How to create a robust food safety culture

05 February 2018

Today’s tough trading environment means there are some very hard decisions to make on the way businesses in the food and agri sector implement soft skills.

Food safety culture is one of these key areas and it’s essential that management teams know employees will act in the right way at all times, and not just when they’re being watched.

A recent undercover investigation at one major poultry supplier found issues around hygiene and labelling, leading to front page headlines and difficult questions for the chief executive.

So how do companies create a robust food safety culture that ensures employees work to the required standards all the time?

Quantify current culture

The first step is to quantify the existing culture. What standards and processes are in place?

How do employees from the boardroom to the shop floor communicate a consistent message?

Are people empowered to make the right decisions through good training, meaningful incentives and consistently applied sanctions?

Gathering such information means surveying employees and getting individual feedback from every section of the business. Only by understanding the existing culture, can a business then improve it continually and consistently.

Four-point plan

Armed with the current state-of-play a company can then introduce a four-point plan to move forward. The points of such a plan are people, process, purpose and proactivity.

  • The people aspect means looking at the training in place and deciding if it’s effective. How does a company reward its people and are there appropriate sanctions for those that behave improperly? Once employees buy in to a food safety culture their actions help to inform those of others around them. Peer pressure is an important part of promoting a robust culture across large workforces.
  • Having empowered its people, a company needs to implement sound processes. These will create consistency and need to be reviewed and updated to ensure they remain fit for purpose.
  • And so to purpose. What is the vision for the food safety culture? Is it a key part of the company’s overall values, strategy and objectives? Once food safety sits at the centre of these considerations, then it becomes a much more important and nurtured part of the business.
  • But vision without delivery is just fantasy. Companies have to take positive action and this is why proactivity is so important. They must put practical plans into place and prioritise the actions they take.

Common failings in food safety culture

There are three common areas of poor performance when it comes to creating a sound food safety culture. The first is reinforcement. Companies struggle with how they reward and sanction employees effectively and often have overly generic and inconsistent approaches.

Training is the second pitfall that many businesses stumble into. Induction programmes and ongoing development training do not always address the specific activities that employees carry out. Nor are they targeted at existing problems or evolved quickly enough to reflect changing regulation and market best practise.

There are then failings around risk foresight. It appears that companies are so engaged with their day-to-day activities that they don’t identify unfolding problems and so find themselves poorly positioned to deal with them.

A strong food safety culture brings benefits

Creating a robust food safety culture won’t happen on its own. It has to be driven by the executive board and made a central part of all their operational and strategic decisions.

But it has never been more important. Unannounced audits mean companies must be sure they’re always working to the highest standards. Where they’re working to good standards, improving them further will add resilience to the business. Where standards are poor, improving the culture will minimise the number of problems it encounters going forward.

Over time a robust food safety culture will also create earned recognition for companies, building trust with customers, suppliers and regulators and underpinning operational performance.

Culture might seem like a soft and fluffy issue, but companies that want to enjoy these benefits need to take a hard-nosed approach to it.

Food safety culture takeaways:

  • Creating a food safety culture lets you control, manage and improve that culture
  • Poor food safety culture leads to poor operational decisions
  • Bad decisions can damage your brand and your bottom line.

Thank you to Bertrand Emond from Campden BRI for his contributions to this article at our 2017 Global Food & Agri Conference.

For further information, please contact Simon Lusher, Food & Agri Practice Leader on +44 20 7459 5550 or email

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