Back to Basics on Food Safety Culture: Keep Food Safety Top of Mind

line cooks back of house

The COVID-19 pandemic hit current food systems hard. It forced the food industry, which is one of the largest employers in the United States, to rapidly shift to a proactive regulatory model focused on preventing food contamination, replacing its prior reactive approach of determining how to respond to outbreaks. The pandemic required food-centric companies to immediately pivot, rethink their Food Safety Culture (FSC) and analyze their food safety programs from the top down, starting with suppliers and transportation to preparation and safe dining.

An FSC includes regulations, inspection requirements, and enforcement of food safety among other criteria which must be reexamined in light of today’s new food environment. Globalized food production and consumption and complex supply chains extending across borders bring new challenges and problems. An FSC confirms a company’s commitment to protecting food from contamination, preventing foodborne illness outbreaks, and ensuring food quality.

What Exactly is FSC?

The FSC also consists of a company’s shared values, attitudes, and behaviors that determine how to manage food safety. It reflects the overall attitude of management and employees toward food safety and their willingness to comply with food safety regulations. It’s a critical factor in food safety management and food security that can affect how food companies operate, what controls they put into place to protect against food contamination, and how likely consumers are to trust them for safe food products.

A strong FSC enables companies to quickly prevent, detect, and respond to food safety incidents. The opposite is also true. A weak FSC can lead to widespread food contamination and food-related illness outbreaks. It’s essential to evaluate an FSC to understand where improvements are needed to create a safe food environment.

Food contamination is a serious issue as evidenced by the FDA issuing a total of 1,010 recall press releases between 2017 and 2020. That figure doesn’t include the number of restaurants closed for the same reason. Restaurants have been struggling to keep up with the sanitation standards made necessary by COVID-19. Its spread made it critically important for employees to sanitize hands regularly, disinfect and sanitize surfaces that come in contact with food, and other surfaces that can harbor pathogens in a restaurant or food business.

The Importance of FSC Development

Organizations with strong FSCs can quickly respond to outbreaks and identify potential issues before they become significant problems. They also tend to be more motivated toward implementing preventative measures such as comprehensive cleaning programs or new product testing protocols.

According to the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), examples of FSC components include:

  • Having an up-to-date food safety policy and procedure manual accessible to all employees
  • Training employees on food safety practices and recognizing food hazards
  • Establishing a system to report food safety incidents
  • Conducting regular food safety audits

An effective FSC supplements food safety regulations while continuously evolving to keep pace with the ever-changing food landscape.

Initiatives to Guide FSC Development

chef with tablet-Initiatives to Guide FSC DevelopmentInternational and federal organizations spearhead the food safety culture movement and initiatives. Their goals are to help food companies identify food safety culture gaps and implement programs to resolve those issues.

The FDA's Food for Thought program is one of the most comprehensive initiatives to date. Its objective is to help food companies develop a food safety culture by providing them with tools and resources to help assess, improve and manage their food safety programs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a food safety culture self-assessment toolkit that assists organizations in measuring their FSC. It helps companies gauge how effectively they are functioning in the areas of food safety, identify food safety strengths and weaknesses, and provide resources to improve food safety practices.

The Global Food Safety Initiative site is designed to help food companies identify and assess their food safety culture through the use of a questionnaire that covers seven key areas: 

  • Management commitment
  • Hazard analysis and risk-based preventive measures 
  • Personnel training and competence
  • Process control 
  • Product quality assurance
  • Supplier management 
  • Corrective actions

Overcoming FSC Challenges

An FSC program should aim to provide employees with the tools and resources that will help them assess, improve, and manage the business’s food safety programs. As per the GFSI, the key challenges the FSC should address include:

  • Management commitment: Management must be willing to provide the necessary resources, allocate time for training, and be held accountable for the organization's food safety culture.
  • Creating hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls: This process may be time-consuming and costly, but it is essential to identify and mitigate food safety hazards.
  • Personnel training and competence: Employees must be proficient in food safety practices to protect food from contamination. This training must be repeated regularly to ensure that employees are up to date on the latest food safety practices.
  • Process control: Food companies must have actions in place to prevent food safety hazards from developing. These controls can include written procedures, standard operating procedures, and checklists.
  • Product quality assurance: Food companies must have procedures in place to ensure that the food they are selling meets all safety and quality requirements. This includes monitoring the production process, testing products, and administering corrective actions when a problem is identified.
  • Supplier management: Suppliers who do not adequately manage their food can jeopardize food safety for their customers. Food companies must have guidelines to assess the food safety risks of their suppliers and take corrective action when necessary.
  • Corrective actions: When a food safety incident occurs, food companies must take swift and effective action to correct the problem. This includes investigating the cause of the incident, implementing corrective actions, and monitoring the effectiveness of those actions.

Critical Components of FSC

back of house chef recording food safety list

In addition to overcoming challenges, companies should ensure the following critical components are part of their FSC.

  • Commitment: Companies must prevent food contamination and have measures in place to protect against foodborne illness outbreaks, and ensure food quality.
  • Transparency: Businesses should be transparent with everyone from the CEO to food production workers having a clear understanding of how to avoid foodborne illnesses.
  • Empowerment: Companies should empower food production workers to participate in food safety decisions and provide the necessary resources for them to effectively perform their jobs.
  • Accountability: Employees need to hold themselves accountable for managing food safety.
  • Education: Businesses must provide food safety education to all employees, from management to production workers, and ensure the information is current. It should include guidelines from topics from hand washing and hand sanitizing to safely preparing food.

Food companies should have requirements that encompass all aspects of their business, minimize risk as much as possible, and identify and correct outbreaks when they happen.

Earning Consumer Buy-In

Consumers have more power than ever before, and it’s imperative for food companies to earn their trust by being transparent about how they’re protecting food from contamination. Companies should look to align with other businesses with an FSC to help ensure they’re providing consumers with food free of contamination. Businesses that do not support FSC can be at a significant disadvantage.

There are numerous ways to support businesses with an FSC:

  • Follow food companies on social media and share information about how they protect food from contamination.
  • Visit company websites to learn more about their food safety culture and how they safeguard food.
  • Use the hashtag #FoodSafetyCulture to share photos or thoughts on businesses that have a strong food safety culture.
  • Rate and review companies that support FSC on platforms like Yelp, Google, or Facebook.
  • Try to regularly buy from companies with an FSC in place.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the importance of FSC in helping to safeguard the food supply and preventing food contamination. It has demonstrated that it‘s more critical than ever for companies to have a solid FSC to prevent widespread food contamination, educate their staff and protect consumers' health.