From The Editor | July 11, 2017

Overcoming The Obstacles Of Food Safety Culture

Sam Lewis

By Sam Lewis

Overcoming The Obstacles Of Food Safety Culture

Be sure to watch the entire web chat or read part one and part two of this series

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; and Brian Bedard, executive director of the GMA SEF, discuss some of the common barriers manufacturers face in food safety culture and how to overcome them.

Sam: This next question is for Lone… Brian you can follow. What are the common barriers you're seeing from a good food safety culture being established? Is it a lack of motivation or drive from the frontline or ops leaders? What are some of the barriers and what are some of the common ways of addressing those barriers?

Lone Lone: I think there are several barriers I've seen in various companies. You just have to read some of the independent investigation reports following food recalls to also discovering some of these. But, I’d like to just hone in on two.

I think there is an element of ignorance, and I say that respectfully. It's about making assumptions: we've hired a group of food safety professionals, and then nobody else needs to really go in deep and understand what it's about. It's not, assumptions, it's not somebody that is malicious or doesn't want to do certain things, it's our assuming that we've hired people that are professionals, and therefore, we've got it covered. Making food is a complex operation. It takes much more than one department to really see the behaviors or have the behaviors that are required to not have mistakes happen.

I think there is a really big need for building that leadership engagement. I think, as food safety professionals, we own doing that, engaging our leadership so that it feels that they also own their culture change agenda, and how it fits into the overall organizational culture as well. We can bring that to them. We can be the ones with the stories. We can be the ones that come with all our passion. I've met so many passionate people about food safety. It's also bringing that to your leadership team so that you are giving your leadership team a chance to engage in changing the culture and minimizing this.

The other thing, and this might be less popular with many there's a need for us to look inward in the food safety and quality department and look at what kind of behaviors we use with our colleagues and is that inviting people to engage in food safety or is it not inviting them? That's something I see quite a bit across different companies; this tendency for food safety professionals to be a little bit like the dog that's going to be adopted and shown on video because she's the last one. We got to break that mold a little bit. We've got way more to offer than that.

I have never seen a function with so many passionate, talented people. You have to bring that to your leadership team. Make them see how food safety can be a big part of the avenue as a company that's taking a leadership position, engaging staff in what it means to make food safe, and make it an exciting agenda, not just a compliance and a police activity if you like.

Those are the two barriers I would hone in on: leadership engagement and how the food safety functions themselves encourage others to take ownership and engagement.

Brian Brian: I would try to look at it to support what Lone was saying, but at an operational level — the practitioner/operator level — and ask, “What are some of the barriers for the people on the plant floor ensuring food safety practices and other behaviors are what they should be?”

Lone mentioned the issue of time and cost; that’s always an important consideration. It’s especially important in a busy operation where you have to be cognizant of the time and costs involved. Further, maybe there are people who want to take some shortcuts that would compromise some of the basic steps in dealing with the risks and hazards.

Another thing to consider is the attrition rate. We hear that a lot. At that level, the turnover in a lot of these companies makes it difficult. If somebody's there, as I think Lone has alluded to, who knows what they're expected to do and what the consequences are, and suddenly you have a high attrition rate, then you have to train people or they have to learn what their behaviors are.

The third thing I'd like to touch on is learning and how we're training. Maybe we should be looking at in a different way. Maybe training should be more than just putting somebody in a room and show them PowerPoint presentations. What are some new ways of training? Are their new learning techniques that actually drive toward changes in behavior? How do we measure that pre and post-training?

We're working as an organization, GMA SEF, with a group of companies that are investing in these kinds of practitioner/operator level training programs — some of which are available now online, some are face-to-face. We're really looking at ways to do training programs that are driving towards changing behavior.

Lone: That’s an important idea, this notion of learning, how we make learning available to everybody, in what format, and how effective is it. For years, Campden BRI with Alchemy and others have done a survey of food manufacturers across the globe and we're still seeing the same barriers for getting enough time to train and seeing the value in training people on food safety. That’s still one of the biggest issues.

That's probably where we need to, as an industry and maybe as food safety professionals, come together a little bit and say, "How can we become more creative, use micro-learning, and use each other's tools and techniques so that we can provide people with what it is they need to practice behaviors we desire and deliver on the expectations we have.” That would be another opportunity for us to go look for how we can do that in a better way.

Sam: Thank you, both. There definitely are significant barriers and you described some great ways to overcome them.

