From The Editor | June 15, 2017

11 Critical Components Of Improving Food Safety Culture

Sam Lewis

By Sam Lewis, editor, Food Online

11 Critical Components Of Improving Food Safety Culture

Be sure to watch the entire web chat

The Grocery Manufacturers Association Science and Education Foundation (GMA SEF) and Cultivate Food Safety partnered with Food Online for a live web chat, Food For Thought: Establishing, Maintaining, And Improving Food Safety Culture. Here, Lone Jespersen, principal at Cultivate and former director of food safety and operations learning at Maple Leaf Foods details 11 points every company should consider when thinking about food safety culture.

Sam: Hello everyone and thank you for attending today's web chat. I'd like to thank GMA SEF for partnering with Food Online and providing us with excellent subject matter experts on this important and timely topic, and thank you attendees for joining us.

It's my pleasure to introduce to you our subject matter experts: Lone Jespersen; he's the Principal at Cultivate Food Safety and the former Director of Food Safety and Operations Learning at Maple Leaf Foods. We also have Brian Bedard, Executive Director of the GMA Science and Education Foundation.

Lone holds a Master’s of Food Science and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in that discipline. Lone is the Principal of Cultivate Food Safety, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of creating culture-enabled success for food processors and manufacturers. Prior to founding Cultivate Food Safety, Lone held several roles over the last decade with Maple Leaf Foods, including Director of Food Safety Strategy and Director of Food Safety and Operations Learning. Lone, thanks for taking the time to join us today.

Lone: You are most welcome, Sam. Thank you so much for this kind invitation. Your biggest trouble is probably going to keep me from talking too much about a topic that I'm so passionate about.

Sam: Well, we're delighted to have you with us. We also have Brian Bedard. He's the Executive Director of GMA SEF. Brian is a veterinary epidemiologist, international agriculture and food safety specialist, and senior manager with more than 30 years of experience in the U.S., Canada, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. His work has included projects and programs related to food safety, livestock health and production, research and development, extension education and training, and the facilitation of best practice food value chains through public/private partnerships. He currently serves on the Board of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, is a member of the U.S. FDA International Food Safety Capacity Building working group, and is an advisor to the Board for Safe Food Canada and Veterinarians without Borders. Brian welcome to our chat.

BrianBrian: Thank you everyone, Sam. It is my pleasure. We're very pleased to be able to be involved in this today given that we see food safety culture as a very important element of our programs, particularly in the U.S., but the things we're doing internationally as well.

Sam: Well, it's great to have you both with us. Our goal is provide you with knowledge and industry-leading practices food and beverage manufacturers should employ to establish, maintain, and improve food safety culture. Most importantly, we'll spend most of our time addressing and answering your questions, so again, feel free to submit them at any point during our chat.

Let's get this started. Lone, can you give us a broad view of today's topic, its importance, and some of the challenges the industry is facing within it?

LoneLone: I sure can Sam. I'm going to try to give you a few tidbits around a topic that many of us have spent a lot of time both researching and thinking about in practice in our companies.

To set the stage a little bit, I'd like to just start by talking a little bit through how culture is an emerging risk. Culture is something that is in every organization, has always been there. Food safety culture is not something you create. Everybody has one. You might not like it, but you have one, I guarantee you. When you think about food safety culture and the emerging risk, it's important to think about it in two ways:

It can either be either you have some, your organization is making assumptions around what food safety is and how food safety is managed, and events that can eventually lead to an outbreak where people are hurt.


It can also be that you have visionary food safety leaders in your organization where these leaders are actually saying, "It's not about necessarily preventing somebody from getting sick, from eating or drinking our product, but it is about us getting better at being proactive, seeing the risks ahead of time, and therefore it will not cost our organization or heaven forbid our consumers any harm because we have so much foresight in what we're being proactive.”

Next, this goes back to how you think about culture. I mentioned that everybody has one. It is really important, when we talk about culture, to think about it as something that is made of assumptions. Everyone make assumptions about what is accepted within their organization.

If you walk into any food manufacturing plant and you're forgetting to put on a piece of garb or hairnet, does anybody actually walk up to you and make you aware that you are not following the procedures or will people let it slide? Nobody does either or, either to call you out for making a mistake or for not telling you if you made a mistake. But, it’s the assumptions in that given culture it’s just how it operates, whether the mistake is called out or not. It's not about somebody coming to work and wanting to do something wrong, it's about being part of making the assumptions that lead to the decisions and the behaviors seen.

Culture is not about pointing fingers, it's not about finding something to hang your hat on if something goes wrong. It's about understanding what you have — strengths and weaknesses — and going from there to make improvements. It's about how you evaluate where you have strengths and weaknesses in your culture.

 I have the pleasure of chairing the GFSI Technical Working Group where we're trying to wrestle down the critical content that can go into a GFSI benchmarking document to say, “What should you look for to assess your current state of maturity when it comes to culture?” What are the strengths? What are your weaknesses?” We're looking at five different dimensions that we would be putting some measures to.

