In 2011, a major overhaul of the US food safety infrastructure began. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gave the FDA a new way to address food safety. In the past, the agency reacted to problems after they had occurred, but under FSMA, the agency now strives to prevent foodborne illnesses before they happen.
The full implementation of FSMA has been a long process. Most of the foundational rules have now taken effect, but in some ways, the transformation of food safety is still just beginning. As businesses strengthen their efforts to prevent foodborne illnesses, they've focused more and more on the goal of building strong cultures of food safety with their organizations. In fact, food safety culture is one of the four core elements in the FDA's New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint, the agency's plan to continue building on the FSMA foundation.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has made the importance of good food safety culture even more evident, according to the FDA:
The pandemic shined a light on what it truly means to have strong food safety cultures, which is all about the people who work on farms and in facilities accepting responsibility for producing safe foods and keeping those people safe when co-workers are sick." —New Era of Smarter Food Safety: Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Good Food Safety Culture?
An organization's food safety culture is the product of people's values and attitudes, their abilities and their behavior patterns, according to an article in Food Science and Technology. When an organization has a good food safety culture, its prescriptive safety rules are reflected in the real-world practices of employees and leaders at all levels and in every role. The shared belief that unsafe food should never make it to market is a core commitment of a good food safety culture.
So how do you measure food safety culture? These five questions can help you start your assessment.
Five Questions to Measure Food Safety Culture
- In your organization, do different teams and job roles have specific and clearly defined food safety rules and expectations?
It's important to have company-wide commitment to food safety best practices, but these overarching principles are not enough. Employees also need to know how to translate principles into action, understanding what they can do in their day-to-day work to adhere to these best practices, whether they're on the packaging line or the janitorial team. Don't assume that it's obvious or that it goes without saying.
When teams within an organization have their own shared routines and language for talking about food safety as it relates to their job responsibilities, that's a good sign of a positive food safety culture.
- Do company leaders talk about the importance of a commitment to food safety?
Leaders set the tone for their organizations. It's important that they talk about why food safety matters to the business, and that they return to that conversation often. There are many opportunities to reiterate this commitment, from mission statements and annual reports to company-wide emails, staff meetings and informal conversations. Regularly scheduled food safety trainings also help keep these conversations going, supporting the development of a strong food safety culture.
- Do company leaders "walk the walk" when it comes to food safety?
Employees will take note it if they see their leaders taking the time to participate in food safety activities, training and education. Walking the walk in this way is just as important as talking the talk—it shows that those ideas really matter, and that it's worth the time it takes to study them and put them into practice on the job. When leaders are seen acting out their commitment to the food safety principles that they express, it indicates a good food safety culture.
- Are your organization's food safety trainings and communications designed to reach ALL employees?
People have different learning styles. Some learn best by listening, while others learn better by seeing, by reading or by doing. The most effective food safety communications address many different learning styles. For example, a training can reinforce a verbal message with a visual demonstration or a hands-on experience. Similarly, some employees may be best served by multilingual training. Food safety training should also be accessible to any employees with disabilities. Inclusion is an important part of a positive safety culture. These ideas matter and should be easily accessible to every employee.
- Is there an established way to raise food safety concerns at your organization? And are all employees aware of it?
Many companies spend a lot of time developing their food safety plans but then overlook the need to have procedures in place describing what to do if things aren't going according to plan. Any employee at any level should know how to report any food safety concerns that they may have. And the best way to find out whether this is the case is to ask. An established and widely understood protocol for reporting food safety concerns is an important part of a strong food safety culture. And the simpler that protocol is, the more likely employees are to remember it and use it if necessary.
Taking the Next Steps
The five questions above are a great way to get an initial perspective on the food safety culture within an organization, but this is only a first step. As you take steps to improve or reinforce that culture, consider assessment techniques that can give you an even deeper understanding of what's going on. For example, conducting employee surveys and developing key performance indicators, or KPIs, around metrics like audit scores or hygiene compliance can help quantify any improvements in your organization's culture of food safety. The importance of a good food safety culture for food businesses of all kinds has never been clearer.