Food Safety Culture

Achieving food safety success in the new environment where consumers, purchase prepared foods on a more frequent basis rather than cooking at home is becoming a more difficult process to achieve.

This means going beyond the traditional training, testing, and auditing  approaches to be able to manage the risk of causing food poisoning, such as Listeriosis.

What is needed is a better understanding of organisational culture and the human dynamics of food safety. To be able to improve food safety one must change the individual’s behaviour. Simply put, food safety equals behaviour. When viewed from these lenses, one of the most common contributing causes of food borne disease is unsafe behaviour. Thus, to improve food safety, we need to better integrate food safety with behavioural science and use a systems-based approach to managing food safety risk.

The importance of organisational culture, human behaviour, and systems thinking is well documented in the occupational safety and health fields. However, significant contributions to  scientific literature on these topics are noticeably absent in the field of food safety. – Frank Yiannas

We know from experience that Listeria monocytogenes  is more prevalent in the food industry than initially suspected. L.monocytogenes grow in what we call biofilms which intermittently release bacterial cells into foods. These foods need to be identified, isolated and removed from circulation.

During the current Listeriosis investigation, the NICD has been using epidemiology and whole genome sequencing in order to identify sources. However, imagine that there was a ground level employee in a food factory,  who happened to notice something was wrong and went the extra mile to clean it or at least report it, such an outbreak could have been prevented.

Meet Sam. She works in the food sector, standing hours on end, doing a specific job. All the while thinking of the HACCP plan… NOT. The construct that food handlers think of hygiene is false. The workers are not systems and processes. They are one of the links in a food safety chain.

There is no perfect system or audit. There will always be a crack that you miss, a standard that’s not appropriate, a poorly-designed machine.

Unfortunately, Listeria monocytogenes does not distinguish between systems and processes.

Let’s say there are some water droplets that drip onto the food from the ceiling. Will Sam report it? Does she even know it’s a risk?

We need a better understanding of human behaviour and organisational culture. There are just as many food handler non-conformances in the kitchen/factory/canteen as there are in the home.

The importance of management’s approach

Often our food safety systems are seen as a big stick. Something that someone does to avoid consequence. Using consequence to ensure staff follow food safety practices only demotivates them and weakens the food safety system.  People won’t buy in on the value of your food safety system.

Most people are motivated by acknowledgement.

Rather focus on having a safety culture by improving the attitudes, values and norms inculcated into the team.

Sam just watches the clock. Nothing more is expected from her or by her. What if you offer an additional tea-break? Because she is on her feet the whole day. Then she may start to see that the employer has needs and this can to aligned with hers. Perhaps the pride in making/selling/serving safe food.

Ask her about her day. She might ask “are we still Listeria clean?” Have that interaction with your staff.

There are four types of work relationships.

  1. Service offering
  2. Needs based
  3. Relationship-based
  4. Trust-based

Obtaining a trust-based relationship should be the ultimate goal. Sam will report anything suspicious and invest time and extra effort, without being asked to improve the food safety system. Sam is not scared of the employer and Sam has the acknowledgement that she plays an integral part in the company.

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Hygiene Survey Manager