Does food safety culture matter?

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Introduction

I attended a ‘kitchen conversation’ at the Royal Society of Public Health head office in London recently with Sterling Crew (Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods) and Dr. Lisa Ackerley (The Hygiene Doctor). One of the conversations we had was around food safety culture and how important it is for food businesses in helping to provide safe food for customers.

It seems that ‘Food safety Culture’ is the new buzz phrase being thrown around in the food industry but what does it actually mean to a food business?


What is Food Safety Culture?

Food safety culture can be described as:

“the attitudes, beliefs, practices, and values that determine what is happening when no one is watching” (Safe Food Alliance 2020);

In simple terms:  ‘it’s what we do around here’ and it is everyone’s responsibility.

Staff need to understand why their actions are so important and the consequences if they get it wrong, for example if employees don’t wash their hands cross contamination could occur and customers could get sick. Unsafe behaviour means unsafe food which could be very damaging to your business and your customers.

It is important to remember that training will not necessary result in behavioural change unless staff put into practice what they have learnt. Therefore ticking the training box may mean staff have the knowledge they need but don’t put it into practice resulting in unsafe behaviours. 

From the top down

Food safety culture must have complete buy in from senior management and they need to take an active part in setting food safety policies, keeping current on the latest industry intelligence and market incidents, changes in legislation and new technological advances;  taking part in food safety meetings and following food safety procedures. For example if a senior manager enters the kitchen they should wear protective clothing and wash their hands, leading by example is key in developing food safety culture.

How can food safety culture be measured?

Measuring food safety culture can be quite tricky and may take some creative thinking but here are some ideas:

  • observing the percentage of staff that wash their hands (Sterling Crew 2020)
  •  The number of errors in labelling, out of date food etc.
  • The number of occasions that when problems arise for example a CCP fails, dishwasher breaks down etc, that this is recorded and action taken (this could be documented on a daily/weekly management audit)
  • observing how often wash hand basins in the kitchen are dry which can indicate lack of handwashing
  • Measuring staff knowledge by asking questions about allergens and food hygiene practices in audits
  • The results of mystery shopper visits
  • The number of food safety incidents – allergens, contamination, illnesses

Once measured then action should be taken to change behaviours to improve food safety culture and this is where nudge theory can be used.

Nudge theory – is the science behind:

‘encouraging people to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest – it is everywhere, once you wake up to it.’ (www.peoplemanagement.co.uk 2020)

In the workshop, Sterling Crew described how as a manager he stood and  observed staff at the wash hand station in a factory which resulted in everyone washing their hands. A few days later he put a ‘dummy’ box on the wall above the hand wash station and was surprised that all the employees continued washing their hands even though he wasn’t actively observing, as they thought the box might be covertly watching them, nudge theory can be very powerful. Nudge can help to ensure staff are doing the right thing even when managers, auditors and inspectors are not there.

Why bother with food safety culture?

A good food safety culture can increase customer satisfaction , offer greater assurance in food safety, result in less food safety incidents, help deliver a better product and service and ultimately increase efficiency and profitability of your business. So the question should be:

‘Why would you not bother??’

If you would like to share you experiences of building food safety culture  within your business or have had any success in changing behaviours to help improve food safety culture,  please contact Food Safety Logic via my website to write a further blog on real life scenarios of food safety culture: www.foodsafetylogic.co.uk/contact_us