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Saturday, 2 February 2013

Food Safety Culture and the Belief Factor

The call for food companies to develop and maintain food safety cultures has been made from a long historical past and continues to be made. What does this actually mean? Some commentators on this subject have concluded that training and enforcement are essential for the development of such a cultural mindset. I partially agree with this conclusion. Education, training, experience and the enforcement of desired practices certainly do play a part in behaviour modification. However, there is more.

The industry has not just suddenly discovered training. You only need to do simple web search for “food safety training” to see an avalanche of training schemes offered. With the host of training providers more interested in the profits than the results of training, one can expect an expanding superficiality of training. The industry is not suffering from the lack of training; it suffers from the lack of more fundamental things. Because of what is lacking, one might even say that the food industry has regressed to worse than the days before the 1906 publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in the United States: [You may read The Jungle, courtesy of The Project Gutenberg]

Behaviour may be informed through knowledge and formed through practice but it is compelled by belief. Sometimes, certain beliefs that lead to bad habits and undermine desired behaviour may not be consciously held. For example, I may subconsciously believe that “bad things only happen to other people” without being fully aware that this belief has a very powerful and almost addictive influence on my behaviour. Such influences may even cause my deliberate disregard for practices that ensure my safety, let alone that of others. I may, for instance, be taught and forced to practice proper hand washing techniques. If I secretly believe that this does not make any difference, I may comply only when I am being watched. That helps, except for those moments when no one is watching and I do not feel like washing my hands because I do not believe that a few instances of not washing my hands will cause any harm. In the same way, a person responsible for monitoring a critical control point (CCP) in a production process may secretly believe that a “minor” deviation will not make a huge difference. Rather than bother with the “hassle” of corrective actions for "every small deviation", this person may ignore some instances of so-called minor critical control point deviations. Addressing such deviations will normally require making and recording corrections with the appropriate follow up verification, et cetera. Laziness may override commitment in instances believed to be minor. 

Demonstrated reality shows that what the people within a culture believe is critical to maintaining the desired cultural practices. Employees who consistently adhere to desirable practices are compelled more by their beliefs than by any external influences.

In order to develop and sustain a thriving food safety culture in any food operation, true conversion from a reluctant or lazy attitude to a self-motivated commitment among business owners, managers and workers is crucial. Training and education have a part in this, but there must be a deliberate strategy for the transformation of everyone involved from negative or disrupting beliefs to positive and helpful beliefs. Where people with a good sense of moral obligation and social responsibility truly believe in right practices, and are properly motivated, there is scarcely any need for enforcement. Hence, a fully formed and thriving food safety culture eliminates the need for the enforcement of good practices through impositions like annual food safety certification audits conducted by external parties.

Calling for fully formed food safety culture and insisting on 3rd-party certification is like insisting on having training wheels for a child that has fully learned to ride a bicycle.  

Along with the culture development within single operations is the need for an expanded scope of the culture that must exist within the industry and society at large. The culture that is in need of changing extends beyond the consideration of single subjects like food safety and beyond the boundaries of single establishments. There are micro-cultures within different establishments that are in need of changing for sure, but there are also macro-cultures (in the case of the food industry, it is the entire industry that needs to change) with attention given to avoiding what Albert Einstein defined as insanity. 

A true and beneficial culture never forms where exclusivity thrives. This is the message of SSQA. Adopting the SSQA Concept and its principles enhances the development of a holistic approach by operations, and the creation of an environment where the desired culture becomes self-sustaining and self-propagating.
Posted by Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is currently the chair of GCSE-Food & HealthProtection. He is also the Director of Technical Services at Amiri Food Industry Support Services (AFISS) and the Canada/U.S representative for the World Food Safety Organisation.

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