We have time for two more questions. This one's coming from Dan, and I think this one's right in Lone's wheelhouse. She was mentioning GFSI earlier and this question has to do with that. Dan says, "Having to navigate an organization through a food safety event is one sure way to keep the culture front of mind. But, what are some ways to accomplish this when there have been no events and when excellent scores on the third party or GFSI audits are now the norm for the organization?”

Lone: I think there are probably three reasons why an organization decides to focus on strengthening their food safety culture, on maturing their food safety performance. One is as you rightfully say, “A crisis puts everybody on deck,” so let's just leave that one. Everybody understands how that drives focus.

I think the second one is having a visionary food safety leader who thinks outside of just delivering against the requirements of a GFSI benchmark standard or an internal audit standard for that matter. I mean visionary in the sense that understanding that requirements are not met because somebody goes out and checks a box. The requirements are constantly met because you're taking the time to provide people with what they need to actually be able to read the expectations and perform the behaviors that we're looking for, and taken the time to look at the measurement systems. That visionary food safety leader, in my mind — and I've had the great pleasure of coming across a number of them — very often comes at this change from a metric perspective.

What are we measuring? How do we measure food safety performance to leave “reactionary mode” (looking at recalls, customer complaints, and reacting to them)? What can you measure to drive the importance of change? If you look at how your environmental monitoring program, it starts with the product content surfaces, but it eventually leads to other zones of the plant. That’s where you find out if pathogens are in your plant; therefore you can prevent them from ever getting into your product contact zone or area. How can you get to those? How can you get to those visionary leaders? Maybe that leader is actually outside of the food safety team. Perhaps it’s an ops leader or a COO wanting to drive a more proactive approach. Whoever it may be, we need to be more proactive because ultimately, it's about brand protection and it's about keeping your consumers safe.

The third part is, at some point in time you're getting up into those higher levels of maturity. You're also going to see less waste — not what you put in the waste bin. I am talking about wasted time and efforts. If you don’t trust your processes, you have to verify more. If your culture is good, then you’re trusting your processes and you’re putting more of your sales dollars towards your bottom line than you are if you are in a low state of maturity. That's the third reason that I believe that culture efforts succeed. I know we don't like to talk about this in food safety, but with a more controlled and stable process and culture, there is an improved impact on the bottom line.

If you go to Crosby’s works from 1972, quality is free. He speaks very candidly about how mature cultures see about 2 percent of sales go toward cost for quality. Lower maturity cultures can see all the way up to about 25 percent. There's more recent data from ASQ on that as well. I don't think we should be blind to that.

Let me sum it up. Crisis: we know why that's creating a culture. Secondly, the visionary leaders know we need to do something to be proactive and many of them look to their measures in how that impacts behaviors. The third one, let's face it; it also impacts the bottom line when you're in a more mature culture.

Brian: If I could add some words of caution to what Lone said. The question alluded to the fact while we're doing great on our audits, meaning everything's rosy. I think most of the people appreciate that yeah, that's great. But, we see so many instances where companies, whether they're the manufacturing side and/or the retail side, they do great on the audits, but a week after they pass their audit they're back to poor practices. So I think we need to be cautious about the implication of performing well under your third-party audits. Doing well on an audit is not necessarily a reflection of your food safety culture. Just a word of caution there.

Lone: Jumping off what Brian just said, in those lower stages of maturity where you're creating change because of external pressures, it is a tough message to convey. How do you go to a plant manager, who's just gone through an audit very successfully and say it's not good enough? That's where you need your leadership engagement to say, “Fantastic effort to get us to this point. Now, let's do what we do on everything in our company, be critical of ourselves, self-critical, so that we can know where we go next from here.”

 Don't underestimate, you have to do what it takes to get to a good audit result, that's fair and celebrate it, but don't let it rest there. That's not the end point; it's the starting point of the journey.

Sam: Thank you both for your insight. As I promised, we have one last question. This is a difficult one because it involves maybe two companies, maybe three companies, maybe five different companies coming under one roof or one entity. Wendy wants to know, “How do you establish a food safety culture for an already established business?” So, if company A acquires companies C, D, and E and they're all going to be company A, what's the best way to address the gaps in their food safety culture?

Lone: For that, I think you need to figure out if you're harmonizing across them. Do they have to be the same? What kind of advantage do you get from standardizing them? Don't standardize for the sake of standardizing. If they're equally strong, but different, make a really good case why one needs to change.

