A strong food safety culture is more important than ever in the wake of COVID-19 precautions and the ongoing need to protect food from hazards. A shared philosophy is at the core of an organization’s food safety culture, led at the top and shared by employees at all levels and enables a company to stay compliant with standards and requirements. Investing in food safety measures, like advanced inspection systems, confirms a company’s across-the-board commitment to food safety.
If nothing else, this year has underscored the importance of working together in a collaborative way for a safe environment. A shared commitment to safety and health is as important as stemming COVID-19 transmission in a facility as it is in producing safe, high quality food products. And the facts are sobering: The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans get sick from contaminated foods or beverages each year and 3,000 die. COVID-19 is projected to kill 250,000 by Thanksgiving this year, a number that includes people who contracted the virus on the job.
A collective food safety culture helps an organization prevent, address and overcome a range of issues that impact the safety of employees and products bound for consumers. The same approach to being mindful and taking measures to protect the health and wellbeing of others can sustain a business through a pandemic and through day-to-day operations for producing high quality products free from hazards.
How crucial is this shared philosophy? There’s a reason why so many safety bodies have required or recommended having a strong food safety culture in place, including GFSI, BRCGS Issue 8, Codex Alimentarius, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Union, among others.
I believe, as do many experts, that the crux of a strong food safety culture is the common buy-in to the approach and mindset.
Here are six steps you can take to create a strong food safety culture within your organization:
- Define it: Food safety culture sounds like a broad term, but its definition in the context of food production environments is specific: food safety culture includes the food safety attitudes, values and beliefs shared by those within the organization and reflect its commitment to effective, across-the-board food safety management. The Food Safety Culture Excellence Module put forth by the BRCGS spans People, Process, Purpose and Proactivity further defines food safety culture, and applies to the protection of food from contaminants as well as the response to COVID-19 outbreaks. Ask yourself: are these definitions understood by all management and employees?
- Align it: The key to a strong food safety culture is the shared mindset, whether it’s the CEO, plant manager or machine operator. Employees at every level should understand what food safety culture is and why it’s important to follow protocols that improve it. This can be shared through formal food safety training programs, regular small workshops or team building-sessions, and even in something as simple as signage in a break room. Assembling a food safety team that is representative of many levels within a company can also assure that messages are being shared as comprehensively as possible. Are you taking opportunities to ensure that your organization’s food safety culture approach is shared throughout the organization?
- Make it top-down: Food safety culture should be leadership-driven. Company executives and management must continually serve as good examples and reinforce the importance of “walking the walk” among employees.
- Open it up: Candor is important in a food safety culture. A reliable assessment of food safety culture hinges on the ability of employees to honestly share their concerns, including in an anonymous way. To do this, many manufacturers offer surveys and other forms that assess food safety measures in place and progress toward shared food safety goals.
- Break it down: Every employee has an opportunity – and an obligation – to adhere to food safety standards and practices. Those who operate and maintain vital equipment such as x-ray inspection machines need to be up-to-date on proper operation and training and understand the capabilities and features of all systems. For advanced inspection systems, Eagle’s Training Academy includes courses and instruction on regulatory compliance, radiation safety, maintenance and machine care, and more.
- Invest in it: Proper equipment, including advanced inspection systems, should be put in place throughout the line. X-ray inspection systems are considered an integral part of corrective and preventive actions for food safety within a strong food safety culture. Having these systems in place also demonstrates the shared commitment to improving food safety by reducing risks and helps ensure that a company is complying with requirements relating to food safety culture. During audits to the BRCGS standard, for example, a manufacturer must show that they have verified the effectiveness of food safety culture actions that have been taken so far.
Even in these trying circumstances, you can take new steps to ensure that your organization is adhering to a strong culture. For example, options for certifications to standards now include remote and blended options, and some bodies are offering audit extensions.
By emphasizing your strong food safety culture among everyone from newly hired employees to seasoned veterans and putting visible measures into place to reduce hazards including physical contaminants, your company can stay compliant while your consumers enjoy safe, high quality products.