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Beyond Systems and Standards, Lies Culture

By Bridget Day

The larger your company, the more we must rely on compliance to legislation, and effective systems to ensure we achieve the desired outcomes. It’s vital that we regulate your organisation’s activities in line with the law, with best practices and with industry requirements. But is that enough?

The need for standards and systems

If you have been in the food industry for any length of time you will know that legislation, standards and systems play a huge role in the management of your organisation. As part of the food chain, your business is ultimately responsible for the lives of those who consume your products. Compliance failures can have devastating outcomes, and we are not talking to your bottom line, we are talking life and death.

Does that seem a little melodramatic? Well, consider these facts from the World Health Organisation

  • Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.
  • An estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).
  • Children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125 000 deaths every year.
  • Diarrhoeal diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230 000 deaths every year.
  • Our very own South African Listeria outbreak statistics are proof of the devastating consequences and risks. We are now sitting on 1060 laboratory confirmed cases of listeriosis, and 2016 deaths (as at 26 July 2018). And in addition to the loss of life, there are huge economic consequences – this outbreak has resulted in the destruction of more than 4,000 tons of recalled products, and the losses are running into the hundreds of millions.

That’s not melodrama, that’s fact.

There has to be more…

Does this mean that legislation, standards, systems and SOPs are useless? Not at all!

We absolutely need these to be in place to create a structure and a context to produce safe food. We need the legislative framework to be strong and robust. We need the input of tried and tested systems and standards such as HACCP, ISO 22000 and FSSC 22000 – particularly when these standards are kept relevant to address current industry challenges such as food fraud and sustainability.

But perhaps it is time to consider that we need something more than just systems and checklists to manage and improve our levels of food safety in South Africa. Perhaps knowing the right thing to do and doing that thing are not necessarily one and the same.

Beyond standards and systems
Beyond standards and systems lies the territory of culture. Every company has a culture, whether by chance or by design. It is based on the behaviours, beliefs and attitudes of every member, from the top down. Without intervention, this culture creates itself and (much like listeria) if left to develop uncontained and uncontrolled, it can cause havoc and destruction to everything it touches.
Culture is the unspoken lifestyle inherent to your organisation – if you have not designed your culture intentionally it may not necessarily be what you want it to be. It could instead be a culture of negativity, a lack of customer centricity or a culture that ignores the value of safety. With food safety front and centre in the minds of our customers and the media, now is a great time to figure out what your organisational culture is, if it is a risk, or if it could be hindering your efforts to ensure the safety of your products for the security of your consumers.

How can food safety be a culture?

Yes, food safety can be a culture too. In fact, food safety must extend beyond the mandated requirements set in place by the company, there must be individual understanding, commitment and adoption of food safety principles and behaviours and this needs to be happening day in, day out, when people are watching AND when they aren’t. Food safety needs to be in people’s DNA, it needs to happen regardless of whether there are instructions given or not, it should be a way of life.
Frank Yiannis sums it up beautifully when he says: “Despite the fact that thousands of employees have been trained in food safety around the world, millions have been spent globally on food safety research, and countless inspections and tests have been performed at home and abroad, food safety remains a significant public health challenge. Why is that? Because to improve food safety, we must realize that it’s more than just food science; it’s the behavioral sciences, too. In fact, simply put, food safety equals behavior.

The first step is to identify what your company culture is, and how much that helps or hinders the achievement of your food safety objectives.

References: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety