The World Health Organization has estimated that almost 1 in 10 people is sickened by eating food processed or prepared by others;[1] it is estimated that approximately 50 percent of cases of foodborne illness are due to failures in the culture of the organizations responsible for the safety of products.[2] In other words, much improvement is still required in understanding how culture can be improved to enhance food safety performance.

Good news: A global study in 2015 showed that senior leaders (e.g., C-suite, executive vice presidents) rank culture as the number one concern in their organizations for its ability to meet the challenges of the future and for the business to be sustainable and develop further.[3] They no longer use statements such as “What if culture impacts business performance”? Instead, they ask, “How and what can I do to assimilate and maintain a positive culture including food safety”?

As visionaries looking ahead 10 years, we see a landscape that goes beyond seeking compliance to where food safety lives in all levels of a food company—from the boardroom to creating new food products to processing lines and food counters: a landscape where employees earn autonomy to meet and continuously improve food safety systems and where the company’s people system flexes with the increasing complexity of the workforce. A landscape where principles of social science blend seamlessly with food science, and success is measured through behavioral consistency and team dynamics.

The path to this vision lies squarely in the culture of your company. Not in better pathogen detection technologies, certification standards, or blockchain-like solutions, but in optimizing the culture of your company to improve measurable food safety performance. Three cases from the food industry show the very specific impact of focusing on maturing culture. In a midsize Australian produce company, the culture focus resulted in a 70 percent reduction in customer complaints and a 45 percent reduction in lost-time injuries. Similarly, a large U.S. manufacturing company showed a 35 percent reduction in customer complaints, a reduction in employee turnover from 23 percent to 12 percent, a 32 percent improvement in efficiency, and a 50 percent reduction in recordable injuries. A large U.S. food distribution company surveyed its employees after a focus on culture, and across 17,000 employees, 91 percent felt connected to the company’s values, 91 percent understood how they contributed to the success of the organization, and 82 percent felt management cared about their well-being. These are just a few examples from the food industry that show the concrete values and the tangible connection between maturing culture and a company’s financial performance.

How do you deliver on this vision to show similar improvements in your company?

Find Your Path
To break down the daunting task of finding the best path for your company, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has published its position, developed “by leaders, for leaders,” in which 35 leaders from global companies joined the GFSI technical working group on culture in December 2015 and outlined what a culture of food safety is and how this sometimes-confusing topic can be segmented into five distinct but integrated dimensions that are relevant for any company’s culture. This special article series in Food Safety Magazine helps your company navigate this landscape of food safety; it was designed and written to continue the “by leaders, for leaders” theme of GFSI and complement its position with practical advice and learnings. As such, 19 leaders agreed to co-author five articles, each complementing a dimension of the GFSI framework (Figure 1).

The GFSI framework[4] consists of five dimensions based on a review of seven existing culture evaluation tools.[5] If you are looking to better understand your current culture and improve it, you should look at all five dimensions. No one dimension alone can strengthen your current culture. As you can see, each dimension consists of subdimensions, each identified by the GFSI group as important; for each dimension, you will find in this article series practical tactics and stories to help you continue your journey. As such, to describe the vision and mission of the GFSI position, the authors of this first article recommend seven winning practices to set a positive tone from the top down, such as be consistent and transparent in your messages, don’t underestimate the signals of allocating resources around food safety, and show that you appreciate employees’ effort and engagement in food safety. The authors describe some great practical ideas for showing that you appreciate your staff. This is also a theme in the article on adaptability, entitled “The World Is Changing and So Must Your Food Safety Expectations,” which identifies the importance of setting targets and communicating specifically and consistently. The authors of this article also recommend specific and creative ways to engage everyone in food safety, every day. The theme of engagement is at the heart of the third article, “The “A” in Culture: A Toolbox to Drive Positive Food Safety Behaviors,” where experts discuss several tools to ensure that everyone learns what competencies are important to their job and what is expected, in more than the traditional components of training. Such clarity of expectations and consistency can be measured: The authors of the article “Measure What You Treasure” discuss how this can be done by integrating food safety into measures from behaviors as leading indicators and risk assessments. Risk assessments as we know them from food science and the proven principles of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points are topics of the fifth article, “Food Safety = Culture Science + Social Science + Food Science.” The authors suggest that these principles are just one part of that equation and provide specific and practical communication and engagement tools for balancing the equation and delivering the results that we are all after: safe food, every day, everywhere.

