To create a food safety culture in any organization, there first must be understanding of what this means.

I frequently discuss the importance of having a food safety culture with operators of a variety types of companies, and they all tell me the same thing: “my company has a great food safety culture.” But when I ask what that means, their answers are not as confident.

So, how do you build a good food safety culture and make sure your employees embrace it? Understanding the value of food safety is where it begins. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 Americans contract a foodborne illness each year.

When food safety policies and procedures are created, correctly implemented, and instilled as part of a business culture, mistakes that can lead to foodborne illnesses are significantly reduced. 

As a result, in addition to boosting food safety, profit increases, employee morale soars, employee turnover is reduced, absenteeism is minimized, and the company’s reputation remains secure. If food safety is neglected, food contamination can cause outbreaks, which not only critically damage a company’s reputation, but can also result in criminal negligence lawsuits and bankruptcy.

A food safety program that works for one organization may not work for another. It is necessary to find what works best for each organization, and then be committed to continuously reviewing the processes, evaluating them based on feedback and measurable results from team members and, when necessary, making changes.

If possible, company leaders should create a food safety team to collect data that can be used to analyze results. Use key performance indicators to study what is happening within your company – this is how you will determine what, where, and when changes need to be made.

Using feedback and data, a culture of food safety can be built on a set of shared values that management and employees follow to produce food in the safest manner. Establishing and maintaining a food safety culture means that management and employees recognize the risks linked with the products or meals they produce, understand why controlling the risks is important, and successfully manage those risks in an evident way.

In an organization with a good food safety culture, employees are expected to enact practices that represent the shared value system and point out where others may fail. By using a variety of tools, consequences and incentives, corporations can show their staff and customers that they are aware of current food safety concerns, that they can learn from others’ mistakes, and that food safety is important within their organization.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were eating at a restaurant that is part of a large organization. I am certain this company would say they have a good food safety culture.  Yet as we were eating in the dining room, I observed the cook eating food and drinking a beverage with her single use gloves on while preparing food for customers. She didn’t wash her hands or change her gloves the entire time we were there!

Such behavior has the potential to cause a foodborne illness outbreak. Clearly, somewhere in the company there was a breakdown in the value system, and this employee wasn’t following proper food safety protocols.

While there are many exceptional operations that have great food safety cultures, I have walked into establishments on many occasions to conduct health inspections or third-party inspections only to see employees and management tripping over each other to fill buckets of sanitizer, put on aprons, date product, etc., because they knew an inspector was in the building.

Building a food safety culture involves activities that go beyond grabbing a broom and sweeping up dirt.

When I see employees scrambling to “catch up” on the food safety protocols because I’m visiting and inspecting their facility, I know – and they know – that they have been neglecting tasks that they should have been doing on a regular basis.  Witnessing them scramble indicates that these people do not take food safety seriously. In a company with a good food safety culture, the standards are the same every day, regardless of whether there is an executive or a health inspector visiting. Because the health of your customers and the reputation of your company are, ultimately, your biggest concerns.

As you are creating and implementing your food safety plan, some important items to remember are:

  • make training fun
  • lead by example
  • explain why
  • follow up
  • use job aids

Creating a food safety culture takes more than discussing it at an occasional staff meeting or industry conference. It takes commitment by every level of management and staff, every second of every day.  And when you have that level of commitment, employees will be more inclined to take their jobs seriously and less likely to take chances that put the company at risk.

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