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

We’ve invited industry leaders in food retail to help elucidate the challenges around creating a culture of food safety. Our panelists are Ray Bowe, head of food safety and quality, Musgrave, Ireland, Katherine Di Tommaso, director, food safety, Walmart Canada Corp., Canada, Gillian Kelleher, vice president of food safety and quality assurance, Wegmans Food Markets, U.S., and Nicola Sharman, senior hygiene technologist, Marks & Spencer, UK. Their comments are provided below in random order.

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

Retailer 1: My role is varied, but I am fortunate that I can write the standards and guidance for our suppliers around the world; I therefore have many opportunities to introduce food safety culture to our suppliers and provide guidance on ways in which they can first understand what culture is present at their factories and ways in which they can improve. I visit many of our suppliers and impart food safety knowledge on each of my visits. I manage our third-party audit provider, which can also provide a different insight into a business’s culture; with this information, we can look at ways to support or learn from that business.

Retailer 2: I try to lead by example every day. I actively engage internally and externally in all aspects of food safety across our company, from internal manufacturing to the supply chain and ultimately to the stores. Bringing best practices to our company and then connecting the company and my team with what is going on in the industry as a whole.

Retailer 3: Through leading by example, providing guidance, being innovative, positively influencing all stakeholders throughout the organization to make them aware of their responsibility for food safety performance. Throughout all of the above, being [an] energetic, enthusiastic advocate and effective communicator. Furthermore, being an excellent risk manager by establishing ways of working that provide a solid scientific basis for key decisions.

Retailer 4: My role in creating a food safety culture involves simplifying food safety, being solution oriented and being collaborative. By taking complex food safety principles and programs and simplifying them, there is a reduced likelihood of people misunderstanding what needs to be done and a reduced likelihood of someone taking shortcuts. Simplification applies to integrating food safety programs into other programs of the business. By integrating food safety into operational processes and not having a stand-alone food safety program, it allows the food safety tasks to be completed as part of an everyday operational routine and not as separate tasks. It is also important to ensure food safety communications are simple and straightforward. If the communications are too complicated and too long, there is less likelihood that people will understand what is being communicated. Being solution oriented and collaborative enables the business to move forward with ideas while ensuring food safety is adhered to. In some instances, it even allows for a more efficient and effective program to be developed. All these approaches lead to business partners knowing they have support for what they are trying to accomplish and avoids them viewing food safety as a roadblock. The end result is, they will come to food safety at the beginning of a project for support and guidance.

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?

Retailer 1: Food safety is business as usual for my company. We have unique ways of working in our product categories where we have a team of three: product developer, food technologist and buyer; we make decisions together as a team, and food safety is in everyone’s objectives. We also have robust mechanisms in place to manage the governance process for food safety. We have a Food Safety Forum, which discusses food safety issues and new product innovations. Outcomes from this forum are presented to the senior leadership team in technology for final sign-off.

As we are all working to meet the same objective, I don’t feel there are any differences between management and employees at the company.

Retailer 2: Leadership is undoubtedly from the top down, with the leadership actively demonstrated by the company chairman and by our president and CEO. The family-owned-and-operated company has been actively engaged in food safety leadership efforts in the industry for over 20 years. High standards are a way of life at our stores; we pursue excellence in everything we do and that includes food safety. Our chairman has always said that “Food safety is everyone’s business.”

Retailer 3: There is a shared value and an awareness throughout the business of how important food safety is in protecting consumers and brand equity. It is most evident during and immediately after a food safety crisis. At other times, it can require more justification when competing against different business priorities. Due to the structure, scope and breadth of our business, it is an ongoing activity to maintain momentum around food safety as a strategic element. In terms of the definition of food safety culture, for management, we have specialist teams who do a great job to keep us safe. For line workers, it becomes more personal: It’s part of my job because it stops people getting sick.     

Retailer 4: Food safety culture is part of the everyday culture within the business. Our company was built on four basic beliefs, and these beliefs are regularly used in communications at all levels within the business. These beliefs also apply to food safety, which aids with messaging and reinforcement. These beliefs are the same for everyone in the organization and are followed at all levels, from top management to line workers. 

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

Retailer 1: Using the maturity model, I would place us [at] a high Stage 4 for Predict, while some aspects are Stage 5 for Internalize. As a retailer of food, we have a dedicated technical resource to ensure that food safety, integrity and legality controls are in place to protect our customers.  

Perceived Value, Stage 5. As a business, we always investigate issues to get to their root cause and share learnings to prevent a reoccurrence of a food safety issue.

People System, Stage 5. As we have defined accountabilities and responsibilities between ourselves and our suppliers where both businesses understand that food safety is an important critical measure. Our dedicated food technology function has recognized continual professional development with the Institute of Food Science and Technology to ensure we drive professional standards.     

