Our series on food safety culture along the food supply chain now focuses on foodservice establishments. We’ve previously examined the creation of a culture of food safety in the primary production, distribution and processing sectors of the global food supply chain.

We’ve invited industry leaders in foodservice to help elucidate the challenges around creating a culture of food safety. Our panelists are William L. Weichelt, director, food safety and industry relations at the National Restaurant Association; Andrew Clarke, senior manager, food auditing at Subway; and Hal King, Ph.D., president at Public Health Innovations LLC, partner at Active Food Safety LLC and past director of food and product safety at Chick-fil-A Inc.

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

Our role in the culture of food safety is to work with the industry on how they can evolve the training they are currently doing. We work to take the vision of the organization in terms of food safety and help them understand that by flowing the culture of food safety to all levels of the organization and empowering all employees, as they will play a role in meeting the restaurant’s goals. The restaurant industry is very different from the manufacturing industry. Manufacturers have a production line and people have dedicated roles observed by supervisors; the restaurant industry is more fluid. Employees move from one task to another based on how busy the unit is and the tasks that need to be completed. Managers cannot always observe everything that is going on and must rely on employees to help be their eyes and ears. Empowering employees with the expectations of their employers will help ensure the restaurant is running smoothly and efficiently.

Clarke: My accountability is to oversee the Subway supplier food safety and quality auditing program. Managing the program globally enables insight into a multitude of companies, their compliance programs and, by default, their behavior and engagement with their food safety programs. Personally, my role is not just to drive an effective food safety culture at Subway through demonstrating the right behavior and making informed, factual, risk-based decisions but also, to a greater extent, ensuring our suppliers understand how their behavior can influence compliance, specifically the programs they manage which are associated with the Subway food safety and quality expectations. Due to the nature of the relationship with our suppliers, and unlike third-party audits, I can provide coaching and support, particularly where issues are identified or corrective action information that is supplied may be lacking, so I must lead by example to drive appropriate behaviors both internally and through our supply chain. Personally within my organization, we utilize several audit companies to conduct audits on our behalf, which is the program I oversee. Following the completion of the audits, I spend a significant amount of time with our suppliers working through corrective actions linked to food safety and quality. Our 2018 audit program will focus on not just the standard food safety and quality requirements but also the connection between personnel and their food safety programs.

King: My current role is helping the corporate retail foodservice and sales business design and implement effective enterprise-based food safety management systems that enhance customer experience and brand loyalty.

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?

Weichelt: A culture of food safety is a newer philosophy that is just now being implemented in the foodservice industry. The foodservice industry is known for a culture of hospitality, and adding in a culture of food safety is a good fit because so many people work in the industry to serve our guests the best food and experience.

Clarke: Actually, defining food safety culture and making sure the term is truly understood can be challenging given the sheer size of the business, with the significant number of individual Subway locations positioned in a multitude of geographical regions and the large number of employees/suppliers. Fortunately, due to the increasing study and work completed in the area of food safety culture, I believe there is more awareness of the term; particularly, our suppliers and Subway management are developing more of an appreciation for food safety culture, which needs to be cascaded out into all areas of the business. I’ve no doubt there is a significant difference in understanding how behaviors can impact food safety between management and operational staff working in the restaurants. This is linked to a number of factors, essentially true awareness and understanding of the fundamentals of food safety, both the potential issues but also the benefits of maintaining effective management systems. Although it might be perceived that restaurant employees, due to the nature of the work and also the turnover of the workforce, might not have a strong grasp of food safety, the design of the restaurants, with the majority of the food handling and preparation taking place in full public view, I believe encourages correct behaviors. I believe often frontline food handlers to have a better awareness and understanding of food safety, because they are trained and practicing the activities every day; however, I’m not entirely certain they understand what the term “food safety culture” specifically means. Management, on the other hand, may have an understanding but hold a more theoretical than practical view, especially if working in a function that is not specifically food safety or quality.

King: We are in the business of public health services and systems design, so food safety culture is our business. In many foodservice and sales businesses, food safety culture differs between management and line workers, principally because they are not aligned to each other using defined metrics, responsibilities and accountabilities across the organization.    

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

Weichelt: The restaurant industry runs the gamut. Many larger organizations have dedicated food safety departments, which helps breed a culture around the importance of food safety. Yet, at many smaller operations that don’t have these dedicated departments, building that culture is a bit trickier. We, along with the industry as a whole, know that food safety is an important and necessary component for the industry. Yet, some companies are still struggling with how to best take their knowledge and understanding gained from their training to become a certified food protection manager and overlay it with current policies and procedures. We continue to work with restaurants of all sizes to assist with best practices to instill this culture across the industry.

Clarke: Without completing the full assessment, it is difficult to ascertain accurately the true scale of the maturity of the business, but I would suggest overall somewhere between stage 2 and 3, although this would be variable and dependent on the different capability areas measured. My view would be, the industry as a whole is probably in a similar position, although this might fluctuate, depending on the priorities of the business but also the competencies of the individuals working within the business and those in management roles. I would struggle to believe quick-service restaurants have the time and required resources to be able to predict [stage 4][1], with the scope of the work and the fast-paced environment within a large organization; sometimes, it is difficult to do anything other than react despite having the knowledge, specifically when there is a need to make an immediate decision. I see a weakness across the industry in terms of the use of data: Everyone collects data and information; we know it’s there, but mining and using data to predict and improve processes is often just not viable given the many competing priorities we all have.

