The concept of a food safety culture is not new to processors and manufacturers, but its role in achieving food safety goals has been elevated in recent years.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has supplied the industry with the rules and released its New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative to help create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.

According to the FDA, food safety culture is one of the New Era’s four foundational pillars and is a prerequisite to effective food safety management.

“We will not make dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne disease without doing more to influence the beliefs, attitudes, and, most importantly, the behaviors of people and the actions of organizations,” according to the agency’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint.

This blog from ImEPIK will explain what food safety culture should mean to companies, how to identify common shortfalls in promoting that culture, and how to get back on track.

What Does ‘Food Safety Culture’ Mean?

Technically, the FDA’s regulations don’t directly address the concept of food safety culture at companies bound by FSMA. However, according to a comprehensive 2018 position paper on the subject released by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), to be successful and sustainable, food safety must go beyond formal regulations.

“In contrast to the rule of law, culture draws its power from the unspoken and intuitive, from simple observation, and from beliefs as fundamental as ‘This is the right thing to do’ and ‘We would never do this,'” according to the GFSI document. “Rules state facts; culture lives through the human experience.”

The GFSI defines food safety culture as “shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mindset and behavior toward food safety in, across and throughout an organization.”

In May 2021, the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) added a set of food safety culture metrics to its program, giving auditors the tools to determine whether a good food safety culture exists.

“That determination will rely heavily on accurate and complete food safety records, interviews with team members at all levels in the organization and observations of employee behavior,” according to an SQFI guidance document on the audit changes.

Signs That Your Food Safety Culture Needs Attention

1. Lack of buy-in

A common mantra relating to a company’s food safety culture is “buy-in.” All levels of the company, from executive leadership and mid-level managers to employees on the production line, must believe that everyone across the operation is working together for the common goal of food safety.

“We can have the best, the greatest written, documented system of PRPs, GMPs (Prerequisite Programs and Good Manufacturing Practices) and food safety programs, but if people’s behavior … doesn’t match up, and they’re doing their own thing, that’s where we have problems,” said Jennifer McCreary, technical manager, training and education services, for NSF International’s food division, during a Feb. 26 web seminar hosted by the International Food Safety & Quality Network.

According to the GFSI, leaders must clearly communicate the company’s commitment to food safety and then ensure employees are empowered to contribute to food safety culture.

2. The “We’ve always done it this way” attitude

Just because current food safety measures have successfully addressed potential problems, it’s not a reason to maintain the status quo. For example, is the company processing new ingredients or shipping new products? Has the processing line been upgraded or reconfigured? Has an unforeseen event – like a pandemic – disrupted the supply chain or altered the workflow within a facility to ensure employee safety? These types of events should trigger conversations on whether food safety policies should be updated.

3. Who’s in charge?

Employees must have clear accountability and take “appropriate responsibility for food safety-related decisions and actions and their consequences,” according to the GFSI position paper on a culture of food safety. At the same time, an employee should know where to report food safety issues beyond their responsibilities. Training should communicate expectations to everyone involved in the process.

ImEPIK Training and Building a Food Safety Culture at Your Businesses

ImEPIK’s comprehensive training program for FDA-regulated food processing facility personnel empowers you to create positive food safety outcomes and foster a culture of food safety within your organization.

The 100% online course provides the tools to ensure employees’ “buy-in” to company policies, a necessary goal to build a long-lasting food safety culture.

Contact ImEPIK to learn more about the program today.