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Journey to a Positive Food Safety Culture

Changing any established culture will be one of the most difficult tasks that any organisation will ever have to take on. Once you put two people together, you have a dynamic that only strengthens with more people that you add to the mix. Once you reach four people, you get an established culture, a way of doing things, a set of values, beliefs and behaviours that will ultimately dictate how people view and do things in their daily roles.

To bring change to this dynamic will not be easy, and it will not be quick, getting more and more complicated the larger and more segregated your teams are. To understand why establishing a new culture is so difficult, you need to understand one thing; “People’s propensity to change.” We are, by nature, creatures of habit and bringing about change requires a great deal of effort and motivation.

According to Newton’s first law, a body in motion stays in motion, and a body at rest stays at rest unless an unbalanced force act upon it. This law makes complete sense when compared to human behaviour. Once a group of people have established their interpersonal rules and cultural values, they will continue to behave in a certain way, until an external force creates the environment for change to occur.

So how do we go about bringing much-needed change to the Food Industry? How do we create a more Positive Food Safety Culture where a potentially negative culture has already taken root?

Firstly, let’s look at this equation, mentioned by Frank Yiannas in his book, “Food Safety = Behavior”

Culture = Behaviours derived from a strong internal belief or set of values. This means that the culture of the organisation can be measured by the behaviours seen in the workplace. But the behaviours are a consequence of people’s existing beliefs and values. If we are to change to a positive Food Safety Culture, we need to impact the things that affect people’s belief systems around the topic. Our efforts should be focused to help people see the value of a positive culture, and through this, adopt a series of positive behaviours.

When developing a Positive Food Safety Culture in your organisation, it helps to first understand some basics.

What is your culture right now?

Understanding what your culture is like now, where the potential pitfalls are, which parts of your team affect the negative behaviours and where do these negative behaviours come from. There are a couple of great tools that have been developed to help organisations understand their current culture. Food Risk Forum in partnership with Professor Ryk Lues from the University of Technology has developed such a tool. An organisational wide survey that collects data from your people throughout your organisation and provides you with a clear picture of how people perceive Food Safety.

This tool will help you identify your problem areas and assist you in the development of a practical intervention plan.

What would you like your culture to be?

You must develop a clear picture of what your end-destination will look like. Develop aspirational, yet achievable, goals and structure a plan that will help you get there. If you are reading this article as a quality officer, food safety manager, or team leader, you must include your organisation leadership in this process. You will want to get their buy-in early on and involve them in the process. This will go to great lengths as any intervention plan will ultimately take company resources and budget to achieve its success. Share the findings from your research with them, inspire them and motivate the change that you would like to see.

Putting things into action

Developing your plan is of great importance. Remember that your plan will need to include things such as:

Practical steps and interventions

Fixing broken equipment, providing further training, implementing proper testing equipment and processes, etc. Without fixing the basic things wrong with your food safety system, they will hinder any efforts you do in changing the culture. People are influenced by what they see and will act accordingly. Its commonly known as the broken window theory. A broken window could just be a broken window, but if left unfixed it creates a perception that broken things are acceptable and will result in more things broken being left unchanged.

Connect the new culture to organisational values

We must connect the desired culture to our values as a group of people. Your company value might be “Family” so you can connect our Food Safety Culture to this value to stating: “At {Company name} we value Family and like any family, we are made up of different parts, our employers, fellow employees, our customers, our suppliers and those we supply, and because we are a family, we take care of one another. We do things with excellence; nothing less will do. We protect our family, we love our family, we serve our family, we go beyond the call of duty, for our family.”

Partnerships with the right team

Your plan will require a team to help you implement Food Safety Cultures in your organisation. This team might include Food Safety Trainers, Auditors, Consultants, Marketing, and Communication Specialists, etc. It is vitally important that you recruit a team that shares your passion and goals and will come on board as a partner to your organisation.

Communication – the art of storytelling

A famous scholar once said: “How will they believe if they have not heard, how will they hear if no one has told them?” An organisational-wide communication strategy is vital in your success in achieving a Positive Food Safety Culture. You need to develop a plan that consistently reinforces your company values, cultures, and beliefs. Your plan must include a top-down communication plan that clearly defines your desired outcomes, what is to be expected and how this culture will impact those we serve.

A little bit of creativity goes a long way

This step is a part of the communication plan, but worth a mention on its own. There is an old Chinese proverb: “tell me, and I will forget, show me, I may remember, but involve me, and I will understand.” We need to involve people in the development of a new culture. Brainstorm with your team and come up with creative ways to help people practically engage Food Safety Culture in their day-to-day operations. Tell stories of specific people whose lives have been impacted by unsafe food products, run discussions with teams on how they can practically apply food safety principles within their jobs, make the employee of the month awards around positive behaviours we have spotted and ask teams to come up with creeds and manifestos to confirm their commitment to safe food practices. The sky is the limit, go be creative.

Remember, nothing changes when nothing changes. If we desired a more positive Food Safety Culture, we need to implement the change we wish to see. Be prepared for a long, difficult, but immensely rewarding journey. Remember, you are not alone, there are great teams of people who specialise in this field and are there to help you every step of the way.