For each “petal” (Figure 1), you will find a summary of practical ideas for you to consider in your journey. Select the one that can be integrated into your culture and your system, and create a path that is unique and impactful for improving and sustaining your company’s food safety performance!

It is no longer a matter of “whether culture impacts food safety”; it is a matter of how and of finding and committing to the best path for your company to improve. Take these learnings and apply them within your company. Accept these as valid principles; build upon them instead of obsessing with how to develop unique, bottom-up solutions. As consumers, we all deserve to be confident that we as food professionals put our effort where it can have the biggest impact: on the safety of our food.

Setting the Tone
Members of any organization look to their leaders for direction about organizational culture. A leader who sets a positive tone through word and deed and by consistently modeling and exercising good leadership principles will bring alignment and enhance the effectiveness of the organization’s culture.

Executive leaders in food companies have an opportunity to establish a dialogue within the organization to describe a desired cultural framework for food safety excellence.

This article focuses on how senior leaders, namely CEOs, the executive team, functional leaders, plant managers, and their staff, can take steps to strike the right tone to achieve their organizational culture objectives.

While we focus on the tone set internally in this article, the tone set externally is also of great importance. External stakeholders are interested in not only what product a firm makes but also how it makes it. How the firm safely produces food is increasingly of great import to consumers. Many organizations have adopted a corporate responsibility (CR) model. Consumers, investors, and employees rightfully demand transparency, trust, and credibility in how organizations fulfill their role as responsible corporate citizens. This ensures sound and ethical stewardship of the environment, sustainability, and worker health and safety. Food safety fits into this same basket, and the CR model provides a way to create an executive forum for routine review of performance in these key topics.

In this article, we share our observations of how leaders successfully set a positive tone through their actions and communications. You will learn how leaders can positively impact food safety culture based on real-world examples.

Based on our collective experience, we have identified “Seven Winning Practices” that we would expect to see from any senior leader in a food company (Figure 2). We also provide you, a food safety leader, with some practical tips to help your senior leaders set the right tone for food safety cultural excellence.

Practice 1: Ensuring Consistency
People in an organization pay attention to observed behaviors, both good and bad. When the organization sees consistency from senior leaders, it reinforces its own behaviors. Executive leaders will be noticed when attending team meetings, visiting sites, engaging business partners, and in many other situations. Their consistent adherence to proper food safety behaviors will reinforce consistent standards throughout the organization. This consistency will support the enhancement of the organization’s food safety culture. Conversely, inconsistent behavior can lead to chaos with deviations from food safety expectations and standards. This results in a less coherent culture and will be easily recognized by customers and business partners to the detriment of the organization.

Executive reinforcement of the foundational need for being the best you can be in food safety has made an impact at Land O’Lakes. An opportunity was identified several years ago, when the company’s senior food safety leaders recognized that training and education had largely focused on the plants, which at the time was the same in many food companies. Land O’Lakes determined that the leadership teams and cross-functional corporate personnel would benefit by having a greater understanding of what it meant to work in a food company with the added responsibility for making and distributing food that is safe, for both people and animals. Commitment was given for a full-day food safety workshop; initially, all senior executives attended, including the CEO, who opened and closed the event. This was followed by open attendance for all corporate staff, 800 of whom have now been through this experience. At the end of the session, each left their own written commitment with food safety leadership. This effort alone has driven food safety awareness to a whole new level across all corporate functions.

Practical suggestions for senior leaders to set the right tone in maintaining consistency:

•    Always ask food safety-related questions and provide direct, immediate, and specific verbal feedback when on visits to manufacturing facilities. Use a visit as an opportunity to reinforce how expected behaviors relate to the organization’s values and food safety system requirements.

•    Reinforce support for actions that assist and further the mission of cultural excellence.

