Measuring Food Safety Culture
By Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D.
Throughout the 21st century, it is estimated that the number of foodborne illnesses increased due to continual change in production methods, processes, and practices, as well as by changes in consumption habits. According to World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 600 million—nearly 1 in 10 people worldwide—fall ill after eating contaminated food, and 420,000 persons die each year. Children younger than 5 years old are particularly affected by foodborne illnesses, with 125,000 deaths each year. Food safety plays a decisive role in ensuring safe food for the consumer and is the primary drive in preventing these tragic numbers.
The food industry’s concern with finding ways to produce safe food for human consumption dates back to the 1950s, involving the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the absolute necessity to provide safe and nutritious food for astronauts on their space missions. It was at this time that the first steps in the development of Hazardous Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) were taken, and to this day, HACCP remains the foundation of all food safety certification programs. Throughout the end of the last century, producers and food companies have implemented effective procedures to stringent food safety requirements and criteria aimed to respond to the growing consumer distrust with the safety of the products they consumed.
Moving Towards Food Safety 2.0
HACCP has evolved over the years. The emergence of food safety certification programs, especially those associated and recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), increasingly used by the food industry has provided companies with better tools to ensure food safety.
But why, despite all the inspections, training, and checks inherent in HACCP and food safety programs, are there still recurring cases of foodborne illness?
There is one issue that characterizes the success of HACCP, including food safety certification programs: PURPOSE. The purpose by which companies implement these programs or, even more importantly, the purpose employed by workers who have to do the job they are hired and trained to do. The truth is that the current Food Safety 1.0 is too dependent on external motivation. Much depends on the retail company that forces the food manufacturing organization to implement a food safety certification program or even the food safety professional chasing workers and senior management to implement procedures and maintain compliance.
For Food Safety 2.0, the purpose has to come from within, with the knowledge that everyone (food industry workers) assumes their share of the responsibility to ensure that people don’t fall ill or die from consuming unsafe food. Responsible food workers have to do it every day, even when no one is watching! This is called a food safety culture.
The Why of Food Safety (Become the SLO)
What makes people move and do things? A compelling mission!
The more we think and do as we build food safety culture, we must proactively associate people’s understanding, “Why they do what they do, and the WHY of food safety.”
The problem is that many organizations and their senior management look at food safety, and particularly a food safety program certification, as the end goal (or, at most, as a means to reach a new market or fulfil a big retailer requirement). The reality is that food safety is not the end goal, food safety is the means to achieve a higher purpose.
We, food safety professionals, have a decisive role to bring this message inside food sector organizations. First, we must believe and live by it.
If you think that your mission is to define requirements the organizations must fulfill to guarantee food safety, you are wrong. If you believe your mission is to respond to client complaints and check corrective actions effectiveness, you are wrong. If you believe that your mission is to train people on food fraud mitigation measures, you are wrong. If you believe that your mission is to check if people are washing their hands, you are wrong. Though these prerequisites are important, these are only tools we use to achieve our higher purpose: Saving People’s Lives. Don’t be mistaken, all of the above and more are very important to assure food safety, but that won’t get you (nor anyone in the organization) out of bed every day with the super energy and drive necessary to do it all over again to the daily drumbeat of effective food safety.
Train competent personnel inside an organization to understand that their mission encompasses saving lives by accomplishing their specific role and tasks in assuring food safety is the most challenging and decisive assignment of a food safety professional.
This is why everyone in the organization should become the SLO (Saving Lives Officer).
In 2018, GFSI released a position paper “A Culture of Food Safety,” which defined five dimensions of the food safety culture: Vision and Mission, People, Consistency, Adaptability, Hazard and Risk Awareness. When we look to GFSI’s five dimensions of food safety culture, we can identify several ways that The Why of Food Safety – Become the SLO initiative can have a positive impact, particularly on the first two.
Vision and mission addresses business reasons to exist. I am sure that no organization’s mission or vision in this sector include harming consumers, as people are the critical component of food safety and the recipients of The Why of Food Safety – Become the SLO initiative. The document also defines food safety culture as shared values, beliefs, and norms that affect mindset and behavior toward food safety in, across and throughout an organization.
Can you see how aligned The Why of Food Safety – Become the SLO initiative is with GFSI’s food safety culture definition? People must understand and believe that what they do (norms) matter for saving people’s lives. Giving people this higher mission will definitely imprint a new mindset and collaborative behavior in the organization—after all, we are consumers too! One day, our own loved ones may end up in a hospital bed with food poisoning because they ate unsafe food, right?
Let’s Measured It!
But one question remains, how do you evaluate something so intangible? How do we evaluate the food safety culture within our organization?
GFSI made a major contribution to this issue when, in November 2017, it published “Food Safety Culture – A position paper from the Global Food Safety Initiative,” which addressed food safety culture and how to implement a positive mindset in the organization through various strategies.
The GFSI document identified five organizational dimensions structured for food safety culture and then characterized their sub-dimensions, as shown in Figure 1.
However, the gap that still needs to be filled is how one can assess the organization’s commitment to the food safety culture and identify the company’s current point and aspects (dimensions/subdimensions) that need to be advanced. For this, it will be decisive to develop a quantitative model, because as is commonly said “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.”
I am proud to collaborate with the University of Minho and Rocío Gil Ruiz in Portugal to develop metrics capable of assessing the organization’s degree of commitment to the different dimensions proposed by GFSI and enabling the development of a model for assessing food safety culture.
Initially, several food safety professionals were contacted, a literature research was carried out, and audit reports of certified food companies were studied. Thus, it was possible to elaborate proposals of appropriate metrics for each of the five dimensions. Then, a survey was prepared where food safety professionals were asked to evaluate from 1 to 5 how important the metrics proposed were (stage 1 of the study).
Results from the Study
The main goal of this work is to define a model that highlights which metrics better correlate with the development of the food safety culture.
Table 1 presents some of the results already available from the previous stage of the study. It also presents the metrics that were rated higher by food safety professionals (for measuring food safety culture in each of the dimensions).
Currently, this study is now in its second stage where food safety professionals are asked to categorize each dimension metric according with the subdimensions proposed by GFSI in a position paper. Please, if you wish to collaborate in this study you can find a link in the resources list.
Food safety professionals are facing two major challenges in their daily work as we enter this new decade: time and isolation. The majority of food safety professionals find it very difficult to have time to study, research, or keep updated about hazards or even requirements (statutory/regulatory/certifications). It is important to recognize that in the real world, a large number of these professionals wear more than one hat in the organization, while senior management often focus on other areas.
It is also common for food safety professionals to feel isolated. Within their organization, where a lack of food safety awareness and culture results in everything landing in the hands of these professionals, they end up running all day just to get the basics done. Also outside the organization, they don’t have the time to find what support can serve them best.
Developing food safety awareness and culture will help all food safety professionals solve the first of their problems. We all know that this can’t be done without support from senior management but please don’t let that be an easy way out for doing nothing. We, more often then we should, complain from lack of support but fail to take action to change the status quo. Moving towards Food Safety 2.0 is in our hands, and we should aim to be our organization’s first Saving Lives Officer (SLO).
Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D., is the founder of The Why of Food Safety – Become the SLO initiative and author of several books and articles on food safety, namely the FSSC 22000 V5 and ISO 22000:2018 BluePrint eBook and Food Safety in the Seafood Industry (Wiley). He is an author, consultant, and trainer in food safety with over 20 years of experience in the food industry in food safety/quality and as a plant manager.