks all the panelists for sharing their expertise. A special thank-you goes to Lone Jespersen, Cultivate, and Gillian Kelleher, Wegmans, for helping coordinate the participants and formulate the questions for this article series.