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The challenge of a food safety culture

Guest industry blog: by Dianne Fullelove, Industry Development Manager, Australian melon industry

A food safety culture is that combination of individual and group values, attitudes, competencies, and behaviours that determine the commitment to deliver safe food.

Food safety is one of the most important challenges for fruit and vegetable growers today. Having a quality food safety system based on HACCP is only the start of ensuring that product is safe to eat. Food safety requires more than this.

It needs a food safety culture in the entire business, influencing how everyone from owners to employees thinks and acts in their daily job to make sure that the product is safe. It requires commitment to doing whatever it takes, every time.

A good food safety culture can protect not only consumers from foodborne illness but the business from financial loss through protection of a brand reputation. Unfortunately, many mangers suffer from optimistic bias, “It will not happen to me” or an illusion of control, “Nothing has gone wrong.” Or it maybe they know that food safety practices are not ideal but “There is a reason” or even “There are more important matters.”

Every business or workplace has a culture – good and bad. Having a strong food safety culture is a choice. It is a value for the business. In his book “Behavior-Based Safety and Occupational Risk Management” (2005), E. Scott Geller wrote that “Priorities can change; values do not”. A business has a strong food safety culture because it values the safety of its product and ultimately its customers.

Creating a good food safety culture is not easy because it often requires change to long-held beliefs and behaviours. A good food safety culture is about having pride in producing safe food every time, recognising that a good quality product must be safe to eat. Food safety becomes a top priority.

A robust food safety culture must be built on the vision and values of the business’s leadership and their commitment to the production of safe food and includes the commitment and support of all employees. It starts at the top but must filter across the whole business. It requires management to openly commit to abiding by the regulations governing the way food is produced and processed.

Next, the business must build a workforce of well-trained and motivated staff, who are suitably rewarded for their commitment to food safety. Businesses need to focus on people as well as processes: especially what the people who handle product know and what they do in the workplaces.

Food safety is not something that happens when a business is audited. Every business should be audit-ready every day, operating to the same standards as expected when they are audited for their food safety system. Food safety culture is what happens when management or auditors are not there.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have put together a short questionnaire for a ‘health check’ of a business’s food safety culture. It gives a picture of how the decision makers and team members rank the business’s overall approach to food safety – from the general philosophy in the workplace, to training and monitoring arrangements, to the relationship with food regulators. The survey is available at www.foodstandards.gov.au/foodsafety/culture/Documents/food-safety-culture-questionnaire.pdf

Similarly, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) produced a position paper on food safety culture which included a set of guiding questions and tables to assess organisational maturity towards food safety: https://mygfsi.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/GFSI-Food-Safety-Culture-Full.pdf

Building a strong food safety culture takes time and effort but small changes can make a big difference.

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