In recent years you’ve almost certainly heard the term “food safety culture” used. The only caveat, however, is that for many of us, it’s not clear how the term applies to what we do day in and day out. That’s the fundamental elegance of the concept ‘food safety culture’ – it refers to what employees do every day. Simply put, food safety culture embodies a company’s approach to food safety and the attitudes of its employees from the second they set foot in the facility to the moment they leave.
Any GFSI audit you participate in will include assessing your company’s “food safety culture,” even if it is not explicitly called out in the scheme requirements, as it is with the BRCGS (BRC) standard. When an auditor interviews your staff, evaluates your training schedule and observes production, they are evaluating your food safety culture and how dedicated you are to producing safe food. Whether your company creates an agricultural food item, raw materials for other food manufacturers, or finished goods intended for direct consumer sale, the culture of your employees is critically important to the safety and quality of your products.
Management’s Direction in Food Safety Culture
Food safety practices need to be emphasized from the top down. That’s why all GFSI audit schemes include a “management commitment” section. Food safety culture isn’t just about GMP compliance; it’s about the direction the company is going.
Ways to Prove Your Food Safety Culture
- Measure: There should be a platform by which a company can elicit “honest” feedback from employees on how they perceive the company’s food safety culture. The goal here is to create confidential or anonymous surveys and feedback forms to specific food safety culture questions that employees can participate in. As a result of these surveys, the company should then be able to measure its outcomes on the scale of success.
- Objectives: The company’s goals and objectives need to include food safety culture considerations. What are your targets for the year, and how will you achieve them? Is there time dedicated to working on them, track progress, and discuss their status? As they say, “if you aim for nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”
- General Job Duties: Ensuring food safety responsibilities are identified clearly in job descriptions and any other summary of job duties. There should be no question that food safety is everyone’s job.
- Specific Task Assignment: Make sure you assign tasks that impact safety and quality to someone. It seems basic, but we often uncover system failures whose root cause is a lack of ownership of a specific activity. Whether due to someone leaving the company and there’s no backup person, or due to the task not being clearly ‘owned’ by a specific person or department, this is a repeat issue.
- Training: Companies need to ensure that employees truly understand their roles and how they impact food safety. The easiest way to do so is through training. Schedule training for your staff throughout the entire year. The more interactive, the better. It’s best to have a schedule of topics, and to track attendance, to not overlook any topic or employee.
Food Safety Culture Implementation – Day In, Day Out
As an auditor, there are certain things we can look at that will demonstrate a company’s culture. Use these indicators to take the “pulse” of your organization and verify your culture.
Just spending time in the facility, walking around and observing things, is one of your most essential tools for verifying what’s happening in your operation. In lean manufacturing programs, this is called the “Gemba walk.” Most of us find it challenging to make enough time to do this well, but it’s worth the investment. Set a schedule in place for the year, with dedicated times to review each process.
The auditor will always spend time reviewing records during the audit, as you well know. But records remain one of the most common gaps noted in an audit. Companies receive non-conformances because it can be challenging to maintain consistency across all shifts, all employees, every day. There need to be dedicated people reviewing records regularly to ensure you identify any gaps and address them right away. Make sure when records are reviewed and signed every day.
When an auditor comes to your facility, they will ask two types of questions: open-ended and specific. Interviews are a great way to gauge employees’ knowledge and to verify the effectiveness of your training programs. Employees should understand their job duties, as well as the proper response if an issue were to occur. Ask them to explain their job duties and to describe the appropriate corrective actions to take if something goes wrong.
Review and Trend Data
You probably gather a lot of data from your operation, but what do you do with it? We find that many companies don’t have a good way to aggregate data and look for trends to improve their operation. We see organizations with data indicating a problem, let it go undetected, and as a result, develop into a much larger issue. Don’t become one of these companies.
By utilizing the data you have available to you, and identifying where you can strategically gather and organize critical data for decision-making, you’ll realize cost savings, efficiency gains, and improvement in your food safety programs.
You may have heard recently about the strawberry company where an employee was inserting needles into the berries? Assessing employee engagement is a new but growing discipline within the food industry. It allows companies to get a better idea of both the potential risk of errors due to lack of attention and possible intentional contamination from a disgruntled employee. During the interviews and observations mentioned above, you can assess food safety culture. Companies can also do something more sophisticated, like the BRC food safety culture excellence module.
Let’s face it, it’s a competitive world out there! By documenting, implementing and living a food safety culture within your organization, you’ll definitely be better prepared to impress existing and potential customers! With more liability concerns coming to the forefront by way of intentional adulteration, food safety recalls, regulatory action, and more, what better way to be more proactive than by embracing a food safety culture?
Wherever your company is on its food safety journey, it pays to start talking about your company’s food safety culture and setting goals to improve it. The BRC standard already has a section of the audit standard related to food safety culture, and the word is that the next GFSI benchmark standard will require some food safety culture elements. We expect to begin seeing food safety culture, specifically called out in all of the GFSI benchmarked programs in the coming years. But keep in mind, it’s not about satisfying your audit requirements. It’s about improving your company and about laying a foundation for a successful future.
If you still have questions about food safety culture and need help implementing it in your facility, please reach out to us.