•    Share with teams, if appropriate, summaries of all significant meetings, executive reviews, and of any engagement with business partners where food safety is on the agenda.

Sharing your own food safety objectives and deliverables with your team is an excellent way to model accountability and transparency, and shows how individual objectives are intertwined with furthering the organization’s culture.

Practice 2: Allocation of Resources to Food Safety
Allocation of financial resources by executive leaders sends a strong message to the organization that food safety is important. These resources could be capital for plant improvements or IT system investments, expenses for training and education, travel for supplier audits, participation in external meetings, or having a requested expansion of personnel to drive and support the food safety agenda. The impact of these allocations goes beyond the immediate project. This speaks loudly to employees about the importance of food safety in the organization, thereby boosting the effectiveness of the food safety culture.

An example that we have seen involves a major frozen food firm that decided to ring-fence capital funds strictly for food safety initiatives. Previous management, a private equity firm, had not allocated resources to food safety, and therefore the organization did not believe that the new management team would invest in food safety. The ring fencing of funds sent a strong message to the organization that food safety would be an investment priority.

Another example of food safety investment sending a message is a midsize confectionary company. The sole plant of this firm needed a new roof to stop roof leaks. A project to fix the roof languished until the CEO realized that this wasn’t just a nuisance: The leak endangered consumers. The CEO quickly approved the project. This action helped set the tone that food safety was an important investment.

Practical suggestions for food safety leaders to help senior leaders set the right tone in managing resources:

•    Work with the leaders of other functions to forge and maintain continuous dialogue to gain influence and support. The value of food safety in terms of minimizing risk, protecting consumers, and adding value to the bottom line should always be at the forefront of any discussion. Requests for resources should always fit within the corporate and food safety culture model and lead to positive future benefits.

•    Proper framing of resource requests can enhance the likelihood of project approval. Behavioral economists have shown that framing requests in a way consistent with the approver’s style increases the chance of project approval. Food safety leaders should understand the company’s requirements and frame requests appropriately.

Practice 3: Transparency

An unhindered view of the current state—the strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities—is an important transformational step in any cultural journey. This clear view requires building and sustaining trust, and reinforcing a mindset that knowledge and information sharing are paramount to achieving excellence. Performance shortfalls and challenges along the journey are important data points to share and reflect upon constructively. This reflection will help build organizational resilience and envision prevention processes from the ground up. This also reduces the likelihood of the same problem being repeated across the organization by another site.

Learning from mistakes, failures, or near misses is an invaluable experience to propel positive culture change. A culture of safety excellence is well documented in the air transport industry and is driven by an uncompromising commitment not only to studying failure and near-miss events in depth, but also in systematically sharing these across the entire industry.[6]

At Glanbia, the “GPS” program (Glanbia Performance System) recognizes the principle of “celebrating and identifying losses.” A leader must be willing to openly recognize and provide an appreciation for the transparency of sharing of the potential losses, incidents, and identified risks. This recognition demonstrates appreciation (not consequences) for the identification of near misses and high-risk conditions that are then systematically shared as part of learning and improvement. Glanbia has developed a global near miss database that aggregates both internally and externally occurring cases, which Glanbia uses as part of analysis, leadership team review, and reflection. Leaders from the individual site reporting the incident will develop the case study, root-cause analysis, and key learnings, which are shared in the wider leadership forum. All sites are requested to confirm their scope and potential needed improvement actions from the case.

A question asked at Glanbia is prompted by a concern for a dashboard that is all green—Have we set the bar high enough? Did we aggressively identify emerging risks? Sometimes forcing a bell curve in standard reporting [e.g., reports must have a minimum of 10 percent of their key performance indicators (KPIs) in red to highlight where work is needed] can create a more open sense to reflect upon vulnerabilities.

Practical suggestions for senior leaders to set the right tone and ensure transparency:  

•    Embrace the reporting of leading and lagging indicators that both reflects a commitment to organizational learning and removes any filters for good news only.

•    Reward and recognize people for sharing their learnings formally and highlight (whenever possible) the savings/avoided losses by the solution they provide the organization.

•    Reward and recognize people who aren’t afraid to speak up when they see something that doesn’t look right.

