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Can We “See” Food Safety Culture?

I recently visited a very large food facility. It was undoubtedly produced a food product; all be it a relatively low risk one. But a food product we all enjoy nonetheless.

During the tour of the very impressive production and packing process, I was struck by what I didn’t see.

There were no visible food safety artefacts on the entire production floor. No reminders of the importance of food safety in our daily activities.

What are artefacts?

Edward Schein, one of the primary researchers on modern organisation culture thinking, presented three levels of organization in his 1991 article, “What is Culture?” He grouped organizational culture into three levels including artefacts, values, and underlying assumptions. He depicts these as an iceberg or pyramid.

First, at the top of the pyramid are artefacts. While they have been defined as the visible part of an iceberg, they are hard to decipher. Artefacts include any tangible or visible elements in an organization (Denison, 1990): for example, architecture, facilities, offices, furnishings, technology, products, language, dress code, office jokes, manners of address, myths, stories, all exemplify organizational artefacts. Thus, verbal, behavioural and physical artefacts that can be recognized by people, can be seen, felt and heard on the surface (Schein, 1992; Trice, 1984; Dalkir, 2005).

An artefact is defined as a man-made object that has some kind of cultural significance. Work-related artefacts include our processes, policies, and procedures, as well as our technologies, daily interactions, and the environments we create. They can even be found in the methods in which we address each other, the way we conduct ourselves in meetings, our tone of voice on the telephone, and our interactions in the lunchroom.

What do the experts say?

Frank Yiannas agrees: In an interview with Quality assurance and Food safety, he commented:

“At the ground level, there should be observable artefacts that demonstrate whether an organization has a culture of food safety.

Here are a few things you could look for:

  • Is food safety culture documented and communicated as part of the organization’s value or belief statement?
  • In pre-shift meetings, do leaders talk about the importance of food safety or specific food procedures with their staff? If the leaders aren’t talking about it, it’s probably not important.
  • Do front-line staff have the knowledge and skillset to produce food safely? And most importantly, are they adhering to proper food safety practices (i.e., behaviours)?
  • Is the facility designed with food safety in mind? Do you see clear design principles that convey food safety was considered in how the work was designed?
  • Do employees’ food safety practices change when an inspector arrives? If they do, it probably means that they aren’t practising food safety, the right way, when no one is looking.
    I could go on, but I think you get the drift. A food safety culture is observable. It’s not just a document that is signed by an executive.”

I love what Charles Causey says about artefacts:

Company culture is the ongoing expression of a company’s values through its artefacts. An artefact is any memorable event or object that is created by a member of the company.

How can we use these principles to improve our food safety culture and hence food safety performance?

Some ideas:

  • Start your meetings with a food safety minute (after the health and safety minute – safety first!)
  • The food safety policy doesn’t belong in reception – it belongs on the shopfloor, but it needs to be written so WE understand and can implement it. It’s NOT for auditors.
  • What about food safety posters with meaning, placed hygienically and used as part of an intentional awareness campaign?
  • Proper health and safety signage should be in place anyway but how can we use this discipline for food safety?
  • And don’t forget to refer to these symbols daily and consistently and train all new staff on their importance – ON DAY 1.

Of course, posters and symbols on their own are not a silver bullet but they are a visual reminder that we take food safety seriously. They must be supported by our values and daily activities. But if they are not there, what does it say to our staff?