By Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D.
In recent years, the pressure for companies to develop a food safety culture has increased (legal and customer requirements, GFSI, etc.). With so much happening at the same time, it’s only fair that food safety professionals and companies seek support in initiating and developing a positive culture around food safety.
This article is the first of a series of three and follows the publication of my e-book I’m a SLO—The Mindset and Framework to Cultivate a Positive Food Safety Culture. (The acronym “SLO,” by the way, stands for “Saving Lives Officer.”) You can download the e-book’s intro and first chapter here.
Maybe you have noticed in the title of this article that I mention cultivating a positive food safety culture, not just any food safety culture. In fact, every organization already has its own unique food safety culture (for better or worse) because culture naturally forms when personnel collaborate! When people join together to work (and even in other social circumstances) a culture naturally evolves. In the beginning it may not be clear, or even change rapidly, but eventually the culture proactively progresses and is tacitly accepted by the group.
Food industry organizations must be in charge of the cultivation of this culture to ensure it best promotes and assures safe food to consumers. I don’t advise you to play Russian Roulette with food safety culture, for not only will you get hurt, but the consumers’ health and your organization’s reputation are on the line. (Neither do you want to unintentionally cultivate a toxic food safety culture.)
When organizations start to consider what to do to cultivate a positive food safety culture, they should be prepared for the following four main challenges:
- Novelty. It is not new for food safety professionals (when we enter some organizations) to actually feel things are done differently from the majority of the other businesses. There is something special; workers are more committed to food safety, and we notice a special effort to do things right. What is new now is the development of a systematic and measurable framework to promote those positive cultural characteristics. Although there were early publications, the GFSI Position Paper (2018) and the inclusion of requirements in EU legislation introduced added pressure for organizations to develop frameworks to document their systematic work for cultivating a positive food safety culture. This novelty is challenging for food safety professionals as there are few references on how it can be done effectively.
- Changing attitudes and behaviors. What is often overlooked is the fact that a culture of food safety is already present in many organizations. It is not as if we are starting from scratch such as taking a blank page and designing/developing an ideal or idyllic framework. We have to work with what we’ve got. Each organization has its own characteristics, background, top management, resources, process and procedures, regional and country nuances, and characteristics. And so, in a sense, each organization has its own culture. The challenge is to develop a framework that can assess the current maturity of the positive food safety culture and provide guidance to promote a change in attitudes and behaviors to increase its efficacy.
- Monitoring. “It’s not like weighing nails.” I think this is a good image of the challenges to monitoring a positive food safety culture. When we reach the end of a working day, we cannot tangibly measure how much we have grown the organization’s positive culture. There is no direct, objective, or bias-free monitoring system. The maturity inherent in the culture of is something that can be monitored either directly, by the workers perception and opinions on it, or indirectly, by the consequences of workers changing their attitudes/behaviors.
- Consistency. “We overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in 10 years.” This is a question of human psychology and is the reason for most people’s New Year’s resolutions only last until February 😀. This doesn’t mean that some things shouldn’t be changed from day to night, but this is hardly a case of culture. When we are looking to change culture, the magic word is consistency. Building a culture of food safety isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. In the long run, what is sustained are changes that are planned, understood, and consistent. Introducing new approaches every day, changing 100 percent what we have done so far, we will only confuse people and probably make them want to “abandon the ship.” If you change 1 percent every month and you are consistent throughout 10 years you will have a totally evolved/mature organization.
In recent years we have seen so many publications, workshops, debates, and conferences looking to suggest tools and how to measure the culture of food safety. I believe these tools and metrics will be effective, after we establish in everyone the appropriate positive food safety mindset. The “I’m a SLO” mindset should be the starting point of your food safety culture journey. You will get to know more about this mindset in the next article of this series. Meanwhile, once again, you can download the introduction and first chapter of I’m a SLO—The Mindset and Framework to Cultivate a Positive Food Safety Culture here.
About the author
Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D., is the founder of “The Why of Food Safety—I’m a SLO” initiative and author of several books and articles on food safety, namely FSSC 22000 and ISO 22000:2018 Blueprint and Food Safety in the Seafood Industry (Wiley). He is an author, consultant, and trainer in food safety with more than 21 years in the food industry as a food safety/quality and plant manager. He works exclusively to help food safety professionals achieve a more fulfilled career based on improving knowledge, improving competencies, and a growing mindset.