Food Safety Culture Explained


What is the definition of culture?


Culture, according to charles handy, is ‘the way we do things around here’ this simple definition is expanded further in a food safety context by professor Chris Griffith (2014). he describes it as ‘collective, values, beliefs and behavioural norms. Culture is simply the way people think and act within an organisation.  


Culture is easily visible and audible. We can see it in how people behave in observable practices and the language spoken through shared narratives; we can read it in policies and procedures; and we can see it in the layout, cleanliness and maintenance of the premises and equipment.


Food safety culture is driven by core values. These guiding principles reflect the organisation’s highest priorities and set standards for expected behaviours. They communicate to people what is culturally right and wrong. But core values can sometimes conflict. for example: profit over safety.


Profit over safety


Making money is important but it should never compromise safety. There have been many publicised incidents where profit over safety was the root cause for encouraging risky behaviours. Short-term gains may be achieved but in the long-term it does not make financial sense for the business.


Eventually an organisation will get caught out and the costs to put things right will always be more than the savings made through risky behaviours. This hypothesis has been validated in recent times with publicised consequences for those organisations who have put profit before safety. 


Customers are hard to get but very easy to lose. trust in the product you sell is everything. breaking that trust by putting profit before safety is something customers will not easily forgive or forget.



What are the characteristics?


At either side of the food safety culture spectrum we have positive and negative cultures. These are easy to define with polarised characteristics of what we perceive to be good and bad.


The characteristics of a positive food safety culture are the same as those seen in a quality management systems. There is an expectation in getting things right first time by eliminating the causes of defects.  success in implementing and maintaining a positive food safety culture creates trust and reducing costs. This is achieved through assurance strategies that put plans in place to avoid defects and controls to detect and correct failure. Finally, a positive food safety culture is a continuous process of evaluation and improvement.


But there is another dimension in between these extremes that is often overlooked until it’s too late. Professor Chris Griffith (2014) defines this dimension as a place where a neutral culture can exist and complacency occurs.


Complacency can arise in two ways. Robust food safety management systems and favourable audit and inspection reports can give rise to a psychological bias of control. But the reality maybe something unexpected. Complacency can also happen when we fail to continuously scan the horizon for emerging risks and opportunities for improvements.


A food safety management system informs what needs to be done to ensure food is safe to eat. These proactive and reactive policies and procedures do reduce the risk of placing unfit food into the marketplace, but there are also limitations. A food safety management system is only as good as the people who created it. This can sometimes lead to an imposed system that is too complex and not understood by everyone. We also know people do not always follow the rules.  Mistakes and violations do occur because of knowledge based errors, poor risk perception and reckless behaviours.


Audits are important. They can verify compliance with the HACCP plan and customer specifications. effective audits and inspections do challenge management commitment and unsafe behaviours. But in recent times we have all been made fully aware of the limitations. Audits are discontinuous and only provide a snapshot in time. What is seen may not necessarily provide evidence of compliance. Elton Mayo describes the ‘Hawthorne effect’ where people will modify their behaviour when observed. The scope of the audit and competence of the auditor can have a significant impact on the outcomes.  Finally, organisations do know the frequencies of announced and even unannounced external audits and change priorities in preparedness for a visit.


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