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Shared Values – The Foundation for a Culture of Food Safety

In a previous post a case study about a head-boy of a boys’ boarding school that saved an 8th-grader’s life alluded to determinants that influences human behaviour. Literature points to institutional culture being one, and together with other management and leadership mechanisms such as remuneration, recognition and skills development the principle of culture provides an additional tool than can be utilised and developed to influence behaviour. In the occupational environment culture is more readily manageable than personal traits such as character, need, emotion and experience. If there is one thing the story of the boarding school head-boy demonstrated, it is that “this is the way we do things around here” is undoubtedly a strong determinant of behaviour.

The food industry, like any other where people are employed is not a perfect world scenario, and therefore parallels between the mentioned case study and potential risky situations in food premises are apparent with consequences, sometimes dire, to consumer wellbeing. Similar to the relationship the head-boy had with the school that impacted his actions, the relationship between employee and employer plays a fundamental role in generating positive behaviours. Like the considerations that influenced the decisions and actions of the head boy were derived from human constructs likely instilled by teachers, friends, family and leadership, the behaviours of employees at different levels in the workplace are governed by culture characteristics such as trust, loyalty, respect, a sense of belonging and appreciation that are inculcated by co-workers, management and leadership.

In South Africa, like in many other countries the factors that ensures food safety beyond regulatory processes and inspections are coming to the fore and mechanisms to create and foster positive food safety cultures are contemplated in addition to the current tools of auditing, training and monitoring against set standards. Although the South African food safety scenario may pose unique challenges brought on by particular traditions, practices, economics and even politics, these principles are predominantly universal and echoed by leading international authors such as Frank Yiannas (Vice President: Food Safety at WalMart International) and Chris Griffith (Lead Hygienist at Broadmayne Hygiene Consultancy; previously with the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff). The principal reason for probing solutions beyond current mechanisms and food safety management systems is primarily due to food safety incidents still occurring and even escalating, notwithstanding compliance to the traditional management and monitoring systems.

Improving an organization’s food safety culture requires a standardised, well-managed and resolute strategy however, and one that relies on the so-called softer sociological principles, behavioural sciences and change management strategies and not only the traditional principles of auditing, microbiology, engineering, processing technology and the like. Such strategies should be founded on tangible and customised interventions to improve the culture with the aim of motivating staff on various levels to exhibit positive food safety behaviours guided by food safety culture best-practice.

Ultimately the food safety fraternity at various levels should be willing to identify and confront food safety risks beyond only their own key performance areas and responsibilities. Luckily, and in contrast to the story of the head-boy, employees in the food industry should not have to transgress any rules in order to respond to a food safety risk, but rather be prepared to go the extra mile and beyond the call of duty, because “this is the way we do things around here”.