Food safety awareness is at an all time high, new and emerging threats to the food supply are being recognized, and the food supply is becoming more global. These trends are occurring in China and worldwide.
As a food safety professional, as you think about the risks in today’s food system and how you mightimprove the food safety performance within your organization or area of responsibility, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Do you think about creating a bigger or better food safety program? If you do, although you may be well intentioned, you might be missing the mark. I believe your goal should be to create a food safety culture – not a food safety program. There is a big difference between the two.
Culture is a word that is getting used often in today’s society, maybe even overused. What does it really mean? As a food safety professional, culture may be one of those terms that seems a little fuzzy or maybe even abstract. It may be hard for us to objectively grab the concept. You might feel much more comfortable talking about specific microbes, food safety standards, and process controls. We often consider these the hard science. You might feel less comfortable talking about terms related to organizational culture and human behavior – often referred to as the “soft stuff.”
However, if you look at foodborne disease trends over the past few decades, it’s clear to me that the soft stuff is still the hard stuff. We won’t make dramatic improvements in reducing the global burden of foodborne disease, especially in certain parts of the food system and world, until we get much better at influencing and changing human behavior (the soft stuff).
So what is culture? One of the best definitions that I’ve come across by Coreil, Bryant, and Henderson states “Culture is patterned ways of thought and behavior that characterize a social group, which can be learned through socialization processes and persist through time.” As a food safety professional, a food safety culture can be viewed as how and what the individuals of a social group (be it a company orcountry) think about food safety. It’s the food safety behaviors that they routinely practice and demonstrate. According to this definition, employees will learn these thoughts and behaviors by simply becoming part of the company or organizational group. Furthermore, if you truly create a food safety culture, these thoughts or behaviors will permeate throughout the entire organization and be sustained over time, as opposed to being the “program of the month” or this year’s focus.
There’s no question about it, in an organization or social group, food safety is a shared responsibility. But when it comes to creating or strengthening a culture within an organization, there is one group of individuals who really own it - they’re the leaders. I came across a quote by Edgar Schein, author onorganizational culture, which states this point quite well. He said, “Organizational cultures are createdby leaders, and one of the most decisive functions of leadership may well be the creation, the management, and – if and when necessary – the destruction of culture.”
Although this quote may strike you as being a bit strong, it’s true. Creating a strong food safety culture does not happen by chance. And although no two great food safety cultures will be identical, they are likely to have many similar attributes.
In closing, never before in history has China been better positioned to advance food safety. As a food scientist, I encourage you to create a food safety culture – not just a food safety program. We won’t be as effective in reducing the global burden of foodborne disease and advancing food safety worldwide until we do.
Frank Yiannas is Vice President of Food Safety for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. He is also author of the book Food Safety Culture, Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System.