One size can fit all, but not usually in food safety efforts; although it can be said in that regard, we all do wear the same "clothes." In truth, food safety guiding principles are the same for all companies, but how they are used is dependent not only on the uniqueness of the company (e.g., size, number of facilities, product line, customer mix), but also upon the biases and culture inherent to the company. The latter are often underestimated in their importance and impact.
To address these relevant topics, Food Safety Magazine recently hosted a webinar, “One Size Fits… How to Adapt your Food Safety Culture Efforts to Functional Ways of Working,” which featured the authors of this article as the panelists and moderator.1 Of special note is that the three panelists (comprising a group of experienced senior leaders from Arla Foods, Blue Apron, and Birchwood Foods) and the moderator (a food safety culture expert and change management consultant) have very different functional roles in the management of food safety. This allows a wider lens to be focused on the issues and models the very behavior most food companies are trying to achieve—i.e., everyone in the company owns food safety.
This article summarizes and collates the key points made by the moderator and panelists. For clarity and emphasis, the industry authors also provide some real-life examples within their companies.
The Genesis of the Webinar
The webinar explored how to recognize and manage biases to improve food safety by looking into how company culture influences biases. The panelist leaders at Arla Foods, Blue Apron, and Birchwood Foods have actively worked to understand and change their functions and their biases to improve food safety through their respective company cultures. The webinar also explored how food safety professionals should reflect on their biases, and how these insights might help or hinder efforts to engage others in taking action to improve food safety.
Culture and the Company
Participants were asked to respond to a two-question poll. The first question related to whether or not the participants' companies had a written food safety culture plan in place. Approximately 60 percent of the participating companies (n = 347) responded that they did have a food safety culture plan, with one-third not having an established culture plan. The second question related to whether or not those plans were distilled down to the functional level. In this case, only about 30 percent of the companies responded with a "yes."
These poll responses indicated to the presenters that many opportunities still exist within food companies to develop formal and consistent plans to improve food safety culture within the organization.
A common example was shared of a value espoused by many companies, although its manifestation by functional area and job role can change dramatically: "Everyone is responsible for food safety." To the CEO, this may mean having good listening skills and responding to needs as they are communicated. To the Operations leaders, this may mean that the Production departments make product to specification, on time, with customer needs in mind. To the Finance leaders, this may mean observing what other departments are doing without getting involved, since there is no obvious need for financial leadership in this situation. The Sales leaders may see their role as simply to make sure that the Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) people in the company are connected with their counterparts in the customers' company. Finally, the Product Development leaders may take the value of "everyone is responsible for food safety" to mean that their FSQA team will let them know if they need to do anything.
All of these assumptions require change! While the above views of roles relevant to food safety were once considered the norm, these perspectives are changing. To change the company culture, the roles and responsibilities involved in food safety must change.
As Cultivate has learned through thousands of interviews with food companies worldwide, these "practical behaviors" are indeed very typical. They fall under the mantle of a shared corporate value of "everyone is responsible for food safety." As with the responses to the two polling questions, these behaviors highlight the opportunity for improved cultural behavior patterns that will encourage everyone in the company to actually "walk the talk" about food safety.
Culture, a Level Deeper
Organizational culture can be defined as "A pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration ... [A] product of joint learning."2 With the right efforts, tools, direction, and commitment, a company's culture can be quantitatively measured. Once the appropriate metrics are in place, that culture can be steered toward improvement.
Cultivate research shows that culture can be broken down into the measurable dimensions of adaptability, consistency, people, values, and mission. Each of these has its own set of definitions, which is also measurable (e.g., adaptability concerns handling change; consistency examines how aligned procedures are; people comprises knowledge and training; and values and mission encompass the setting of priorities).
It is also worth noting that there is no "one size" for culture across a company. Rather, if one measures the cultural dimensions and sub-dimensions across functional roles, then the cultural maturity levels of each function are shown to be very different from each other (according to Cultivate data from 120 companies). Hence, no single value can be applied to the cultural dimension of the company as a whole.
Why does this occur, and why are the functional maturity levels typically so different? Clearly, knowledge and expectations of employees across the functions play a role; so, too, do competing and different performance measures and expectations. What is not so obvious is actually a key driver of these differences: functional biases.