Process Thinking, Stage 5. We complete horizon scanning with industry experts to foresee any future issues and look at ways we could further mitigate existing risks. The business has a risk assessment for food safety that identifies all the potential risks, and how we mitigate these risks is documented and shared with the board.  

Technology Enabler, Stage 4. Data are collected and shared daily, which enables our teams to respond rapidly to a trend.

Tools & Infrastructure, Stage 4. We have access to many networks and food safety tools to allow us to find information and act with pace.

Retailer 2: We would score a 5 for most but not all categories. For the industry, it is extremely varied. This is true for companies of different sizes and also applies for different sectors within the food industry. For us: People System: 5, Perceived Value: 5, Process Thinking: 5, Technology Enabler: 4 (actively working on this), Tools & Infrastructure: 5.

Retailer 3: Our company is at Stage 4 for all identifiers except Process Thinking, which is at a high Stage 3 at present with further work in progress on this aspect. We collect and use critical performance data to drive improvements throughout our retail operations. Our industry is quite varied and, depending on scale and complexity, ranges from Stage 1 to Stage 5.   

Retailer 4: Based on the maturity model provided, we are at Stage 4, Predict. Other food retailers would be between Stage 1, Doubt, and Stage 4, Predict.

The food safety program in our company involves setting expectations around food safety performance, training and education, regular communication, measurement to food safety goals and reinforcement of proper behaviors. There are programs and processes in place for all of these areas. Technology is used to collect data for trend analysis. Some of the data are leading and some of it are lagging. Leading indicators are used to be proactive. Based on the trends seen, root-cause analysis is conducted to determine what is driving a particular trend. The solution is then driven from the root-cause analysis. Once the solution is developed, it is then implemented. Success of the solution is measured through audits. Lagging indicators are reviewed and assessed to see if there have been improvements made after the introduction of the proposed solution.

The maturity level of other retailers varies based on their size. The larger retailers understand the importance of food safety and have robust programs in place. The small and medium-size retailers do not have robust programs in place and, in some cases, do not have dedicated resources for food safety. They may also have limited understanding of food safety and they do not use data to drive improvements in the food safety program. Issues are handled on an ad hoc basis as they occur. 

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?

Retailer 1: Our customers shop at our stores because they trust us; in recent times, there have been food incidents, such as the recent Fipronil issue in eggs or the horse meat scandal a few years ago, but we were not involved or implicated with these issues. This is because delivering safe food is our priority and a core value. We have robust standards for the manufacturers which are always evolving to keep pace with the latest science and technology developments.

Retailer 2: Yes. Food safety has been a top priority for our company for well over 20 years and continues to be so today. There is a lot involved in maintaining that level of commitment. We work hard on it every day. We operate with a continuous improvement mindset at our company. We can always be better.    

Retailer 3: Consumer and brand protection remain key priorities for our company; as a result, there is support for food safety throughout the business. We continuously review further ways to embed food safety through innovation, new communication channels, structures and resources. Gaining and maintaining top management awareness and support is key to further improving food safety culture.  

Retailer 4: Yes, we are where we need to be in terms of prioritizing food safety. There is commitment at all levels within the organization. On numerous occasions, various executives have stated the importance of food safety to business leaders, shareholders, analysts and associates. Food safety metrics are incorporated into performance metrics at all levels from the top down. The level of commitment is maintained by leaders at the very top, making it clear that there is a corporate-wide goal of building and maintaining the customer’s trust in our food offering, and to be successful in doing this, the safety of the food in the supply chain is critical.

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

Retailer 1: The challenge we face is a wider industry challenge of accessing good food science skills from graduates coming into the industry. Not enough students are specializing enough in food technology.

Retailer 2: It’s all about people understanding the “why” behind what they do when it comes to food safety. Turnover, young staff, part timers particularly at store level, maintaining the culture of the company as we expand into new markets. Complexity of what we offer at store level (extensive prepared foods selection produced in store, vast array of food items). New product development.    

Retailer 3: The biggest challenge is achieving full support of senior management as a prerequisite. This ensures that there is equal prioritization given to food safety matters as for other business areas. This in turn allows resources to be allocated where required with senior management support. The alternative bottom-up approach is never as effective and can result in suboptimal resources and results.  

Retailer 4: One of the biggest challenges to maintaining a solid food safety culture is the amount of turnover at store level in the retail environment. There is constant coming and going of staff, as people move on to other roles within the organization or leave the organization. This can put pressure on maintaining a food safety culture if the food safety program is not well integrated into the operations. This challenge requires that there be a strong program in place for food safety performance, training and education, communication, measurement and reinforcement. Having these in place will help maintain a food safety culture.   

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/.