•    Provide insights to your leaders on how other industries excelled by embracing transparency and used challenges as a forum for learning. Two excellent reads are Black Box Thinking,6 and A Complaint Is a Gift.[7]

•    Build trust and transparency by encouraging manufacturing site leaders to share and debrief internally on a routine basis with their entire team—condensing “what went well” and “where can we do better.” Creating the dialogue in a smaller, more familiar forum can encourage teams to share more widely.


Practice 4: Appreciation
Positive reinforcement and acknowledging the effort made, even without the desired results, is a winning approach that encourages constructive behaviors. To be effective, feedback must be timely, regular, balanced, and consistent. While appreciation cannot be dished out randomly, a senior leader should not miss the opportunity to praise great results, significant ongoing efforts, and landmark achievements consistent with the corporate values and vision. The positive upward cycle of senior leader support and praise cannot be underestimated. At Glanbia, the values of winning together and showing respect hardwire the principles of praise and appreciation, where appropriate and at all levels.

It is widely known that employee engagement and motivation are amplified by believing their contributions make a difference and when they have a belief in the organization’s mission and vision. When setting a path to excellence, recognizing important contributions to further that mission is essential and adds a motivational multiplier across the organization. Land O’Lakes has had an all-encompassing quality recognition program for a number of years and celebrates winning and diverse contributions from across the entire enterprise. Additionally, Glanbia has implemented value-based recognition programs across the business that call out each of their core values in all activities and functions.

It is important to reflect on both the small and large contributions, and ensure that all functions feel able to participate. The recognition forum can be used to reinforce the organizational mantra of food safety cultural excellence. The individual efforts are not random events but small steps along the journey.

Practical ideas for senior leaders to set the tone for appreciation:

•    Establish an awards and recognition program specifically for food safety and quality programs. This can be for individuals, teams, or entire departments or locations.

•    Provide special training, missions, or assignments for those who have the ambition to grow their careers and for professional development in food safety and quality management.

•    Award small, on-the-spot recognition at routine meetings and scheduled events that recognizes individual contributions and behaviors. These can be small gift cards, mementos, clothing with the company logo, or a personalized certificate.

•    Create formally structured programs that encourage the identification of solutions (and celebrate them), as well as losses, without fear of negative consequences.

•    Work on a “just-culture” approach to running the business.[8] The just-culture approach focuses on finding why problems happen, not who is to blame. The tone this sets could lead to a positive attitude to uncovering problems and solving them.

Practice 5: Adaptability
Understanding and effecting cultural change within food safety will require adaptation to existing cultures across diverse organizations, which may be geographically separated, have different customer profiles, use different processes, and have different organizational maturity levels. This can also include incorporating new cultures integrated through joint ventures, mergers, and acquisitions.

While some fundamental principles may remain sacred, practicality dictates that there may not always be a one-size-fits-all solution for every type of food safety standard or policy. Adjustments that are necessary for underlying requirements are to be expected and, subject to review, can be acceptable.

When reviewing a specific policy or program deployment, a senior leader must understand the maturity of the operating culture as well as the current food safety programs. Ensuring a top-to-bottom understanding of hazards and risks is documented in several models of food safety culture, as outlined in Jespersen et al.[9] Having an understanding ensures that credible plans are in place to manage risks effectively. Sometimes, a food safety team might be faced with a situation where there is not yet a definitive plan for full resolution. Adaptability should promote an open and rigorous review of risk mitigation approaches.

Practical ideas for senior leaders to set the tone for adaptability:

•    Have an open and challenging discussion of food safety policies and programs with key stakeholders when they are being drafted and through rollout to ensure true alignment. A well-represented review team can often flag significant challenges and possible solutions at an early stage. A senior leader can set the right tone by seeking to ensure visibility and buy-in at the earliest stage possible.

•    A senior leader should advocate and support standardized risk assessment tools and models that drive local-level ownership in identifying risks and solutions to manage them. These will create a robust and factual discussion around deviating conditions and how these are being managed.

•    Regular, focused, deep review of specific food safety programs, with the collective subject matter experts, will foster an active and open dialog concerning solutions and the manner in which local adaptations have been applied for achieving the same principle requirements.