Cultural Biases in the Company
Biases are established neurological shortcuts (psychologists call these heuristics) that are established over time based on our experiences, the environment, and learnings. By being aware of our biases (individually and collectively), we can more effectively influence change and improvements in organizational culture to drive improvements in food safety performance. Biases assist us in making decisions and judgements without perfect knowledge. In this sense, they are actually very helpful; however, they may also lead to wrong conclusions. This includes making judgements on food safety risks. Biases can be categorized to help identify them, but what is key is the simple recognition that bias of any type plays a significant role in our influence on a company's culture.
As one example, a "confirmation bias" is the tendency to search for and favor information that confirms our beliefs, while simultaneously ignoring or devaluing information that contradicts our beliefs. In a food company, it is typical that when there is a food safety issue, the FSQA team jumps in to lead the battle and direct the troops. Operations employees will get out of the way, since this approach has always worked in the past. These employees are confirming that "FSQA solves all food safety problems."
As a second example, a "categorization bias" is using what is already known about an issue to put those issues into categories, whether or not they really belong in them. In a food company, this bias typically plays out in the belief that an employee must be in FSQA to have an influence on food safety. Other functions can then quickly conclude that they are not, and need not be, involved in preventing or resolving the food safety issue.
Note that whether or not these biases have a defined label, the consequence is the same: the organization tends to rely almost exclusively on the FSQA team to handle its food safety risks and issues.
"It's the FSQA Department's Responsibility!"
The presenters were unanimous in their belief that the most prevalent corporate bias in food companies is that all food safety issues are solely in the realm of the FSQA team. A related behavior is that other functions then work to defend the status quo, as "we have always been fine."
We all know and should accept the value of "food safety is everyone's responsibility." Thus, everyone must be a food safety advocate, with shared accountabilities. In a diverse and global workforce, we need to take into account different ethnic values and norms, and of course different languages and literacy levels. This is a large challenge, but also an opportunity.
Training beyond the Minimum
Another categorization bias within most food companies is that the sum total of food safety knowledge resides with the FSQA team since this team comprises the technical and subject matter experts. This often plays out in an additional bias that only the FSQA team needs food safety training. In this typical scenario, the FSQA team becomes shackled with "policing" food safety behaviors, while the Operations team takes on the role of trying not to get caught doing the wrong thing, and may be seen as focusing only on "securing the deliveries."
Since almost all organizations have a relatively constant flux of employees in and out of the organization, at different levels, and with different degrees of experience, it cannot be assumed that everyone has been taught the same in food safety. What they understand, what they practice, and what they believe can be vastly different depending on their prior job experiences and training, as well as their personal upbringing (e.g., whether or not eggs should be refrigerated).
This also means that "training" needs to extend far beyond the usual Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) training that is too often very basic and repetitive to meet self-prescribed [e.g., Safe Quality Food (SQF)] training requirements. An important question to ask is, "Should we be focusing on training or learning?" People need to be educated to understand the "why" of what they are being asked to do. Providing employees with training beyond the minimum required reinforces that food safety is everyone's job, not just the responsibility of the FSQA team. Investing in more extensive training conveys that everyone needs to have a deeper understanding of food safety, and that they are being expected to take a more expansive (and active) role in ensuring food safety.
Sources of Motivation
For the most part, no one comes into work each day intending to do the wrong things, or to do wrong. Hence, there is already an inherent motivation on the part of employees, regardless of function, to want to learn more about "what's right." Employees want to feel confident in their job and be knowledgeable in how to do it right.
Another strong motivator for a company to improve its food safety culture, practices, and results is its customers. All products shipped to a customer must be safe; this is implicit in every business model. Even more important is listening to the voice of the customer. Each customer has their own norms, values, and beliefs that they translate into food safety behaviors, and for the most part, these customers expect the same from their suppliers.
Each of the panelists is playing a key role in driving food safety culture improvements at their respective organizations, independent of their functional roles within them. Each has addressed human biases, training and education, motivation, and culture assessment, all in the interests of improving food safety risk management and, therefore, their company's reputation and bottom line. A number of recommendations came out of the panel discussion:
- Human Resources (HR) can be a driver of culture change—far above being a simple repository and trainer for governmental regulations for employees. HR can be a business resource for culture change and related training.