And if one has gaps that the other one doesn't, then personally, I would try and make it very clear as we come together that these are our joint expectations. So, what's the level of expectation and demonstrate how there's likely not one of them that's perfect, but we're taking the best out of their two worlds. If one is significantly lower performing than the other, then use the stronger performing one as guidance to bring the other one up to the same level. Don't make it competitive, that one is better than the other. Make clear that there are lots of areas where you can be weak or strong when it comes to food safety in your organizational culture and you're going to build the strongest one by doing this together. I think it's really important to be very clear in your expectation and making rational decisions.

Again, don't standardize just because now you're under the same roof because it doesn't make sense. If one is performing weaker than the other, set the stronger one up as guidance and use it to bring the two together and learn from each other.

Sam: I think you did a good job of addressing the nuts and bolts or merging cultures. Obviously, there are going to be obstacles between personnel of different companies, but just as a 30,000-foot view I think you did a good job of addressing it, Lone.

Lone: There's another thing to think about and it comes back to this change leadership. What's the change plan for bringing somebody on-board? We all react to change more or less the same, if you look at the psychology behind change. And who's going to lead? Who is developing a plan so that everybody can be guided through that and we can make it as engaging and as positive of an experience as a change can be, so you don't underestimate the time to plan the change?

Brian: Lone and I have discussed this at length. It's a question as much as an answer. Other examples, the environmental health and safety and how those practices are harmonized amongst a group of companies that are coming together or operations that are coming together. I think the operations should harmonize, as Lone said, not standardize. Merging companies should recognize the idiosyncrasies in each of those companies, but recognize in a way that you harmonize it in terms of operations and expect it at outcomes. Whatever you're measuring as the indicators against which their operations are going to be measured individually and collectively.

Sam: I appreciate both your inputs on that question. It's a tangled web when you involve more than one entity coming together.

I hate to say it, but we've run out of time. As you can tell, we can definitely talk for hours upon hours about this very, very important topic. If we didn't have a chance to answer your question, we will do our best to address it in follow up content. If you didn't have a chance to ask a question while you were on the chat, you can email any one of us and we'll address it.

Be on the lookout for our unfinished business Q&A that will address the questions we did not answer in this session. If you'd like to view today's web chat again or if you have colleagues who you'd like to share it with, it is available on

More information from the GMA Science and Education Foundation can be found at For GMA membership opportunities you can visit

The GMA Science and Education Foundation and Cultivate Food Safety have teamed up with Alchemy for a food safety culture seminar for executive leaders. For more info on that, please visit This is the second time the group has done this seminar for senior leaders. It combines online training as well as online coaching. Senior leaders of food manufacturing companies interested in establishing, maintaining, and improving food safety culture are encouraged to attend this event in September. Attendees will walk away with the first draft plan as to impact your food safety culture at home. They will also have access to three instructors, with Lone as the fourth instructor.

Information about Cultivate Food Safety can be found at You can follow Lone on Twitter - @Cultivate_FS and LinkedIn – You can also email Lone directly:

And last, but not least, be sure to visit and our food safety solution center for additional content on food safety culture.

Food for Thought will be taking a summer hiatus. We'll return in September for our next chat. It'll be on how to always be audit inspection ready. We will send out updates and registration information in the weeks leading up to it, so be on the lookout for that.

Lone, did you have any closing thoughts?

Lone: I want to thank everybody for taking the time to join us today and for your great questions. This is my second career being in food safety and food science and I've yet to come across a group of people who are so passionate about what they do. You're a fantastic bunch. If you're in that food safety and food science base and I really encourage you to think about that and the fantastic opportunities that the future brings for all of us, including learning more about culture, learning how it makes our workplace different and engaged place to be in.

Again, I just want to thank all of you for taking the time today. And I know nobody is sitting around on their hands doing nothing, so thank you so much for that. And thank you to you Sam for this opportunity with Food Online, we really appreciate it.

Sam: Lone it was a pleasure to have you. Brian, did you have any additional comments?

Brian: I'd just like to again thank everybody for taking the time to be online.

Sam: With that we'll close our session. Lone and Brian, thank you for taking the time to join us. We really appreciate you guys taking the time to educate the industry and share your knowledge on food safety culture. And thank you, attendees, for taking the time to join us. We hope you enjoy the rest of your day.