Over the past year, we asked industry leaders across the food supply chain (Figure 1) to share their perspectives on food safety culture specific to their sector in the supply chain. Before sharing a summary of the learnings, I want to thank the following individuals—Primary production: David Barney, Andrew Francey, Megh Bhandari, Ph.D., Laurie Beard and Robert J. Whitaker, Ph.D.; Distribution: Jorge A. Hernandez, Larry Keener and Veny Gapud, M.Sc.; Processing: Jeff M. Taylor, Gordon Hayburn, M.Sc., LLM, and John Butts, Ph.D.; Foodservice: Andrew Clarke, M.Sc., William L. Weichelt and Hal King, Ph.D.; and Food retail: Ray Bowe, Katherine Di Tommaso, Gillian Kelleher and Nicole Sharman, M.Sc.—for taking the time to participate in this article series to help all of us fortunate enough to be part of feeding the world every day learn more about the popular topic of food safety culture.

Culture—organizational, food safety, etc.—is the new black. Once it was Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), then the Food Safety Modernization Act; at the moment, we all talk about culture as the key to improving food safety performance. As we ride this wave of enthusiasm, we must remember the science behind the maturing of culture and the lessons learned by practitioners who have been concerned with culture for longer than most. I want to highlight Salus—The Food Safety Culture Science Group—chaired by professor Carol Wallace. This group consists of 17 scientists, all with a proven track record in researching aspects of organizational culture, food safety culture and food safety climate. Parallel to scientific developments, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) founded a technical working group in December 2015 to formulate the GFSI position on food safety culture and to offer advice on appropriate content for the GFSI benchmarking document. Recently, the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) organized a professional development group on the topic and will be complementing both Salus and GFSI in its future work on sharing learnings to help food safety professionals in their development. As these organized groups debate food safety culture, industry leaders continuously seek to understand how their specific company culture helps or hinders food safety performance.

We asked each of our industry leaders the following questions:

1) How would you rate your company’s and your sector’s food safety maturity?[1]

2) What challenges does your sector face related to culture?

3) What are your recommended practices for others to strengthen their food safety culture?

In this article, we look at how each sector responded to these questions, with specific attention to differences and similarities. What follows are some of the learnings from the leaders.

Sector Maturity
There appears to be a difference in how leaders rate their sector’s food safety maturity. Acknowledging that this was not intended as an exact measurement, I trust each of the leaders we spoke with for their in-depth understanding and experience in their particular sector. All leaders mentioned that there is significant variation across the organizations in their sector. This progressive maturity from primary producer to retailer could be an indication of an organization’s distance to the end-consumer, that is, the shorter the distance to the consumer, the more mature is the food safety culture. Food safety is relatively new to primary producers and distributors, and those hard-learned lessons from, for example, processing and foodservice, should be shared and adopted at a quicker pace to avoid repeat failure in other sectors.

Why not? If this is correct, what can retailers do to support primary producers and distributors to change this, aside from a traditional audit? Can retailers partner with organizations like STOP Foodborne Illness to create educational materials for other sectors that connect consumers to food safety? We need to help tell the story and make the story available for use in a particular sector’s and company’s education and training materials.

Achieving Full Senior Leadership Ownership
Leaders come and go in companies, and it is an ongoing challenge for food safety professionals to educate and engage senior leaders to take ownership of food safety. A distribution leader said that there have not been many recalls connected to the distribution of food, so how do you create a reason for leaders to change or acknowledge their ownership of food safety? This is a complex question to answer; perhaps one way to answer it is by helping food safety professionals speak the ‘leadership’ language. We must learn to probe for what drives senior leadership priorities and how to incorporate food safety messages into these priorities. We should not assume that leaders know how to speak “food safety,” and we should therefore help them with simple messages and connecting food safety risks and costs of mitigation to business success.

Why not? Engaged organizations like the National Association of Corporate Directors help us better understand what drives C-suite behaviors and how to use this knowledge for ongoing and consistent engagement in food safety strategies, measures and professional development.

