Why Food Safety Culture Matters

Building a strong food safety culture is one of the most important things a business can do. Find out why it matters and how you can improve the food safety culture in your business.
June 13, 2019

What is food safety culture?

A business's culture is made up of the shared values and unwritten norms (good and bad) that influence the behaviour of everyone in the business. The everyday behaviours of management and employees are a reflection of your business's culture.

A business with a strong food safety culture demonstrates to its employees and customers that making safe food is an important commitment, not just something to be discussed at a weekly meeting.

In a business with a good food safety culture:

  • food handlers know what is expected of them and how to do their job properly
  • food handlers follow proper procedures, even if it’s more difficult or no one is watching
  • management makes decisions based on food safety and not just the bottom line
  • food handlers are engaged and encouraged to report food safety concerns to management

In a business with a negative food safety culture (or a food safety culture that needs work), you may notice:

  • management fails to monitor or correct risky behaviours or poor personal hygiene
  • food handlers show a lack of interest in personal hygiene (particularly hand washing)
  • food handlers don’t always know the right thing to do and don’t feel comfortable asking
  • management only demonstrates a commitment to food safety if it is convenient (and doesn’t affect the bottom line)

Building a strong food safety culture is one of the most important things a business can do, because your business doesn’t run on a set of rules and procedures (though you certainly need those as well), it’s run by people. Your people — the Food Handlers, managers, supervisors and other employees who work in and make decisions that impact the business every day.

What is the responsibility of management?

A business’s food safety culture is a reflection of the importance of food safety to its leadership. Managers are responsible for identifying food safety goals, ensuring that Food Handlers are trained in safe food handling techniques, making sure the business in compliant with food safety laws and regulations, holding employees accountable for following the rules and empowering employees to raise food safety concerns.

Clear and consistent messaging from the top is important, but it is even more important that management is seen “walking the talk” and leading by example. By establishing policies and procedures that place a higher emphasis on food safety, you can achieve positive and lasting change that benefits everyone in the business (including yourself!).

As an owner, manager or supervisor you are responsible for:

  • providing a suitable environment, equipment and tools that are in good condition and easy to clean
  • making it easy for Food Handlers to perform critical food safety tasks without disrupting work flow
  • creating policies and procedures that provide clear instructions for how to make food safely
  • providing food safety training and resources to ensure employees know how to handle food safely
  • complying with food safety laws and regulations as they pertain to Food Handler certification
  • identifying opportunities to improve food safety best practices and procedures
  • evaluating the effectiveness of the business's Food Safety Plan and food safety culture
  • monitoring and evaluating staff behaviour

How to improve food safety culture in your business

SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

To succeed in your efforts to build a strong food safety culture, everyone in the business must understand their role in food safety and why it's important. Invest in food safety training and make sure that everyone understands their role, why it’s important and what your expectations are.

Each team needs to have its own routine, set of rules and documentation that is customized to the tasks they perform. It's risky, and a little unfair, to assume that employees will know how to do the best job if “best” is never properly defined for them.

HOLD STAFF ACCOUNTABLE

It's also up to you to make sure that employees understand the risks of improper food handling or poor hygiene (food poisoning and life-threatening allergic reactions, for example) — and understand that there are consequences for non-compliance (which is a fancy way of saying “not doing stuff properly”).

When employees are held accountable for following established food safety policies and procedures, they are more likely to do the right thing, even when no one’s watching. That said, don't make it all about the consequences. Focus on how your employees will benefit from a strong food safety culture.

A safe food business is more likely to be a successful food business, and a successful food business is in everybody's best interest. Employees who commit to doing the right thing for the business can reasonably expect to make more money (better tips, more shifts, more tables), as well as take pride in their work and the business they work for.

When everyone in your food business is working towards one goal, you will see lasting and positive change that can have a huge impact on all aspects of the business.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Employees are watching; if an employee sees someone else, especially someone at a higher level than them, taking shortcuts or making questionable decisions — decisions based on the bottom line and not food safety — it's easy for them to decide that these are acceptable behaviours. If management doesn’t follow their own rules, employees will learn that your “commitment” to food safety applies only to situations where it is easy or convenient to do so.

This can have disastrous results — because it’s harder to do the right thing when it comes to food safety. There are extra steps involved to ensure that surfaces and equipment are properly cleaned and sanitized; to check and double check the quality and safety of the food that is prepared; to communicate food safety concerns; and to take corrective actions, especially if those actions will have a short-term negative impact on the business or the day's operations.

Management can demonstrate a sincere commitment to food safety by:

  • positioning food safety as non-negotiable
  • investing in training and certification of all employees who handle food in the business
  • supporting decisions based on food safety regardless of financial impact
  • recognizing and giving credit to employees who follow food safety best practices
  • empowering and encouraging employees to raise concerns about food safety
  • establishing formal protocols for employees to report food safety concerns

Demonstrating a positive attitude when it comes to health inspections or customer complaints deserves a special mention in this section. If management thinks of Health Inspectors or disgruntled customers as the enemy, so will the team. Have an open mind and a positive attitude when it comes to receiving negative feedback (even if you have to fake it).

TRAIN YOUR STAFF

Food safety is best achieved through ongoing training and education — repetition is the key to making it stick.

Take a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to traditional training and certification courses, find ways to build five-minute training sessions into your daily schedule. Put your business's goals and expectations in writing and display them in the business.

Use visual cues to remind employees to do (and how to do) various tasks in the business. For example:

  • hand washing poster in the staff bathroom
  • cleaning agents cheat sheet in your chemical storage area
  • safe food cooking temperatures fact sheet in your hot food station (we recommend laminating it)
  • recommended food storage times poster in your walk in cooler
  • information about food allergens and how to identify them on product food labels

Be sure to communicate the importance of food safety to everyone in the business and return to that conversation often. The more you repeat your message, the more likely it is to stick in the minds of the people who hold your business's reputation in their hands every day — your Food Handlers.

CIFS members get the resources they need to keep food safety front-of-mind in a food business. The good news: Membership is free for a year after completing a CIFS Food Handler Certification Course.

Food safety culture assessment 

Measurement helps you to understand how you’re doing in terms of building a strong food safety culture. If you don't measure, how do you know if your strategy is working?

Some examples of what and how you can measure are:

  • observing employee behaviour when following standard procedures
  • reviewing health inspection reports
  • evaluating the frequency of customer complaints and how they were resolved
  • reviewing documentation of corrective actions that have been taken in the business
  • assessing employee knowledge of food safety best practices
  • assessing employee understanding of food safety goals and priorities of the company

Print out and distribute this handy questionnaire to your employees, supervisors and other managers to do a quick “health check” on your food safety culture. It’s a simple survey with space for comments, but you’ll be amazed by the insights you’ll be able to get from the responses.

Change may be slow at first — especially if you're struggling against an existing food safety culture — but don't lose hope. Change can and will happen over time; if you need help to take your food safety culture to the next level, get in touch. CIFS is a leading provider of online food safety training for thousands of food businesses and food workers across Canada.