Only slight shifts in engagement have been recorded over the two decades in which companies like Gallup have been actively tracking employee engagement. As of 2021, engaged employees, who are involved and enthusiastic about work, make up about 30–35 percent of the workforce, and actively disengaged employees, who are miserable at work, make up about 15 percent of the workforce.1 That leaves about 50 percent of employees in the middle who are "meh" about work—they neither love it nor hate it, and are probably looking for new jobs.1 

Since we are food safety enthusiasts, let us apply these basic engagement poll results to an essential food safety activity—handwashing. Based on survey results, 30–35 percent of people will be sure to wash their hands properly, about 15 percent of people will walk right past a handwash sink, and the other 50 percent may run water over their hands for a couple of seconds and call it "handwashing." Using this scenario, 30–35 percent of engaged employees are not enough to ensure proper handwashing or to build a sustainable, world-class food safety culture.

While these handwashing percentages may have shifted during the COVID-10 pandemic, this points to something more concerning: ownership and accountability for food safety behaviors. This gap between knowing the food safety behavior and performing the food safety behavior is something that both authors have observed at different food manufacturing facilities. Robust food safety systems, policies, and procedures, along with interactive and engaging training, did not seem to significantly move the needle to create ownership consistently. These examples show that food safety behaviors certainly fall into the category that knowledge alone does not predict success. Yeargin et al. studied success factors for food safety training and found that "…preferences for old habits, forgetfulness, inconveniences in the moment, preferences for the path of least resistance, and motivated reasoning or because of organizational and environmental factors, such as job traits, work culture, and group norms"2 are factors that impede the transfer of knowledge into practice.

The apathetic nature observed with ownership of food safety practices reflects overall engagement. Low engagement rates are also contributing to the Great Resignation, as people consider how work "fills their cup." What can we learn from the Great Resignation? Perhaps it provides a wake-up call to organizations that people want work that matters and want to have a life outside of work. A state of all-consuming work demanded from employers is not being tolerated—including in the food industry. People in food appear stressed, "beyond measure," with the constant barrage of "do more with less" on top of an increasing list of requirements to meet.3 People are looking for an organization where they can see their personal values and beliefs aligned with the organization and what it stands for, and hence, feel engaged and appreciated.

This leads to organizational culture, and specifically food safety culture. While food safety culture is the buzzword and the basis of new regulations and requirements, it has, in fact, been around since the beginning of food manufacturing. While the term food safety culture was not discussed decades ago, in 2008, Frank Yiannas wrote Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety System. It was the first book on this topic in the food safety industry, solidifying behavioral science and organizational culture as part of food safety. Now, Google search results show thousands of topics related to "food safety culture," ranging from behavioral science to training. Needless to say, food safety culture is everywhere.

Leading Food Safety Culture from Within

What is food safety culture, exactly? Many definitions exist, although the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) whitepaper typically gets the nod for its version, which is "shared values, beliefs, and norms that affect mindset and behavior toward food safety in, across, and throughout an organization."4 Food safety culture can be thought of as the intangible feeling or sense that drives food safety actions, akin to company culture that drives behaviors in other parts of the business. However, food safety culture is specific to the mindset for fueling the organizational beliefs and thoughts around the importance of food safety that translate into specific, observable actions. At the heart of any definition of culture is people, which also applies to food safety culture.

Creating or improving the mindset around food safety culture sounds straightforward; perhaps this is because food safety culture is the topic of many available publications. However, it is not easy to implement, which leads to a continued stream of ideas, approaches, and perspectives on reaching the desired food safety culture state. Many sources believe that food safety culture can start only from the top down, and if top executive support does not exist, then food safety culture will only sizzle and fade. Appropriate resources can indeed make a difference in any initiative, including food safety culture. Yet, consider Jim Harter and Jim Clifton of Gallup Inc.'s report that "the best organizations have leaders who encourage teams to solve problems at the local level rather than using top-down commands."5 To lead from the local level for food safety, top executives must empower and authorize leaders to solve issues like food safety culture.

This leads to the question: which leadership is best situated for this task? Clearly, it is the technical food safety team! Why? Because this is the team that is leading, building, and maintaining food safety systems within the organization. Impactive, a software solution used for organizing volunteers, reports, "even with a defined leadership structure, grassroots efforts are always led by those who are intimately familiar with the goal at hand."6 The technical food safety team is indeed intimate with the goal at hand. This team has been working grassroots campaigns around food safety culture long before it was cool. Furthermore, long after the campaign for food safety culture has expired, your technical team will continue to carry the torch, so they must be positioned to do that work.