The first is around values and mission: How does a company value the mission? How does it get messaged by senior leadership? Are there some habits around it? Do you have regular meetings where you can demonstrate your leadership's engagement in food safety?

The second is around people. Culture is all about people. It's about how people act in groups, the panel. This one really looks at their communication patterns and the learning, is there a learning organization?

The third talks about consistency. Is it clear who's accountable for what? How is that accountability measured? Is it evident in the documentation as well?

The fourth aspect talks about adaptability. In adaptability we're talking about change; how does your organization react to change? Is it about new regulations coming out and we must now go do something different? Or is it about looking at when you do your HACCP reassessments, where can we continuously improve? How can we take out risk? Or how can we potentially minimize our verification activities? Because we have so much control over what we're doing and it's so evident to everybody what we're doing.

The fifth is about understanding and engaging in your product and process, specific hazards, and risks. We're not talking about training here. We're talking about engaging. How do you engage your workforce — frontline workers to your CEO — in your specific risks and hazards that you're dealing with in your company? We want to get away from having that statement said over and over again, “Food safety is everybody's responsibility,” because I'm so sorry to say, if that is the motive, then we are still stuck in that. Of course, it's everybody's responsibility. It's a given when you're in the business of making money and making food or drink.

All of this will be very much available to all of you later this year when the group finalizes its work. I urge all of you to look out for later in the year when we go out for consultation with the GFSI document.

Lastly I just want to talk a little bit about putting a plan together after you’ve evaluated how strong your food safety maturity is, where you have weaknesses and strengths, where you have gaps. For there, you can put a strategy together that can help you close them.

I like to think about six things when I speak about changing or transforming culture. It starts with vision and strategy; how is your organization structured around food safety? Does it have isolated ownership that sits within the technical services of food safety team? Or is it very evident that everybody has a very unique role that fits underneath their specific accountabilities in the company?

For instance, a maintenance manager is absolutely the best person in any plant to know the health of the equipment. That person needs to be very vocal, needs to be very engaged, understand the risks, and push at the HACCP reassessments because who else can know what kind of risks that might come from the equipment than the head of the maintenance department?

I would say the same for sanitation. Who is the best person to know where there could be risks? Go to those individuals and don't assume that because you have been engaged or owned food safety and quality as a function that you are the ones that must have all the answers. From my perspective, that is actually a bit of a significantly-low maturity culture.

As we go around and look at these six different things to change and strengthen culture, definitely look at your vision strategy, your structure, and the overarching components of your organization.

Next, look at the roles. Are roles clearly spelled out? If you are the maintenance manager, an outsider, not knowing your company, go in and look at that person's job description and see a clear line statement that says, "This is my role in food safety?”  Is it also clear how roles and responsibilities or rewards and recognition are structured? Is it a handshake to somebody or is there actually a bigger strategy around how we're rewarding and recognizing people's performance in food safety?

Third, examine learning and communication. I just had a conversation today with a client about taking training out of the vocabulary. Talk about learning; create a learning organization. Am I being trained or am I learning? Those are two very different situations, and learning programs mean individuals are responsible for their own learning, not just somebody that's sitting me down in an eight-hour PowerPoint presentation.

Four is around change leadership. Most of us have great colleagues in HR. HR are professional people and they know change leadership. They know the models around managing change. Tap one of them on the shoulder, "Give me a call and I'll give you a few references on what are the models for leading change". Don't underestimate how all of us react when it comes to introducing change. It has very fundamental impact on how we think and how afraid or frustrated we become and you can do a lot to minimize that.

Five is around consistency. We talked about that already. It's about accountability and how you put measurement systems in place and actually drive the behaviors you're looking for. If you're putting a measurement in place that says, "I must have an A++ in an external audit," most plans I'm familiar with will be ready for that. We are very good in food safety and food science to be audit ready, but not necessarily every day. Think about the measure; is that actually the kind of behavior you're looking for? While preparing for audit, or are you looking for everyday food safety activities that are being critically looked at? Are they right ones? Are they keeping our consumers safe? And constantly challenge whether you have the measures in places that are linked up with the behaviors you want to see, and if not, change them.

The last is around managing or strengthening food safety culture by looking at specific hazards and risks. Make sure everybody in your organization understands that you are making products that are testable to foreign material because of the type of raw materials you work with. Everybody needs to understand — from the C-suite, to purchasing, to the frontline, and other places — how that can impact your customers and what they experience when they eat your product.

Summing it up, we will have some more material coming out from the GFSI Working Group, so look out for that later this year. Culture is definitely something that you can either decide to wait and see if it is going to be an at-risk for your company or you can engage your leaders right now with some facts to say, "This is what could happen." Use some of the stories of those of out there who have been unfortunate enough to live through when consumers died or got very sick from eating our products. Use those stories to make sure that they don't go to waste and tell your leaders about them so they understand the connection between culture and the safety of our consumers.