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Prasant Prusty and Arundhathy Shabu

Food Safety Culture Is the Key Ingredient To Prevent Foodborne Diseases

By Arundhathy Shabu, Prasant Prusty
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Prasant Prusty and Arundhathy Shabu

Culture is not an initiative but rather the enabler of all initiatives, as observed rightly by Larry Senn, who is considered the Father of Corporate Culture.  Similarly, food safety culture (FSC) is the solid foundation that enables organizations to ultimately minimize food safety risks. This is why the simple idea of food safety culture emerges to be a powerful concept in reducing the global burden of foodborne diseases.

Let us consider some facts:

  • Employees working in food enterprises worldwide are required to be well-trained in food safety practices
  • A vast amount of food safety research is conducted around the world to improve and enhance food safety management
  • Companies are required to follow elaborate food safety regulations that include mandatory testing and inspections

It is quite contradictory that food safety remains a major public health threat. One way to understand why this happens is that just because something has been done in a specified manner for a long duration does not necessarily mean it is being done the right way. Hence, there must be a missing ingredient fundamental to preventing food safety incidents, which many have concluded relates to lack of a strong food safety culture.

The Importance of Food Safety Culture in Simple Terms

The behavior of your staff and leadership demonstrates whether each employee understands and is committed to ensuring your products are safe to consume and of good quality. In short, food safety equals behavior. This is the core notion Frank Yiannas talks about in his book, Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System.

One of the most well-known outcomes associated with lack of a strong food safety culture was the PCA (Peanut Corporation of America) outbreak in 2009 when peanuts contaminated with Salmonella caused nine deaths, 11,000 to 20,000 illnesses, and a recall of 4,000 products. A proactive food safety culture that is centered on rigorous testing, quality control protocols, sanitation and traceability measures could have detected and prevented the spread outbreak, saving lives and money.

Companies are investigating and/or implementing food safety culture training and practices because no matter what we say or document regarding food safety, we cannot make progress unless we actually put these words into practice.

A systematic review of the scientific literature on food safety culture (FSC), published by the FDA in 2022 views food safety culture as a scientific concept. In conducting the study, FDA aspired to present food safety culture as a valid subset of science, rather than just a slogan, and use the knowledge obtained to provide tools that stakeholders can use to develop and assess their own food safety culture. This review is considered the primary groundwork for FDA’s efforts to uplift food safety culture in the industry, among consumers, and in regard to the present regulatory oversight.

Challenges and Barriers to Accomplishing a Strong and Effective Food Safety Culture 

The predominant challenges and barriers to creating, promoting and evaluating a strong and effective Food Safety Culture, as presented in the review, include:

Over-reliance on food safety management systems (FSMS)

FSMS plays a non-negotiable role in every food enterprise. Nevertheless, FSMS tend to be process focused and thus do not affect how human attitudes influence food safety. This is where a behavior-based FSMS is beneficial to forge a well-built FSC, as it offers a total system approach based on scientific knowledge of human behavior, organizational culture, and food safety.

Prioritization of cost-saving and money-earning

A profit-focused mentality is often the main barrier to implementing a positive FSC. Compromising food safety principles to save costs is never a good strategy. It can even be counter-productive as a negative FSC can eventually lead to a food safety incident, generating tremendous economic losses for the organization. An ideal FSC ensures that an obligation to food safety exists throughout the firm that outweighs all other company goals and practices.

Frequent staff turnover

Continuous staff turnover is a common phenomenon in the food sector. High staff turnover requires constant training and supervision to ensure employees’ understand the risks and other essential criteria needed for an adequate food safety climate. It also is challenging to ascertain the commitment and accountability of employees with temporary contracts.

Optimistic bias

Though it is said ‘experience is the best teacher, and the worst experiences teach the best lessons,’ it is always better for employees to realize that they are not immune to food contamination before experiencing a vulnerability to food safety. Every member of a food enterprise should know that they cannot afford optimism bias in terms of food safety, and that it is imperative to be prepared—and on the look out for—worst case scenarios.

How Digitalization Can Assist in Developing and Sustaining a Solid Food Safety Culture

Ideally, a commitment to food safety begins with management and permeates through the organization at all levels. Digital tools, particularly those used to manage the supply chain, can help. By establishing a network platform that integrates the online and offline worlds, digitalization connects all facets of the food production and processing chain. Let us break down how digital tools can be implemented throughout the food industry to enhance supply chain processes while nurturing a strong food safety culture.

1. Setting Expectations 

Digital tools allow for the efficient creation, distribution and maintenance of food safety policies, procedures and protocols. By utilizing digital systems, organizations can document and disseminate clear expectations regarding food safety practices. This includes defining standard operating procedures (SOPs), hygiene protocols and compliance guidelines. These digital resources can be easily accessed by employees, ensuring that everyone is aware of the established standards and expectations.

2. Communication & Training 

The next step is to properly communicate the established strategies among the employees and enforce them. This is where learning management systems and digital employee training platforms come in handy, as they engage and educate employees by conveying information and instructions related to various aspects of the organization. These tech-enabled solutions can also play a vital role in authorizing employees to collaborate via more efficient communication channels, address food safety compliance concerns and initiate appropriate corrective and preventive actions when necessary.

These tools allow companies to create training programs that utilize interactive modules, visual content, videos and quizzes to enhance employee learning and retention, while accommodating diverse learning styles such as flexible self-paced or group training. The training courses can be scheduled and assigned to individuals or groups according to the configured training types. Alerts and notifications can be promptly delivered to relevant personnel to inform them about critical updates and send reminders regarding their training courses. They also help companies track and manage training assignments, ensuring that employees complete required training within specified timeframes. Overall, they empower organizations to propagate information efficiently, advance knowledge transfer and ensure compliance with training requirements, thereby fostering a well-informed and competent workforce.

3. Monitoring 

Scheduling features of tech-enabled solutions offer a valuable means to successfully plan and monitor regular inspections, maintenance tasks and quality checks. Digital task assignment empowers employees to be accountable, confirm that responsibilities are clearly communicated, eliminate ambiguities in executing food business operations and track the progress and completion of each process, elevating the overall transparency of the supply chain process.

Notifications can be automatically generated to alert employees about upcoming inspections or any deviations from standard procedures. It is also possible to maintain an audit log, capturing and storing a detailed record of all food industry activities, actions and events. Another component that can be advantageous for monitoring efforts is a change log, which becomes useful for tracking modifications made to procedures, allowing for traceability, accountability and assistance with regulatory compliance efforts.

4. Reporting 

Digital tools typically include robust dashboards that can provide real-time insights into the supply chain. These intuitive interfaces can display data such as key metrics, compliance rates, inspection results, incident reports and corrective actions taken. Moreover, advanced filtering and drill-down capabilities enable users to delve deeper into specific data segments, facilitating in-depth analysis and comprehensive reporting.

Trend analysis tools can be employed to identify patterns and highlight areas that require further attention. They often incorporate predictive analytics and forecasting models, aiding businesses in predicting demand, optimizing inventory management and reducing waste. Furthermore, employee key performance indicators (KPIs) can be accessed through reporting mechanisms, and trend analysis features, which allows management to gauge employee contributions in upholding a food safety culture.

Tech-savvy solutions, such as food safety management software, are gaining significant traction in the market as they help food enterprises streamline their operations, optimize efficiency, promote transparency and accountability, and ensure compliance with food safety and quality regulations. All of which ultimately serve to instill a responsibility for food safety throughout your organization.