Practice 6: Accessibility
Executive and senior leaders must be fully accessible, highly visible ambassadors and advocates for food safety excellence, both internally and externally. A proactive and deliberate approach to ensuring access and good collaboration is a must, especially in larger organizations.

In some sense, a senior food safety leader is a hub position that needs to extend in all directions, hierarchically and functionally, to ensure the message, the program, the progress, the successes, and the opportunities are heard and shared. This is about building a trusting relationship, and it’s not always easy. While formal processes like newsletters and electronic updates are useful, a personal touch (through face-to-face contact) will be needed to build a respectful working relationship between stakeholders.  

For senior executives and business leaders, a chronic failure to be accessible by phone, email, or face-to-face could inadvertently send a message that food safety may not be as important as other topics on the very busy corporate agenda. Accessibility provides a forum for accountability check-ins and a continuity of commitment that will be noticed by the working teams. This element is consistent with communication and also manifests as leadership commitment, which are two important elements in a systems review.[9]

Practical ideas for senior leaders to set the tone for accessibility:

•    Senior leaders should aspire to be highly visible ambassadors and advocates for food safety excellence wherever possible.

•    Senior leaders should ensure that well-organized, agenda-driven food safety review meetings are held routinely—even when there is no significant change or update—to keep everyone on message and focused on the mission.

•    Senior leaders should always be available for food safety updates and issues resolution as needed. There are always proactive opportunities to provide succinct and meaningful review, commentary, and potential lessons learned on cases outside the organization’s own walls, but present in the media.

•    Senior food safety leaders should schedule routine one-on-one meetings with team members, functional leaders, and executive leads.

•    Senior food safety leaders should establish routine reviews among key quality leaders and customer contacts.

Practice 7: Assessment
Regular review of food safety performance can ensure reassurance at the executive level that programs reflect corporate values and demonstrate continuous improvement, as well as provide governance for activities across the enterprise. The assessment and reporting element is a senior food safety leader’s opportunity to provide the dashboard, key measures, strategy, and direction to the decision makers and, conversely, provide feedback and direction to the team. The critical importance of setting food safety goals and providing indicators of progress (leading and lagging) has been called out by Yiannas.[10

Progress, risks, or investment needs that don’t always make a byline in an executive boardroom will risk losing visibility in any enterprise. Metrics should be reported upward in a succinct manner that highlights results, trends, needed actions, and, ideally, the level of risk prioritization. Land O’Lakes, Glanbia, Mars, and others have processes to share this critical information with senior-most executive leaders and with their boards for awareness and action. Any program without governance and routine progress review will quickly lose momentum and risk becoming defunct. Executive leaders must be aware of the risks to the organization’s performance and reputation, and it is in the role of a senior food safety leader to ensure the appropriate metrics are in place and routinely discussed.
Practical ideas for senior leaders to set the tone for assessment:

•    Senior leaders in food safety must ensure a regular and disciplined review among the organization’s most senior executives. They must also align on the appropriate KPIs and measures, and provide a candid view on progress and challenges, using leading and lagging indicators.

•    Senior executives should make time to attend the food safety review meetings and actively engage with other executive leaders. When unable to attend the main meeting, request a one-on-one discussion.  

•    Having a corporate executive, other than the food safety leader, communicate food safety news, summaries, and activities at every board meeting is a great way to set the tone that every senior leader can and must talk food safety.

•    A policy statement, signed off by relevant senior leaders, should be in place that clarifies reporting standards and expectations for the food safety mission.

Helping Senior Leaders Set the Tone for Food Safety Excellence: Conclusions and Final Thoughts
Consumer goods and other businesses are increasingly measured by their commitment to corporate responsibility and accordingly will be held to ever-increasing standards of transparency, ethical behavior, and trustworthiness. Financial results alone—even in the absence of “issues”—are not enough. That organizations are fostering a proactive and comprehensive view with culture driving prevention and resilience will be increasingly open to scrutiny by external stakeholders. This very public lens will significantly influence the reputation and trust of food and ingredient producers, and calls for evidence and measures of their commitment, in this case, to food safety excellence, are increasingly being heard.