King: I believe the industry as a whole (from my experiences working with many foodservice and sales businesses) is at stage 3 (Know Of) and moving (too slowly, I might add) toward stage 4.  

FSM: Is your company 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?

Clarke: It is refreshing to work in an organization where food safety and quality are held in such high regard and where issues are identified or knowledge is obtained of potential risks and decisions are made and actions are taken quickly in accordance to risk. From a priority perspective, food safety is certainly rated very high in the organization, and to maintain the level of commitment, it is essential to continue to communicate what is happening with the industry as a whole, such as emerging threats and challenges we all face. Knowledgeable and effective people working within food safety understand the need for continued awareness and the necessity to maintain effective and functional food safety management programs, but also the need to utilize data to identify issues and to continuously improve. Unfortunately, it’s not so straightforward to maintain commitment with other functional leads; often when programs are working effectively, this mostly goes unnoticed. It’s when there is an issue that often the focus on food safety is refreshed, specifically by those external to food safety. Effective communication throughout the organization is key to keep the subject topical and on the forefront of people’s minds.   

King: For the food industry, it means prioritizing food safety as an enterprise function and not just a corporate departmental, personnel or vendors/suppliers function (i.e., remove the food safety silos). When food safety responsibilities are shared and managed across the enterprise, the business can achieve a culture of food safety that cost-effectively manages risk and directly influences sales and profits. The root cause of most retail foodservice and sales establishment-associated foodborne disease outbreaks is either defects in the manufactured ingredients and products distributed to these establishments or the failure in food safety management during food preparation and service of the foods.

The industry can significantly improve the prevention of foodborne diseases and outbreaks from their products by placing their focus on the food safety systems and their governance to prevent all probable hazards along the supply chain and at the foodservice and sales operations. The food regulatory environment has now moved toward a more rigorous focus on the prevention of all hazards in the food ingredients and facility processes used in food manufacturing via Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC[2]), with more transparency of the management of the systems and actions to prevent these hazards before they are distributed to retail foodservice and sales establishments and sold to consumers. A paradigm shift is occurring wherein “minimum regulatory compliance” is becoming maximum food safety management via industry/regulatory partnership in the supply chain. By leveraging HARPC requirements and oversight of the preventive controls of all the hazards associated with its ingredients/products obtained from each of its vendors/suppliers, a corporate food business can significantly reduce its association with recalls and foodborne disease outbreaks. Likewise, as retail foodservice establishments implement better food safety systems to achieve active managerial control (also a similar industry/regulatory partnership) of the top five risk factors of foodborne disease outbreaks associated with retail foodservice establishments,[3] a corporate food business can significantly reduce its association with recalls and foodborne disease outbreaks.  

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

A multitude of factors affect the culture of food safety for the foodservice industry. Market trends and desires change constantly and the industry needs to keep up. That includes changing their menus and offerings to meet the needs of the market. As they work to meet customer demand, they will need to constantly reassess how these changes affect their policies and procedures and how to train employees to keep that culture moving forward.   

Clarke: Resources: I believe this links to an ability for long-term planning that can be difficult and should consider not only all the relevant challenges, both current and emerging, but also the need for succession planning, which is often overlooked. Consideration to the needs of the business in 5 and 10 years’ time can sometimes be difficult, and often resources are allocated without true consideration of what is actually required but more to what is available and taking a more reactive approach and only resourcing as the need arises. Business development and innovation certainly drive business, but consideration of the resources required to complete this work appropriately is often not considered.

Regulatory constraints: This can sometimes be a particular area of weakness for a business when there are so many priorities to manage and changes in requirements are not often communicated effectively. Often there is a reliance on others to interpret regulatory requirements, more often than not by the regulators themselves. I don’t think regulations constrain food safety culture; there is an expectation that businesses will demonstrate the right behaviors to comply.

Competency of employees: Certainly maintaining competent employees is key to ensuring progression through the maturity grid; this requires not only investment and resources but also a thorough awareness of the difference between trained employees and competent ones. With employee turnover, it is often difficult to retain a competent workforce, specifically when they have so many differing and sometimes conflicting priorities, and there are also challenges in both locating and retaining a strong and cohesive workforce.  

King: Some challenges include the following:

•    Not enterprise based but only departmental, personnel and/or vendor/supplier based (silos of food safety)

•    Lack of oversight of the corporate food safety program efficacy by internal audit and/or gap assessment

•    Relying only on regulatory inspection and enforcement to ensure food safety

•    Relying only on third-party audits to manage food safety risk

•    Complacency at the C-suite due to lack of visibility into the actual food safety risk occurring in the business already impacting sales and profitability 

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

1. www.food-safety.com/magazine-archive1/aprilmay-2017/the-supply-chain-and-food-safety-culture-primary-production/.
2. www.elsevier.com/books/hazard-analysis-and-risk-based-preventive-controls/king/978-0-12-809475-4.
3. www.food-safety.com/magazine-archive1/februarymarch-2016/implementing-active-managerial-control-principles-in-a-retail-food-business/.