How to empower advocates of safety culture in food production

How to empower advocates of safety culture in food production

15 Sep 2021

This informal CPD article How to empower advocates of safety culture in food production was provided by Erica Colson on behalf of BSI Group, helping organisations around the world embed excellence, build competence and capability for sustainable growth.

How to empower advocates of safety culture in food production

As someone that buys and eats food, I used to take for granted that when I bought a packet of crisps or a low-fat ready meal from the supermarket that it was safe to eat. Whether it was particularly nutritious maybe not, but as a consumer I expected the food that I’m eating to be what it says it is on the packet and of course, safe to eat. However, stepping into the world of food auditing I had my eyes opened to the very real fact that there are product recalls and withdrawals pretty much weekly, often due to the food not being safe for some or all to eat.

At BSI we audit food manufacturers to various standards including health and safety, environmental and energy management, cyber security and food safety. Pretty much all food manufacturers supplying into major UK retailers will be audited by an external assessor from companies like BSI to mitigate the risk of unsafe food ending up on the supermarket shelf. Over the past few years, there has been an increasing level of focus on ‘food safety culture’ both in food safety standards themselves and in the food and beverage industry as a whole.

Of all subjects that could be gaining attention (topics such as business continuity, lean process improvement, cyber security or environmental monitoring) why is food safety culture such a prominent discussion point? From an auditing perspective I’d say this was due to the crux of 98% of non-conformities, and something that despite having the best policies, processes and procedures still leaves room for error- human error itself. Food safety culture is about culture which is about people- and people make or break food safety, which in turn can make or break the success of a modern-day food business.

Measure, monitor and continually improve food safety culture

In order to keep food safe, reduce product recalls and protect their brands; food manufacturers are looking to measure, monitor and continually improve their food safety cultures. A gamechanger for the average quality or technical manager, and in many cases quite a foreign concept far from the world of NPD, food science and process efficiency.

Effecting cultural change means effecting change, which almost always presents well documented challenges. Even for the most experienced and enigmatic leaders, significantly changing anything in an organization (from the type of coffee in the breakroom, through to introducing a new process or documentation system) presents a challenge. There will be advocates (those keen to embrace these changes) and protesters (those who tend to push back, and make excuses on why things can’t or shouldn’t change). It’s easy to put these resisters in the ‘difficult person box’ and dismiss their concerns, focusing on the positivity of the advocates. However, if these protesters have influence (in a social gravitas/ respect context, not necessarily a formal job-role seniority one) over the teams that are crucial to implementing this change then it is going to be much harder to get everyone on board.

Research (1) tells us that the majority of people will follow when presented by a strong leader moving in a focussed direction. Researchers at Leeds University performed a group experiment involving 200 volunteers who were told to randomly walk around a large hall without talking or gesturing to each other. A select few were then given more detailed instructions on where to walk. The researchers discovered that that people end up blindly following one or two instructed people who appear to know where they’re going. The results of these experiments demonstrated that it only takes 5% of confident-looking and instructed people to influence the direction of the 95% of people in the crowd.

Educating and involving your advocates

Using this same principle, educating and involving your advocates in the process and direction that you’re going in with your food safety culture improvement plans should enable them to have the level of knowledge and confidence required to take others on the culture change journey. This also highlights why it is critical to have advocates at every level of the business, leading by example on the importance of food safety culture from the top down (CEO and top management), and having input and early feedback from the bottom up (production staff need a voice).

Another practical way of giving your advocates more influence is to use the social power of a uniform. A different colour high vis jacket for example also helps with signalling, and if the colour or item used is already associated with authority, then the chances of authority transference to your change advocate are high. In numerous studies 2,3 the presence of a uniform associated with authority is shown to increase willingness and reduce undesirable or noncompliant behaviours that may lead to a poor or negative food safety culture.

To conclude and paraphrase Peter Drucker with a common saying in the business world “If you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it- and if you can’t manage it you can’t improve it either.”

Food safety culture 

The culture aspect of food safety culture is usually the ‘X’ or the unknown element that creates a reaction of dismissal or even fear for those who are new to the topic. Those managing food and beverage production businesses usually know food safety inside out when it comes to HACCP analysis, PCR testing and environmental monitoring controls. Culture is often seen as ‘fluffy’ or ‘intangible’, and if you try to measure it in the same way that you would a microbial presence, then yes it will be intangible.

Culture requires a qualitative element of measurement, in addition to the quantitative measures that are more commonly practiced in industry. There are many tools on the market to measure different elements of culture, and you should look around and find the one that suits your organizational approach.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from BSI Group , please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

References: 1. Dyer, J. R., Ioannou, C. C., Morrell, L. J., Croft, D. P., Couzin, I. D., Waters, D. A., & Krause, J. (2008). Consensus decision making in human crowds. Animal Behaviour, 75(2), 461-470. 2. Sigelman, C. K., & Sigelman, L. (1976). Authority and conformity: Violation of a traffic regulation. The Journal of Social Psychology, 100(1), 35-43. 3. Bickman, L. (1974). The Social Power of a Uniform 1. Journal of applied social psychology, 4(1), 47-61. 

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