- Food safety teams should include the voice of the customer. The teams can include business partners and employees/leaders from other facilities within the company. Cross-fertilization in this regard can be a powerful catalyst for redistribution of best practices.
- Members of food safety teams must be actively engaged in the scope of their food safety work. This cannot just be "a line on the organization chart." In particular, Operations leaders must share responsibilities on the company's HACCP team, and they need to have extensive food safety training (e.g., HACCP). They must be advocates for the right food safety behaviors. One-on-one discussions should be held with key leaders to understand how actions might resonate with them and how food safety decisions might affect them.
- Each of the company's top/senior functional leaders should be accountable for specific major priorities in food safety. The CEO also should be actively engaged and ensure that everyone is driving against the same values. Of course, this does not absolve the FSQA team from applying its specific expertise.
- Training all employees in the "why" of food safety is critical. It is very useful to leverage the expertise of an outstanding trainer who has worked across language and literacy levels.
- Helping each other is key. It is important to recognize when someone has a different "take" on a situation, especially if their action in that situation was untoward. In realizing that they likely did not mean to do anything wrong, and that their actions are likely consistent with their training and personal biases, we have a responsibility to understand one another.
- Recognizing biases—both good and bad—is crucial. Learning about the types of bias, and creating a non-defensive environment where people can share their biases with one another, will help build a foundation for common understanding and trust.
The webinar ended with the panelists addressing a few questions. These questions indicated challenges faced by many food companies regarding how to engage people in food safety efforts when they do not want to; how to work with someone who thinks they know the answers, but they really do not; and equipment and facility design issues, such as how far a handwashing station should be from a production line. It is beyond the scope of this article to address each of these questions in depth, but suffice to say that the recommendations noted above can be very helpful. People have different views, which simply means that we must strive to come to a common understanding as to "why." We need to have the conversations around those "whys," and we need to educate on the risks of not doing things right.
The number-one recommendation is to have patience. Making progress in the right way, with the right scope, and for the right reasons takes time. You will then find that there is always a "size" that fits your company.
The authors thank all of the participants on the webinar, as well as the companies who courageously shared their learnings and insights. Special acknowledgment goes to Cultivate Editor-In-Chief Bob Lijana for his support on this piece.
- Food Safety Magazine. "Webinar: One Size Fits… How to Adapt your Food Safety Culture Efforts to Functional Ways of Working." Panelists: Lone Jespersen, Kim Crawford, Charlean Gmunder, and Vibeke From Jeppesen. August 30, 2022. https://www.food-safety.com/events/533-one-size-fits-how-to-adapt-your-food-safety-culture-efforts-to-functional-ways-of-working.
- Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 4th Ed. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass: 2010.
Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., is the Founder and Principal of Cultivate, an organization dedicated to helping food manufacturers globally make safe, great-tasting food through cultural effectiveness. She has significant experience with food manufacturing, having previously spent 11 years with Maple Leaf Foods. Dr. Jespersen is also a member of the Food Safety Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.
Charlean Gmunder is Blue Apron's Chief Operating Officer. She has held leadership responsibilities in both large multinationals and smaller North American food processing operations. Before joining Blue Apron in November 2020, she was the Vice President of Catering Operations with United Airlines; Vice President of Operations, Prepared Meat for Maple Leaf Foods; and held a variety of leadership roles in manufacturing, engineering, quality assurance, logistics, and sales at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company. She holds a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering and an M.B.A., both from Rutgers University.
Kim Crawford is Corporate Vice President of Human Resources and Safety for Birchwood Foods. Bringing over 20 years of HR and Safety experience to the role, she leads Birchwood Food's HR and Safety programs to attract and retain the best talent, as well as to maintain a safe workplace where every employee has the opportunity to grow and do their best work. She is a member of the NAMI Labor, DE&I, and Worker Safety Committees, as well as the national and local Racine/Kenosha chapters of SHRM.
Vibeke From Jeppesen is QEHS Director for Global Product Safety and Global Logistics at Arla Foods. She has worked as a research scientist and with quality assurance in laboratories, as well as with education and consulting for quality assurance and product safety risks in the food and pharmaceuticals industries. She was responsible for global product quality in the manufacturing of ingredients with Chr. Hansen, and now for the fast-moving consumer goods industry with Arla. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology, with a background in food science.