Driving A Food Safety Culture

Why does culture matter in a company?  Because according to Dr. David Acheson, Founder and CEO of the Acheson Group, no matter where you are in the food chain, the biggest challenges are in food safety which means how people work together to find solutions is key to success.  How a company approaches assessing risks and most importantly, manages them– all drives back to culture, says Dr. Acheson, who has more than 30 years of experience in medical and food safety research and advises food companies globally on how to best manage risk in a global supply chain and evolving regulatory landscape.

“Setting the tone from the top by the CEO about what matters to the company affects brand and reputation,” says Dr. Acheson. “Maintaining a safe environment for people and products and understanding the risk today is important to convey the correct cultural message throughout an organization.”

Creating Astute Risk Management

Astute enterprise risk management along the supply chain puts food safety as its #1 risk which is why the responsibility of it rests at the top of an organization, according to the expert.  Ongoing competitive challenges require constant innovation, managing costs yet providing enough resources, achieving zero risk as consumers demand, creating exciting flavors, responding to economic pressures, continued growth, being familiar with current regulations and the regulators themselves and protecting the brand.

Operating in today’s food industry is complex along the supply chains as consumers are demanding zero tolerance from food suppliers. Consumers want pure, unadulterated food and generally do not trust those who process their food.  Improving epidemiology and new technologies are making it easier to detect foodborne diseases; social media use by savvy consumers requires instant response to food safety issues and if not satisfied, the vigilant media is quick to find a victim and a culprit.

Making matters worse, attorneys are ready to litigate if regulatory rules have not been met and company leaders can be prosecuted and sent to prison!  And though the Trump administration wants to reduce budgets by deregulating, it is proposing $29 billion for the Department of Justice to prosecute.  Congress supports this with its mandate to prohibit the act of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.  This means that on first offense, regardless of intent, a company faces a strict liability offense that could result in misdemeanor charges and on second offense, an automatic felony charge!  If a death is involved, companyleadership will be prosecuted!

There are risks at every level along the supply chain and it’s vital that companies know who is in their supply chain, says Dr. Acheson:  Are there unknown sources upstream?  Do you rely on someone upstream to control major risks for you?  Do you rely on audits versus internal controls?  Do you have a one size fits all approach to supply chain risk control?  Do you have transportation risks? • How do you balance risk with resources?

Increased Science and Technological Capabilities

The science of food safety is changing constantly which requires constant vigilance and continuous preventive measurements and controls.  New microbes are being discovered like E. coli O104 and E coli 0121, and there is antibiotic resistance and real/perceived challenges with allergens.  There is also greater capacity to link food with illness, and ability to measure lower levels of chemicals, improvements in genetic testing, whole genome sequencing and linkage between specific isolates with illness, according to Dr. Acheson.

All of this leads to enhanced greater regulations in the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US, new regulations in Canada and a deliberate move from reaction to prevention with focus on corporate responsibility, greater consequences and holding companies accountable.  The Centers for Disease Control began using FoodNet in 1996 to track human foodborne illness.  It captures illness from nine important foodborne agents and tracks illness in approximately 45 million people in 10 states.  It issues annual reports of trends which guides regulators to where risk is at its highest levels.  Indications are that since 2013, incidents of 8 of the pathogens tracked have increased!

Most of the supply chain failures are due to labeling mistakes and environmental contamination of ready to eat foods. Risk assessment, management and communication are key to taking a continuous improvement approach that is preventive, not reactive, according to Dr. Acheson.  Because resources are usually limited, it’s important to identify top priority risks because not all risks are the same, says the expert. There are risks at every level including regulatory, operational and reputational.

Is Your Risk Model Good, Better or Best?

According to Dr. Acheson’s Risk Maturity Model, a company’s approach to risk can be good, meaning it complies; better which means it complies and has company standards; or best, meaning it has industry-leading practices on a continuous basis.

How a company is measured along the risk spectrum depends on whether its culture runs through an organization, says Dr. Acheson. “Understanding why you follow procedures; speaking out when you need to; executives have to set the standards and goals for a company which are driven by the risks; appropriate use of resources; understanding the changing landscape; and managing risk to protect the brand is all vital to setting the right culture.”

“Senior executives and food safety professionals must manage many different aspects of risk,” concludes Dr. Acheson. “Navigating the current food safety landscape is challenging, but staying current with multiple challenge areas, building relationships, prevention focus with strong reactive capabilities, taking a strategic and holistic approach—these are all key to creating the right culture.”