A new buzz word “ Food Safety Culture” has become very popular in the food processing industries lately. Along with concepts of food safety compliance and conformance, the most discussed concept in the food processing industry nowadays is “ food safety culture”.
One of the very important reasons for it is the introduction of the concept of food safety culture as part of the requirements of standards like BRC, SQF, and other GFSI certification schemes.
So when organizations start developing a food safety culture, they go with developing documentations like SOP, checklists, and records for the same. Also when auditor does assessments for food safety culture, food safety culture is judged by system, documentation, checklists, and records for monitoring and verification of the effectiveness of food safety culture.
However, I feel food safety culture is a “Practical” concept more than a “Theoretical” concept. Along with objective pieces of evidence of SOPs, checklists, and records, the food safety culture will be judged by some practical approach of the organization towards food safety.
What is food safety culture?
Food safety culture is the values of an organization with respect to food safety. The culture especially means “doing the things with responsibility, awareness, and integrity even when no one is watching”. It is just not about the understanding of the importance of food safety but also knowing what is an individual’s role in protecting it.
A strong food safety culture helps a facility both to prevent and catch deviations in their processes that impact the safety, quality, and legality of their products and also the likelihood and severity of a recall impacting the organization.
Here is list of few important factors which are crucial for developing, consistently maintaining and improving food safety culture of the organization:
For any organization, the culture in the organization is defined by the leaders/ top management of the organization. Their awareness and actions of top management decide the culture of an organization positively or negatively.
To give an example- one day while performing audit, I was entering into a food processing area along with the plant head. After completing all the essential activities in the change room, we were just about to enter the processing hall.
Suddenly a food handler came and said to the plant head “ Sir, you are wearing a wristwatch. Please remove it before entering the processing area”. I was astonished to see the reaction of the plant head.
He said” Oh I am sorry. I almost forgot to remove it. Thank you for reminding me before we enter the processing hall”. He went into a change room, removed the watch and came back smiling to enter the processing hall. This is something we say demonstrating leadership while “ lead by example”.
Top management needs to first be aware enough to understand and follow the practices and create a suitable environment for food safety to be followed by everyone in his/her organization. Thus leadership defines the food safety culture of the organization.
2. Empowerment of employee
An above-mentioned example is equally applicable for the empowerment of employees along with leadership. The food handler could stop and say something about noncompliance of jewelry policy by plant head only because he felt empowered to do so.
Empowering and trusting the employees to make decisions and talk openly about food safety issues, problem-solving, and continuous improvement is the key strategy for ensuring food safety culture within the organization.
Empowerment and trust of employees can be achieved through transparency in communication and supporting each other.
3. Encouragement and appreciation
The environment and culture of the organization and the actions of top management should reflect into encouragement and appreciation of employees.
E..g In one organization where I did a project for food safety management system implementation, I observed a very good practice of giving the award to employees who had done exceptional work in food safety or contributed in problem solving and continuous improvement.
These employees then share their stories and actions with everyone in that award ceremony. By this kind of practice within an organization, the person awarded feel appreciated, and other employees hearing the story of awardee feel motivation and inspiration to do better things.
When the employee gets appreciation, they are more likely to follow rules and procedures, be more adaptive to changes, and will be ready for a greater contribution towards food safety. They will always do much more and much better than expected.
On the contrary, if employees feel fear, discouragement, and not appreciated, they will not feel responsible and accountable for their actions and the results of the actions.
4. Responsibility and accountability
The culture of the organization should be such that every employee should feel the sense of his/her responsibility as well as accountability in case something goes wrong.
The trust and environment in an organization will make employees work with a greater sense of awareness and understanding of the importance of food safety.
Responsibility will see if the activity assigned to the person is done or not while accountability will ensure that the activity is completed appropriately and effectively. Food safety culture requires employees to understand responsibility and accountability towards food safety.
5. Team work:
Teamwork is one of the very important ingredients in the recipe of the food safety culture of organization. Teamwork often results in developing good culture in the organization along with ensuring food safety.
E.g In one organization where I started a food safety system implementation project, in the kickoff meeting, the director was mentioning proudly about nearly 80% women food handlers and their excellent teamwork.
In every step of implementation, I realized how true and important was teamwork in the implementation of the system in that organization. While on the other hand if an organization lacks teamwork, developing and maintaining a food safety culture will be an “ impossible task”.
6. Awareness and training:
Food safety culture is not a “ fixed” formula or concept. It is a concept that has to be constantly evolving for better and better food safety culture in the organization.
Creating awareness by providing valuable trainings importance of food safety, will motivate employees to learn and do better things contributing in continuous improvement and thereby refining food safety culture of organization.
Training about the values of an organization, benefits of ensuring food safety and ways and means to achieve food safety will form a strong foundation for the food safety culture of the organization.
While developing a food safety culture within an organization, these factors should be taken into consideration which is responsible for creating the strongest and deepest relationships of organizations and employees.
If people started believing that the organization and top management is interested in their well being, the foundation of the food safety culture strengthens.
Thus when the food safety culture foundation is strong, it goes beyond slogans, procedures, checklists, and records and benefits the organization proactively for ensuring food safety endlessly and effortlessly.
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