Building a Sustainable Food Safety Culture

To build a sustainable food safety culture, it is essential to start with shifting and building the mindset of the technical leadership and honoring the well-being of this team.

Honoring the well-being of team members starts with basics like clarifying expectations, providing basic tools and systems, and providing opportunities for team members to do their best.1 Considering that 60 percent of people report that they have taken on more tasks than they can finish at work, starting with these basic elements to ensure that team members have manageable workloads and appropriate teams simply makes sense to honor well-being.7

Applying the general engagement results means that 30–35 percent of food safety leaders are engaged, 15 percent are miserable, and about 50 percent are "meh" about their work. Clearly, the basic elements of well-being have been overlooked. What does it look like to honor the well-being of team members differently? Start with these four questions to ensure that the technical team's well-being is considered so they are ready to lead the change:

  1. Does my team have a manageable workload? In a nutshell, this is capacity. Often, production line capacity or storage capacity is top of mind to top executives, but what about people capacity? When people have manageable workloads, they tend to also have clarity in purpose and a sense of accomplishment since they can actually complete work. While capacity can often seem like a subjective question because our culture is all about being "busy," it is easy to transform workload into objective data. Write down every single task and how long it takes for a given role. Do not forget to capture tasks like meetings, administrative work, annual training, and time off. These types of tasks tend to miss the original list. Now compare the time required for all of those tasks versus the time available in the workday. If the number is greater than 100 percent, then you are not setting up your team or systems for success.
  2. Does my team have time away from work to unplug and recharge fully? According to Forbes, "vacation is essential to employee survival."8 With the stress and responsibilities of leading food safety, it is critical for team members to fully unplug—think preventive maintenance. If we want people to operate at their fullest potential, then they need to recharge their batteries, de-clutter their minds, and rest. When is the last time equipment ran until it broke down, resulting in unscheduled downtime? The same concept applies to people when they are not provided time and space to recharge fully.  
  3. Does my team find meaning in their work? We have an insider joke in food safety that "people in food safety are not in it for the money." Although it is not really a joke, we do laugh about it. The people in this profession love the science, the people, the puzzles, and the challenges that food safety brings. While many start with this love, over time, the "warm feelings" may cool as firefighting sets in, resources become limited across the organization, and different values (or lack thereof) around food safety are observed. Revisit the why and purpose of each role for how it fits with the organizational bigger picture and the ultimate goal—safe, healthy food for our families and friends. Remember, people want to do work that matters.
  4. How can I invite my team to lead differently during the food safety culture journey? If different results are desired, then a different process is required. For the technical team to participate and lead differently, they must be invited in a new way. That new way may mean tapping into some unused skills, improving upon existing skills, or learning new skills. Ask different questions to generate new answers to help understand what will open the team to a new perspective. Remember to include competencies related to behavioral and organizational science in food safety roles to recognize the evolving discipline in this field.

At the end, when we return to the basics of caring and taking care of our team, they will in turn take care of us. That is what engagement is all about. It is time we get back to the basics of supporting our technical team members if we expect to improve food safety culture. These four easy questions will help put your organization on the right track!


  1. Harter, Jim. "Employee engagement drops for the first year in a decade." Gallup. January 7, 2002.
  2. Yeargin, Thomas A., Kristen E. Gibson, and Angela M. Fraser. "New Approach to Food Safety Training: A Review of a Six-Step Knowledge-Sharing Model." Journal of Food Protection 84, no. 11 (2021): 1852–1862.
  3. Alvarado, Christine. "2022's mission-critical word." Meatingplace. 2022.
  4. GFSI. "A Culture of Food Safety: A Positional Paper from the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)." November 4, 2018.
  5. Clifton, Jim and Jim Harter. It's the Manager. New York, New York: Gallup Press, 2019.
  6. "Grassroots Organizing 101: What is it and why is it important?" October 15, 2021.
  7. Bolden-Barrett, Valerie. "Workers with overstuffed to-do lists feel overwhelmed, not organized, study shows." HR DIVE. 2019.  
  8. Castrillon, Caroline. "Why Taking Vacation Time Could Save Your Life." Forbes. May 23, 2021.

After careers of working in food safety and quality for large and small companies, Tia Glave and Jill Stuber struck out on their own, founding Catalyst LLC, a business management consulting company that provides a roadmap for food manufacturers and retail organizations to build sustainable food safety cultures. Together they coach food safety and quality assurance professionals to make a difference at their companies by becoming better leaders and building food safety and quality into a trusted business asset to protect consumers, brands, and companies. Their clients can be found across top retailers and manufacturers and in startup companies in dairy, poultry, meat, produce, meals, baby food, snack food, beverages, and grains.