Earlier in November, I attended an international food safety conference held in Beijing. In the conference, several CEOs of large scale food enterprises agreed that culture of a company would determine the food safety of her products. Food safety culture is demonstrated by the routine behaviour of the top management and employees of a company, and reflects their beliefs and values towards food safety. Is food safety simply a slogan? Is protecting consumers’ health a key concern from the bottom of staff’s heart? Are employees really aware of the importance of food safety? Do they determine and promise to safeguard food safety? Under the economic temptation, will top management compromise their morals and produce adulterated food not fit for human consumption?
(Image Source: CFDA, 2015)
Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your commitment to food safety*:
Is it reasonable for people to expect my company to follow a food safety program?
Do I believe my food safety program is important for preventing food safety issues?
Does my attitude about food safety affect the success of my company’s food safety program?
Am I able and willing to share my food safety concerns or ideas for improvement?
Do I believe that completing food safety tasks is important and a good use of my time?
Am I willing to invest my company’s resources in food safety?
*Source: (Canada) Manitoba Government https://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/food-safety/at-the-food-processor/food-safety-culture.html
If your answer to these questions is “no”, then your company requires urgent improvements in food safety culture.
How to Establish a Strong Food Safety Culture
The conference participants generally agreed that food safety culture depends on several factors:
Leaders of a food company must set food safety as a top priority, and establish a clear food safety goal(s) for employees to focus on and achieve.
Moreover, establishment of a food safety policy, a food safety management system and relevant work procedures are essential to keep employees on the right track to produce safe food.
Top management shall also provide adequate and suitable resources (money, workers, work environment, facilities & equipment) for safe food production.
Engagement with employees (especially the one responsible for designing and implementing a food safety program) to formulate food safety control strategy is essential. This helps to increase their sense of belonging, enhance their commitment to the enterprise and strengthen their dedication to new food safety measures.
3. Walk the Talk
Employees are watching what the top management are doing. Leaders also need to strictly follow the rules of the food safety program they set. If they don’t follow the rules, they will not only lose credibility, but also fail to ask the employees to stick with the plan.
When a food incident occurs, the staff (even top management) committing the fault shall shoulder the responsibilities (e.g. fines, salary deduction, lay-off, etc.). When employees are held accountable, they are less likely to perform tasks wrongly.
Punishment is not the only way to change the behaviour of a staff. Instead, behaviour excellence of employees in food safety deserves a reward e.g. workers will receive extra bonus for “zero” food incidents over a given period of time. This approach is preferred by many farsighted CEOs of large scale food enterprises.
6. Effective Communication
In order to achieve the food safety goals, relevant information must be effectively shared and delivered to all employees. Moreover, an effective communication channel allows the top management to collect opinions and voicing concerns from employees. This enables improvement of the existing food safety control measures.
In addition, a food company with corporate social responsibility must also listen and collect the opinions of customers, and make food safety improvement where appropriate.
7. Continual Improvement
Complying with the regulatory standards i.e. minimum food safety criteria is inadequate. A food company should also try to adopt more stringent food safety standards, so as to meet or exceed industry’s best food safety practices.
Moreover, periodic audit (external and internal) also helps to find out the inadequacies of existing food safety management practices.
Employees must be aware of and understand the food safety goals of the company, safe food production procedures, the risks and consequences of a non-compliance. All employees, including top management of a food company are required to attend refresher and advanced food safety training from time to time.