In this frame, food safety is not a result of materials, people, and processes alone, but must be in the organizational DNA and psyche, and safeguarded by embedded cultural “guard rails.” Well-founded and communicated corporate values are the first, basic building blocks from which food safety culture (and all corporate responsibility themes) can be meaningfully derived. These values must be manifest in the organization and provide a true compass on the direction and decisions that occur every day across the enterprise. How to define, measure, and report this culture of excellence remains a subject of vigorous discussion among the leaders in this field, with several iterations and models available.

A great way of thinking about the food safety culture journey is to relate it to the 20-mile march described by Jim Collins in his book Great by Choice:[11

“Whatever comes at us, we keep moving forward, a bit at a time, every day, fully supported by the organization and from the top.”

As a leader in food safety, how do you support and encourage your organization’s senior leaders in setting a positive tone for food safety in today’s environment? Let’s review the three takeaways:

o    Provide candid and regular reviews, education, and measurements:

•    Be completely honest in the assessment and communication of the food safety maturity of the organization. Educate such that the information being shared makes sense and be pragmatic regarding issues and solutions.

•    Set up frequent food safety status reviews with senior leaders, either in a group setting or in a one-on-one meeting—both can be very effective. For a group meeting, you’ll need to ensure active participation and discussion. In a one-on-one meeting, you’ll have the undivided attention of the leader.

•    Provide updates on what is happening external to the organization—examples of new technologies and food safety management approaches, as well as examples of other company failures and key learnings, which can be very helpful in keeping interest alive.

o    Identify and drive your specific must-win food safety priorities:

•    Communicate and agree on well-aligned priorities for strengthening the food safety program. The kind of areas that could be in scope for prioritization could include: hygienic upgrade of buildings and equipment, technology/systems investments, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program deep dives and revisions, sanitation validation excellence, high-risk raw materials supplier qualifications, environmental risk assessments, or formulation risk review processes. A key is that these are rarely new areas but areas already known and identified as priorities that could be elevated in importance for a 6- to 36-month focused effort to reach a milestone.

•    Senior leaders must also align on appropriate KPIs and provide, with one voice, a candid view on progress and challenges against the agreed priorities, supported by leading and lagging indicators, and surfacing hurdles and solutions. The KPIs should be consistent with and aligned to the agreed priority areas of the program.

o    Foster ownership among the wide community of leaders:

•    Recruit a senior leader other than the food safety leadership; communicating food safety news, summaries, and activities at senior management meetings is a great way to demonstrate the expectation that everyone, including senior leaders, must own food safety.

•    Ensure a clear and intuitive link of organizational values and vision to the food safety agenda. Reputation, consumer trust, and brand integrity are integral to organizational success. Ensuring senior leaders in all functions understand this and embrace their role in protecting and building trust through food safety excellence will be a catalyst to cultural transformation. 

Lone Jespersen, Ph.D.,  is the principal of Cultivate.
Mike Robach is global vice president, corporate food safety, quality, and regulatory affairs at Cargill.
Mark Beaumont, Ph.D., is group head, quality and safety at Glanbia.
Sara Mortimore is vice president, product safety, quality & regulatory affairs, Land O’Lakes Inc.

Food Safety Magazine wishes to acknowledge the recent death of contributor John Helferich.

2. Personal communication.
4. GFSI position paper, under review.
5. Jespersen, L, et al. 2016. “Measurement of Food Safety Culture Using Survey and Maturity Profiling Tools.” Food Cont 66:174–182.
6. Syed, M. Black Box Thinking (UK: J. Murray Press, 2015).
7. Barlow, J and C Moller. A Complaint Is a Gift (Berrett-Koehler Press, 2008).
8. Dekker, S. Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012)
9. Jesperesen, L, et al. 2017. “Comparative Analysis of Existing Food Safety Cultural Evaluation Systems.” Food Control 79:371–379.
10. Yiannis, F. Food Safety Culture, Creating a Behaviour Based Food Safety System (Springer, 2009).
11. Collins, J and MT Hansen. Great by Choice (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).

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