Food Safety Professionals
Across the sectors, leaders spoke of the need for more competent food safety professionals. There are simply not enough people doing this important work, and it hurts the depth and consistency of food safety performance. As food safety professionals, we are tasked to blend complex science with the psychology of driving engagement and change within our organizations; this exciting space must be better communicated to young people seeking to find their passion. Through organizations like IAFP, new college graduates have the opportunity to put their mark on the future of the food industry, and we must use organizations like this to market and attract more talent into the food safety professions.

Why not? We should partner with marketing firms, universities and associations to create awareness campaigns to attract more talent to the food safety space. We must tell the stories of our colleagues who have chosen to become food safety professionals—the why and how.

All leaders across the food supply chain mentioned the impact of employee turnover and the struggle with consistent food safety performance as colleagues leave for new opportunities. I am not sure this will change, and we therefore have to look at what systems we can put in place to minimize this impact. As food safety professionals, we are sometimes guilty of making procedures or one-point lessons (OPLs) complicated and hard to understand. One retailer spoke of ‘making food safety simple,’ and I believe this to be one of our opportunities: to ensure that all employees know exactly what is expected for the specific tasks for which they are responsible. One foodservice leader said that food safety must be built into every role in the company, but it must be made simple.

Why not? Can we show what is expected for a food safety task in three photos or less? In 30 seconds of video or less?

Consistent Food Safety Learning for All Employees
Across the sectors, leaders called for better education and training at all levels. The Campden BRI training survey suggests that as an industry, we have not really improved our commitment to effective education and training. It is still hard to find the time for training and education; arguments still persist about their value. As food safety professionals, we must let go of the detailed, 70-page PowerPoint and seek help from our marketing colleagues to find critical learning points and how to best reach individual learners. Some commercial systems are great for a 5-minute training session, on the floor/in the store, and provide a means for consistent delivery and follow up. But systems like these only work if the message is simple and consistently delivered, independent of the ‘trainer.’

Why not? We should develop OPLs, coach leaders in other functions to deliver these and follow up with behavioral observations to check for effectiveness.

Recommended Practices
Our sector leaders shared a wide range of their personal favorites. Some of these might seem simple but are great reminders to get back to basics and remember these in times of change, when running extra fast or starting a new role.

•    Build partnerships

•    Connect food safety to business performance

•    Define food safety as a core value

•    Provide training ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’

•    Audit the entire food supply chain

•    Build food safety into every job, every function and at all levels of the organization

•    Create ownership and accountability by clarity and measurable performance indicators for food safety

•    Drive for good, valid and reliable data to maintain a strong and respected connection between food safety indicators and customer value

•    Develop a company food safety vision statement and help employees connect food safety to your company vision

•    Remember that food safety culture requires continuous improvement

•    Enable peer-level accountability

•    Have a rigorous hiring process

•    Make food safety a core value and top-level message that ‘food safety’ is business critical at par with people safety, productivity and efficiency

•    Communicate food safety expectations and activities during hourly line huddles

•    Empower employees by setting clear expectations

•    Connect your food safety programs and personnel through your food safety and quality written requirements and
    audit programs

•    Prioritize food safety as an enterprise function to achieve a culture of food safety that cost-effectively manages risks and directly influence sales and profits

•    Lead by example

•    Walk the talk

•    Simplify food safety: Make it simple and straight forward

The sectors across and within the food supply chain vary in food safety maturity. This is to be expected, and the importance of knowing this is to drive the need for you and your company to understand your maturity stage and the implications for the safety of the food you handle, produce, serve or sell. Leaders have shared their thoughts on best practices, and I encourage you to select what works for your company to make a change! I also encourage all of us fortunate enough to be part of this fantastic industry to continue collaborating to find industry solutions to challenges such as ensuring ongoing leadership, lack of food safety talent, tools for dealing with turnover and better food safety learning for all.    

Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., is a principal at Cultivate, an organization dedicated to helping food manufacturers globally make safe, great-tasting food through cultural effectiveness. She has recently joined the Editorial Advisory Board of Food Safety Magazine.

1.  www.food-safety.com/magazine-archive1/aprilmay-2017/the-supply-chain-and-food-safety-culture-primary-production/.