5 Tips for Establishing a Strong Food Safety Culture

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restaurant manager and kitchen meeting

According to a recent industry study, less than half of the companies in the food industry have implemented a food safety culture plan.

This number is forecasted to rise in the coming years as savvy food manufacturers become increasingly sensitive to food safety regulations for both legal and financial reasons. The consequences of a food safety violation can be dire, and recalls can cost well into the millions.

As safety and transparency have become increasingly important, food manufacturers have begun focusing on establishing a strong food safety culture that balances cost with profitability. This article outlines key tips for establishing a strong food safety culture, including how technology can help.

What Is Food Safety Culture?

The importance of food safety culture cannot be underestimated. Promoting food safety practices is critical to reducing the incidence of foodborne illnesses while simultaneously increasing consumer confidence and the reputation of the food industry overall.

But what exactly is food safety culture? In a nutshell, it is the shared beliefs of an organizational team about food safety. It encompasses the attitudes, actions, values, and beliefs around food safety at every level of an organization.

When food safety is the focal point of an organization, it influences every decision made by employees at all levels of the company – from line workers to the executive team.

How Is Food Safety Culture Established?

Cultivating a culture of food safety requires a firm commitment to best practices, starting with leadership. When everyone is aware of the overarching goals and is willing to take ownership, a food manufacturer is more likely to find success in nurturing a robust food safety culture.

The following tips can guide organizations in establishing a firm commitment to food safety culture:

  1. Leadership Commitment: Because organizational culture comes from the top, leadership must be willing to invest time and money into creating and promoting this culture. This includes purchasing adequate machinery and instituting proactive maintenance and repairs.
  2. Training and Education: Businesses in the food industry should ensure that everyone receives proper education about the importance of food safety and complementary training to ensure that the appropriate standards can be met.
  3. Communication: Leaders should focus on fostering an environment of open communication. This means encouraging employees to ask questions, raise concerns, and make recommendations.It’s also a good idea to reinforce a culture of “if you see something, say something.” In other words, employees should not fear retaliation or punishment for bringing an issue to management’s attention.
  4. Employee Involvement: Ownership and buy-in are key to getting everyone on the same page, so to speak, and ensuring that each person in the organization serves as an advocate who promotes the culture.Transparency and visibility into goals and performance can encourage employees to take ownership of results. Instituting a system of rewards and incentives for reaching goals or demonstrating best practices can strengthen the food safety culture.
  5. Continuous Improvement: Learning from mistakes, undergoing regular debriefs, and providing ongoing training can help organizations focus on improvement. Review the results of recent inspections, customer complaints, and industry reports to identify and implement areas for boosting performance.

Common Challenges in Implementing and Maintaining a Strong Food Safety Culture

head chef training new employee on food prep in kitchen

While there’s no question that building a positive food safety environment is imperative to ensuring confidence in the food supply and preserving food manufacturers’ bottom lines, creating or changing a culture can be easier said than done.

Some of the most common challenges a food manufacturer may face when implementing and maintaining a strong food safety culture include:

  • Resistance to change: Generally speaking, humans tend to avoid change, mostly out of fear of the unknown. Changing policies could be met with skepticism, especially if it involves learning something new. This is why assertive and skilled leadership is so critical.
  • Limited resources: Depending on the organization’s infrastructure, implementing a strong food safety culture could be expensive. It may require investing in new machinery, undergoing company-wide training, or upgrading technological systems.
  • Complacency: If a company has had few, if any, food safety incidences, leadership might believe that there are no food safety issues. However, foodborne hazards can occur in virtually any situation, and employees need to remain vigilant.
  • Employee turnover: Food manufacturing companies tend to face high employee turnover, which can make creating and maintaining a culture especially challenging. Specifically, institutional knowledge becomes more difficult to establish, and there is a higher risk of errors in food handling procedures.
  • Shifting regulatory burdens: As the industry continues to evolve and numerous governmental and private organizations oversee food distribution, it can be overwhelming for a food manufacturer to stay abreast of what’s required to remain in compliance.

How Does Regulatory Compliance Impact Food Safety Culture?

The USDA has instituted strict food safety standards that must be adhered to if a food manufacturer is to be deemed compliant. It may also be necessary to receive certifications via third-party audits from organizations such as:

  • NSF International
  • SQF (Safe Quality Food)
  • BRCCGS (Brand Reputation Compliance Global Standard)
  • FSSC (Food Safety System Certification)

Regulatory compliance might initially seem like yet another expense for an organization or an unnecessary hoop to jump through; however, complying with regulations can have a dramatically positive effect on both food manufacturers and the industry as a whole.

When the public is aware of the regulatory standards and which businesses are in compliance, it increases consumer confidence and makes food manufacturers more accountable.

What Are the Consequences of Ignoring Food Safety Culture?

man feels pain in stomach after eating contaminated food

The most significant consequence of ignoring food safety culture is an increase in the risk and number of foodborne illnesses, which can have a cascading effect that erodes consumer confidence.

From an individual company standpoint, avoiding a costly recall is a major motivating factor for fostering a commitment to food safety. Recalls can be financially devastating, with the average recall costing $10 million in product costs, lost sales, and damage to brand reputation. What’s more, for about 5% of food manufacturers, the cost of a single recall could cost well over $100 million. These figures are staggering.

These costs could be avoided with a strong food safety culture. Not only does having a culture centered around food safety ensure that rules are followed, but it can also create a system of accountability.

Health Risks and Legal Ramifications

In addition to the costs of initiating a recall, there are other ramifications a business may face if it ignores implementing a strong food safety culture.

Foodborne illnesses that result from ignoring food safety culture can be dangerous to vulnerable groups, such as immunocompromised individuals, the elderly, children, and pregnant women. Further, there could be legal ramifications, including fines, lawsuits, and criminal charges.

Damage to Brand and Market Standing

Depending on the severity of a food safety incident, it can have far-reaching effects on a brand’s reputation. In extreme cases, a company may never recover. With the rise of social media and the instant dissemination of information, a brand can be instantly devalued before the company has a chance to respond.

How Can Technology Enhance Food Safety Culture?

Technology can provide advanced tools and revolutionary systems that aid companies in developing a strong food safety culture. From automation and monitoring systems to data analytics (and even blockchain), technology is a powerful ally for food safety initiatives.

Automation and Monitoring Systems

One of the biggest reasons to implement automation is to reduce the risk of human error. Still, automation is not foolproof, so combining automation with monitoring offers further assurance. For example, systems can be set up to monitor temperature, humidity, air quality, and other relevant parameters.

Specifically, x-ray systems can detect contaminants, foreign objects, and quality defects. When an issue is detected, a human can step in to prevent the food product from going further downstream.

This is why having a robust food safety culture is so vital. Every employee in the organization needs to be able to interpret anomalies among their respective departments.

Data Analytics for Continuous Assessment

Technology enables organizations to collect and analyze vast amounts of data and make informed decisions in real-time. Using data analytics in the food industry can allow a manufacturer to respond to data regarding temperature logs, sanitation records, and quality control parameters.

In turn, this information can help a food manufacturer detect patterns and respond proactively before a more serious issue arises.

TDI Packsys is committed to helping organizations implement and maintain a strong food safety culture. For more information about our end-to-end inspection and packaging solutions, call us at 877-834-6750.

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