By Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D.
This is the last of a series of three articles on food safety culture. In the first article, we focused on the growing pressure that food businesses face in cultivating a positive food safety culture (legal, regulatory, customer requirements, GFSI, etc.) and why it is so challenging to do it. In the second article, we turned our attention to the importance of Saving Lives Officers (SLO) and why changing the SLO mindset is the basis for your food safety culture journey. Now, we will briefly unveil the second and third steps of the framework.
The three steps I envision to cultivate a positive culture can be found in my newly published e-book I’m a SLO—The Mindset and Framework to Cultivate a Positive Food Safety Culture. You can get the e-book here.
Much has been written on this topic, especially in the last decade. Three of the most relevant documents are certainly the GFSI’s guidance document for developing food safety culture (2018), the Codex Alimentarius General Principles of Food Hygiene (2020 version) and the EU Commission Regulation 2021/382, which in 2021 added an annex on food safety culture to Regulation (EC) 852/2004. This regulation enforced the need for food business operators (FBOs) to establish, maintain, and provide evidence of an appropriate food safety culture in the EU.
In all those documents, evidence of a positive food safety culture can be assessed by looking at different dimensions. In the figure below, the five dimensions proposed by the Codex Alimentarius, which are used in the EU Commission Regulation, are presented:
The initial advice I give when I’m working with clients is to describe what these dimensions mean to them. The Codex and the EU Commission Regulation provide brief descriptions, but a more detailed explanation of the business expectations for each dimension is necessary to enable the assessment.
I have noticed in my experience that most of the time employees have different visions and perceptions about the organization depending on where they work. This kind of assessment will likely have different results depending on whether employees work on the plant floor or at the management level. This is why, in my opinion, it would be an error to average the survey results. Moreover, the questions used in the assessment should be adapted to the two different levels.
For this reason, I include in this framework a two-level assessment. Organizations should prepare different surveys for front-line workers and for managers. Results will be evaluated separately but should be compared. In the case of very different results, the organization should assess why there is perception gap for a specific dimension. If you believe that a two-level assessment will be confusing, at least in the first years of your journey, by all means use the same survey for everyone.
After collecting the survey answers, the average result for each dimension can be displayed in a graph (a radar graph would be my suggestion). Looking at this graph, it is simple to identify which of the dimensions are further away from optimal.
Remember, the food safety journey is a long one. So, as soon as you have a picture of which dimensions have lower maturity, my advice is to carefully plan the next steps. Prioritize your actions and don’t forget what we have discussed in the previous articles of this series. Consistency in your actions is fundamental for culture change.
The last stage of the framework is to follow key performance indicators (KPIs) that indirectly measure the effect that food safety culture has on the organization’s performance. Examples of KPIs that can be used may include, among others:
- Participation in food safety trainings
- Knowledge of food safety risks
- Food safety budget
If organizations already have KPIs defined, it is worth the work to assess if they can be correlated with any of the dimensions before starting to create new KPIs, at least in the first years of the food safety culture journey. This would look like a reverse engineering exercise where from the KPI we identify which food safety culture dimension(s) affect the KPI.
We have covered a lot in this three-part series about food safety culture. In a nutshell, we have seen why cultivating a positive food safety culture is challenging, why we should start with the SLO mindset, and the three-steps framework. Let me invite you into the SLO framework and community by getting my e-book, 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.