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The food safety team leader – yet again

Yes, I know – we have chatted about your role before and if you feel that I am picking on you, let’s take a moment to remember the importance of a leader in creating a positive food safety culture.

This week I was struck by an article from Professor Chris Griffith and his team. In a 2010 publication, he reminds us that all organizations need good leaders and better-led businesses are more productive, competitive and responsive. A good leader helps their employees have a greater idea of where they are heading and why, and are more engaged and motivated.

According to Griffith, leadership is more about influencing people whilst management is about control and creating predictable results. He comments that it has been said that leadership is one of the most observed but least understood phenomena. Now obviously the roles and responsibilities of leaders are different depending upon their position within an organization BUT the Food safety team LEADER is still a leader.

Griffith states that the key to food safety leadership is having a food safety vision combined with goals and standards. Of course, the food safety team leader cannot solely influence this, but the food safety team leader can help to articulate the organization’s goals and values in relation to food safety and their leadership can help to align food handlers with these goals.

Taurel (2007)  “leadership is to do with getting people to follow you to a place you have not been – which is the future”.

Face it, you were employed as you have the food safety knowledge that your senior management doesn’t have. They rely on YOU to help them define the food safety goals and set the standards for food safety.

This puts you in a unique position to influence top managers. How you do this is of utmost importance.

Often, I have observed food safety team leaders talking a completely different “language” to top management. This usually happens because food safety team leaders often talk in CFU’s (colony forming units) and top management talk in rands and cents. The key is to find a common language and this can be risk communication.

Griffith highlights several aspects of risk communication research we should consider in our role as food safety team leaders. He defines ‘risk’ as the probability of an adverse event in conjunction with the seriousness or severity of that event. Perceived risks are the judgment and decision-making processes that enable individuals to evaluate the chances of being affected by a particular risk. In this case, we are considering how your company’s food safety adverse events could impact on the business.  

Griffith and Redmond studied the risk of food poisoning occurring and encountered two problems with food handlers (Redmond and Griffith, 2009): optimistic bias and the illusion of control. There is evidence that both can affect food handler behaviour and safety culture. With optimistic bias, the food handlers perceive

there is an overall risk but that their business would not be affected by it. The illusion of control means they think they practice food safety and so everything is okay.  According to Griffith, unless they are convinced of both the probability and seriousness of the risk, they are unlikely to implement food safety requirements.

One of our key focus areas as a food safety team leaders should be communicating food safety concerns in a way that addresses attitudes and personal beliefs. We need to avoid creating the perception with workers and especially top management, that concerns about food safety are exaggerated or for workers, that there is little they can do to control food safety. As the level of leader that must work at both these levels of the organization, do not underestimate your power of positive influence. Work hard to be the source of information they trust.

Griffith, C. J., Livesey, K. M., & Clayton, D. (2010a). The assessment of food safety culture. British Food Journal, 112(4), 439-456.