By Roger Roeth
In the past year with many of the GFSI food safety standard updates, a new requirement called “food safety culture” was added. GFSI saw the need to make this a hard requirement even though many of the food safety standards had elements of a food safety culture already in them. The GFSI Technical Working Group defined food safety culture as “Shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mind-set and behavior toward food safety in, across and throughout an organization.”
I have also seen food safety defined in the following mathematical equation:
Food Safety = Cultural Science + Social Science + Food Science
Culture has been a part of our society since the beginning of time through ethnic culture, national and community cultures, and even sports team culture, so it is nothing new.
Key aspects of a food safety culture begin with development of core values, beliefs, and ethos. What is important to your company? Ethos is the characteristic spirit of culture manifested in the organization’s beliefs and aspirations. It’s not a formal system—it’s a set of core values and beliefs. You want the core values to be a normal response and not one that the employees need to think about specifically. For example, washing hands is a natural action that should occur when touching a non-food surface or after going to restroom. Values are shared with new members of the company and operationalized in groups through norms and behaviors. Values are formal, as they are written down, but the underlying norms and behaviors that are in many cases unwritten and sometimes unspoken are more informal.
A company’s core values transcend all aspects of the business and informs the food safety culture. A strong food safety culture includes food safety whenever decisions are made. A good example of this concerns David Theno, the chief food safety officer from Jack in the Box. In his briefcase, Theno carried a photo of Lauren Rudolph, who died at age 6 from the 1993 outbreak of E. coli. If you are unfamiliar with this outbreak, it involved the Jack in the Box chain and resulted in four deaths of children under the age of 10. Another 178 victims were left with permanent injury, including kidney and brain damage. Theno’s programs saved the business and also changed the hamburger industry. Every time a significant decision was to be made for the company, he would pull out and look at Lauren’s picture. This made the value of the decision real and helped guide him.
Communication is the next key aspect, and it needs to include all staff. Staff need to understand the values and ethos of the company. They also need a method by which they can share concerns. Methods of communication include posters, the company intranet, meetings, shift huddles, videos, mentoring, feedback programs (employee surveys), buddy programs, a whistleblower policy, and recognition programs. Staff also need to understand the “why” of doing something. When I interview staff on the production floor about hygiene policies, I ask why certain requirements are in place. For example, when I ask if they can eat off the floor and they say, “No,” I ask why. I should hear something to do with cross-contamination or allergen hazards, not simply that it is a company rule. Understanding the whys help drive that principle into the employee’s head, meaning that they are more willing to follow it.
Another key aspect is employee competency. I have seen remarkable strides in company training programs, which are occurring as a priority for new and existing staff. In the old days, it was nothing to hire a person and then throw them to the wolves without any training. In today’s world, orientation training is completed prior to the first day on the floor.
Training and education are as essential and important for senior managers, middle managers, and supervisors as it is for frontline employees. Each group has its own food safety-related training needs. Senior managers are often excluded from food safety training but they shouldn’t be, since they can lead by example. If I see management not following the hygiene policy, then I get concerned about the message that sends to their employees. In addition to creating effective food safety training for a diverse workforce and verifying comprehension, it is important to determine the most efficient methods for its delivery.
Empowering a competent employee is the next key aspect of a strong food safety culture. Empowerment starts with engagement, getting people involved and keeping them involved. Employees at all levels should have the power to lead or initiate positive change. All employees are themselves consumers with families and should feel the sense of responsibility that comes from working within the food industry. Consequently, they should play a part in the decision-making process and be empowered to suggest improvements to reduce food safety risks. Communications at all levels within the organization should reflect this. Proper verification should confirm that efforts to generate hazard and risk awareness are succeeding.
Here is a chart I recently saw at one of my audits to describe the engagement model:
At the top is ENABLE—then ENGAGE—then EXEMPLIFY—and then ENCOURAGE
As an auditor, I get excited when I see companies use cross-functional teams to solve problems. I was at a site recently that had a team put together to address and reduce the number of holds in their facility. The team was made up of quality, production, sanitation, maintenance, and sales personnel. They used several tools in determining the root cause of the issue, such as fishbone diagrams and the Five Whys. They identified three key areas to address, brought people from those areas into the team, and broke each area down even more. The end result was they reduced internal holds by 75 percent and also reduced customer complaints by 50 percent. The company then had a celebration for the team after they had completed the project and the positive results were coming in.
When I began in the food industry, behavior was driven by negative feedback. A lot of yelling and screaming would drive adherence and conformance. Fear was the main tool to keep people in line and doing the right thing. This was the common culture in many industries in the 1970s and 1980s. Today we need to drive behavior through a positive process that generally includes a reward.
Incentives, rewards, and recognition can drive desired food safety behaviors. They can be formal or informal. In our office pre-Covid, we had a “Shout Out Board” where peers would recognize each other, which is a more formal process than the simple and informal “pat on the back.” We currently utilize a virtual “Shout Out Board.” Feedback should be given to staff frequently instead of waiting for an annual or semi-annual performance review.
Formal reward programs drive improvement as well. These programs can be driven by money, such as a bonus if targets are hit, or a celebratory event such as a company-sponsored lunch. When I was at Hillshire, we had a gain-sharing program in place. One of our areas was product yields. If we increased the yield of a product by 2 percent, then the company got 1 percent and the employees were paid 1 percent. Needless to say, our staff clearly understood the yield target for each product and how they affected it. Each department became a watchdog of the other departments. Performance measurement makes it possible to monitor in accordance with defined food safety policies, expectations, and requirements, as well as to acknowledge good performance and make improvements where needed. What gets measured gets done and gets improved.
To support an environment of continuous improvement, these measurements must align with the organization’s food safety priorities. One or more operational-level metrics such as process CPK, trends of key programs, CCP failure trending, consumer complaints, and audit performance can ultimately lead to a reduction in food safety incidents. Other mechanisms which monitor the business environment may include the use of internal and external insights including customer feedback and surveys, customer or consumer complaints, regulatory inspection results, and internal culture surveys. All of these can improve the food safety culture. All of the GFSI standards have these requirements in place, but many companies miss the mark. They may meet the requirements but they don’t create objectives that could really drive true continuous improvement—which is the goal of a strong food safety culture.
About the author
Roger Roeth is chief technical officer for EAGLE Certification Group. He has more than 42 years of experience in all aspects of quality assurance, compliance, food safety, and food processing manufacturing. He is a certified trainer for ISO 9001, FSSC 22000, and the SQF Auditor course as well as a lead auditor for these standards. He has conducted more than 500 GFSI food safety audits and helped develop the food safety programs for EAGLE. Prior to joining EAGLE, Roeth held the positions of director of technical services for Freshways Foods; general manager and food safety/ISO manager at Whiteford Foods; and director of quality control/R&D for Spring Farm Company, a division of Sara Lee Corp. His contributions included developing and implementing Good Agricultural Practices, HACCP, and a corporate food safety program as well as improved third-party audit scores, 50 percent reduction in customer complaints, and improved line efficiencies and product yields. He also was responsible for corporate training for HACCP, auditing, and ISO. He is a frequent speaker at the SQFI conference, local CIFT chapter training programs, various trade show conferences and Manufacturing Extension Partnership local conferences. He holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the Ohio State University.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of EAGLE Certification Group’s Certification Connection newsletter and is published with permission.