Food safety programs such as HACCP are primarily focused on food science, regulatory rules and regulations, documentation, verification tests, and training. While these are great aspects of building and maintaining a viable food safety plan, they are not enough. Along with food safety management, building a food safety culture is essential. Frank Yiannas discussed this idea in his 2008 book entitled Food Safety Culture: Creating a behavior-based food safety management system. In the book, Yiannas points to a major difference between food safety management and food safety culture.

Food safety culture embraces all the aspects of food safety management but also include the science of behavior change. This is necessary since more information and training in food safety and HACCP does not guarantee a change in behavior. More effective stimulants of behavior change are our personal values, beliefs and motivations. Hence, Yiannas argues that we need to go beyond the hard science, rules and regulations and get to the heart of what really moves people at the end of the day. Here are some of his ideas that I found most interesting.

Model from the Top

Management sets the tone for food safety. If management does not care, no one else will. Therefore, it is important that leaders not only talk about food safety, but also demonstrate a commitment to food safety by what they do. I can’t forget doing a regulatory inspection many years ago as a food inspector when the manager walked on the plant floor with a lit cigarette in his hand. If he could do that in the presence of inspectors, I wondered what he was doing when we were not present, and the type of example he was setting for his employees.

Leverage the Herd Mentality

One principle of human behavior is that we often do what others do. Take advantage of this herd mentality by catching associates, shifts, and departments, when they are at their best. Reward and recognize them appropriately for their efforts. Do not skimp in your efforts to promote them on a pedestal. Enlist them as models and spokespersons to influence others in the organization.

Let Positive Consequences Outweigh Negative Consequences

Both negative and positive consequences are important in motivating associates to do the right things. However, positive consequences generally have a stronger influence in changing behavior than negative consequences. Yiannas suggests that in building a food safety culture, the ratio of positive to negative consequences should be somewhere between 4:1 and 10:1.

Train with a Focus on Values, not Rules

You probably notice that much of our training today is focused on following rules, standards operating procedures, regulations and dos and don’ts. People generally hate rules, even though they know they are right. It will be harder to get through to associates if you focus only on the rules. Behavioral psychology suggests instead that we should appeal to values, since they spring from a deeper place in the emotion. For example, in talking about why food safety is important to you, you could focus on your care and respect for the customer and the sense of honor in doing the right thing even when nobody’s watching. This will be far more inspiring than appealing to the need to follow “company policy” or to meet “FDA regulations”.

Use Mistakes as Teachable Moments

Mistakes can happen along the way as you implement and manage your food safety program. Make sure that you pay attention to what causes them and take the time to reflect on how they can be prevented. If you develop a habit of ignoring your mistakes, hiding them, or not learning from them you may develop a food safety culture that is so pervasively reckless that you find yourself out of business. That is exactly what happened to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). In a landmark case in 2008, the company’s CEO was sent to prison for 28 years by a federal judge. This was the toughest penalty ever for a corporate executive in a foodborne outbreak case. In the outbreak, 714 people were sickened across 46 states and 9 people died. The company had multiple opportunities to prevent this outbreak, but in their gross mismanagement, they kept ignoring obvious non-conformance. Don’t let that happen to you.

As much as your food safety system is science-based, it is also behavior-base. Its success will depend on you and how you lead the associates under your stewardship.

Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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