Since 1st February 2019, food processing sites have been audited against the much-heralded new version of the BRC Global Food Safety Standard which is now in its 8th issue. The last half of 2018 saw a flurry of activity as sites busily tried to prepare themselves, accessing any guidance that they could, including the BRCGS Interpretation Guide to this issue of The Standard. The one area which saw many sites scratching their heads, despite the case studies offered in the Interpretation Guide, was how to demonstrate that food safety culture has been measured, and a plan of action put in place to improve food safety culture. In this article, we explore what is meant by Food Safety Culture and what mechanisms are important to measure.

Food Safety Culture

Food safety culture is well described in the Interpretation Guide to Issue 8 of the BRC Global Food Safety Standard, which is freely available at the BRCGS global standards bookshop, which states that “a proactive, positive culture within a company can make all the difference in the effectiveness of the food safety and quality plan, and its consistent implementation throughout the site”. Food safety culture requires a top down approach in which senior management lead the way in promoting a good food safety culture, involving all colleagues at their site, so that it is “felt” by everyone. It is about the creation of an ethos that permeates throughout the organisation, in which all members of staff, at all levels, feel involved and proud of the food safety and culture plan, and feel that they own and play a part in that plan. The creation of such an ethos removes the barriers of old in the food industry, which could harm or hinder the food safety and quality plan, where some staff simply could not “see” the reason for food safety and quality, why it was important, and what their part was within it. You can imagine this when you perhaps think of some of the feelings amongst staff within establishments which do not promote a good food safety culture, with thoughts amongst staff expressed such as:

  • My boss doesn’t care – as long as I get the job done
  • It’s all about profit and money here
  • I feel afraid to speak up
  • I’m not comfortable with this
  • There’s no point saying anything anyway!

As opposed to an organisation with an implanted good food safety culture, with much better thoughts expressed like these:

  • Everyone is respected here
  • I’m not forced to do things I’m uncomfortable with
  • It’s about profit, but they care about safety too.
  • I’m really happy to shout if something doesn’t seem right
  • I can suggest things, and they take notice!

Food Safety Culture Plan

The creation of a food safety culture plan is not quite as easy as 1-2-3! But one must start somewhere, and where better than gap analysis to determine the current food safety culture ethos, which in turn allows for a prioritised plan to begin improving the current ethos. A survey to explore the current standing of food safety culture (the ethos) within these 4 categories is perhaps a good start:

  • People – exploring empowerment, behaviour, mentoring, encouragement, teamwork and training effectiveness
  • Process – exploring communication, infrastructure and how this impacts on working lives, access and understanding of the key food safety and quality policies
  • Purpose – exploring how staff feel about the moral compass of the organisation, ethics and prioritisation of core food safety and quality values
  • Forward planning – how staff feel they are involved in planning decisions that will affect their roles, how valued they feel particularly in their growth, training and development

These categories are described in a Campden BRI White Paper on the matter and indeed those members of that organisation may opt to subscribe to the third-party scheme endorsed by that organisation. Some food businesses however are not members and may not have the finances to do that. In this case the work needs to be done in-house. This takes some thought but is not an insurmountable challenge. Questions could be generated under these four categories to explore how staff feel about their organisation. This is not that difficult with a bit of thought behind it. To illustrate this, a few example questions, for the first category (people) is presented below. Following a similar process, several questions could be established per category:-

  • How confident are you about what is expected of you in your job?
  • How constructive do you think training is, in terms of making a lasting impact and helping you to make changes where needed?
  • How involved do you feel in your team?

This could be implemented as a paper or electronic questionnaire that staff can complete, anonymously. It is useful to ask people to rate their answers perhaps on a 1 to 5 scale from 1 (this aspect is very bad for me) to 5 (this aspect is strong for me). Scoring turns this from a qualitative to a quantitative exercise.

People do not like to feel under undue pressure, as it may influence their answers, or indeed whether they feel like completing the questionnaire at all. It is important to provide them with a cover of anonymity, should they so choose it. This means allowing surveys to be completed anonymously and submitted to someone who is not their direct manager. For some staff, this might perhaps be the receptionist, or canteen manager, with their agreement of course, or even an outside consultant.

Once collected, either from all staff, or a representative percentage of the workforce, then the job of analysis begins. An organisation can identify where an aspect scores poorly overall and then set about developing an action plan for this. From the example questions above, imagining a poor overall score for “How involved do you feel in your team”, an action plan may consist of team building exercises or improved communications between the members of a team, and indeed between teams. As in any corrective and preventive action plan there is a need to gain senior management commitment to instigate the improvement, to have someone manage each improvement project, to set a timescale and, importantly, to set a measure of success – this may be a short survey (think of a conference or training course feedback form). Section 1 of the BRCGS Global Food Safety Standard requires senior management to commit to quality objectives. This mechanism could be used for the setting of culture objectives, accepting that, as described in the BRCGS Interpretation Guide, a food safety culture plan and the actions arising from that, do not need to be an annual event. It may be a 3 or even 5-year strategic plan. However long an organisation decides that strategic plan will be, one thing is for certain, food safety culture is here to stay.