What is Food Safety Culture?
It is more or less impossible to have a conversation about the current state of food production without hearing the phrase Food Safety Culture come up. While one could be forgiven for thinking this is just another buzzword, the concept of building and maintaining a food safety culture has become a part of industry standards and best practices for food production.
So what exactly is Food Safety Culture? For a start, it goes beyond just having a strong food safety program. After all, even the best food safety program in the world means essentially nothing without people who care enough to follow the procedures in the program. That is, in essence, what a Food Safety Culture is: a culture where those in it are invested in the procedures put in place to maintain a facility that produces safe, high quality products. The establishment of such a culture begins at ground level.
Food Safety Culture basics
The first and most obvious part of Food Safety Culture is a food safety program. Building such a program means knowing the proper rules, regulations and procedures for maintaining a safe and hygienic environment. When building this program, those wishing to have a Food Safety Culture rather than merely a program should bring everyone involved into the planning and creation process. This engages employees and gives them pride and ownership: people are far more likely to engage with a program they helped to create rather than orders given down from on high. That does not mean responsibility for the culture's creation is on the employees - management must set the example of what Food Safety Culture looks like.
So we come back to the question again: what is Food Safety Culture? It is a combination of strong leadership, accountability, effective communication, engagement and best practices that culminate in a safe and hygienic food production environment. It supports keeping everyone - from the employees at the production site to the customer at the supermarket - safe.
Why is it so important?
Unsurprisingly, creating a real culture of food safety takes no small amount of effort - and of course, no small amount of money. Yet the creation of a Food Safety Culture is considered important enough that the ISO 22000 standards include a specific Food Safety Management System (FSMS) that emphasizes much of the same points as any other discussion about Food Safety Culture. Namely, the assertion that management has the responsibility for fostering a culture of food safety. The Global Food Safety Initiative's 2018 position paper, "A Culture of Food Safety," addresses these assertions.
Producing food safely is obviously important, of course - few things are worse for a company than ill or dead consumers, after all. A Food Safety Culture leads to employees that are not just invested in the success of the program, but who feel empowered enough to enforce the requirements of that program regardless of rank. Getting employees to place the enforcement of food safety rules above all else eliminates the risk of an employee prioritizing speed over safety, or making an exception to the rules for someone higher-ranked in the company. A Food Safety Culture is one in which employees know that the rules apply to everyone, and are empowered to enforce them.
The Future of food safety
With recent global events, the question of hygiene is on everyone's mind more than ever before. Consumers are more sensitive to product recalls caused by contamination, making a safe food production environment more important than ever. Companies that build a Food Safety Culture rather than just adhering to industry guidelines will find they have an advantage in avoiding product recalls caused by contamination or sloppy manufacturing processes.
To learn more about the importance of Food Safety Culture for food audits, we recommend our Expert Talk with Chryssa Dimitriadis, Head of Food Standards at IFS.