Join the culture club

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Hygiene

Join the culture club
Complacency about food safety threatens many food companies, with the risk of the next media feeding frenzy just around the corner.

Forget about novel killer pathogens, it's a bad food safety culture that is probably the biggest risk facing manufacturers, retailers and ultimately consumers. With the temptation to cut corners as economic pressure intensifies, the industry has been warned against placing too much reliance on food safety management systems, including inspections and audits, rather than imbuing a culture of food safety from the boardroom to the shop floor.

Speaking at last month's Global Food Safety Conference in London, organised by the Consumer Goods Forum, food safety expert, professor Chris Griffith, warned: "Food safety culture is an emerging risk factor."​ Payton Pruett, vice president for corporate food technology and regulatory compliance at The Kroger Company, one of the US's largest retailers, agreed: "The lack of food safety culture can be a real risk to our organisations."

Griffith, now technical director of South African-based Von Holy Consulting and former head of the Food Research and Consultancy Unit at University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, argued that the conventional way risk factors were assessed and reported, such as inadequate cooling or inappropriate storage, cross-contamination or infected food handlers, was not very useful since this failed to nail the true source of most problems namely a poor food safety culture.

Behavioural change

It all comes down to encouraging collective good food hygiene practices throughout organisations, said Griffith. Griffith was involved in the investigation that followed the serious E.coli outbreak in South Wales in September 2005, which resulted in the death of five-year-old Mason Jones. As a result of this devastating incident, owner of butcher John Tudor and Son, William Tudor, was jailed for a year for failing to prevent food becoming contaminated and for putting unsafe food on to the market. Unfortunately, though comparatively rare, it is not an isolated case.

"Everything I saw at John Tudor, I've seen at other companies,"​ said Griffith, who cited instances when out of date meat products had been re-labelled.

While good training will help, that alone was not enough if people failed to put what they had learned into everyday practice, he said. Research reported by Griffith showed that many workers often adopted poor hygiene practices, which they knew to be wrong, because it was the norm in their workplace. What is needed is behavioural change, otherwise new workers would inevitably pick up the bad habits of the people around them, Griffith warned.

"More than 50% of food handler mistakes are down to culture of the business and management failures,"​ said Griffith, with big companies also often being particularly complacent about such matters. But he added: "You don't get a good safety culture by threatening to whip anybody who doesn't wash their hands."​ Such approaches merely drove bad behaviours underground, he warned.

Citizen journalism

Companies whose practices are less than acceptable had better watch out, too. The Twitter age means that food safety incidents are going viral even before they reach the antennae of inspectors and the regulatory authorities because of the rise of social networking, the conference heard.

It's not just covert photography, which has exposed cruel treatment in some of Britain's abattoirs, that will bring the spotlight on what the food industry does. In future, we can expect workers who don't feel able to go through legitimate internal channels to report bad hygiene practices to resort to anonymous 'citizen journalism'. Such stories posted on the likes of Twitter will be picked up within hours and encircle the world, bringing with them consequential damage to the reputations of companies involved.

To avoid such scenarios, companies need to adopt an open, self-critical environment, remarked Griffith. "That's the sign of a positive culture."​ And that's something that Canada's largest food processor, Maple Leaf Foods, has learned to its cost.

The largest product recall in Canadian history and the deaths of 23 people followed a major food safety incident caused by Listeria monocytogenes contamination of a piece of equipment at Maple Leaf's Toronto plant in August 2008.

Maple Leaf's president and chief executive, Michael McCain, on whose 'watch' the tragedy occurred, put the incident down to "complacency"​ within the company. "We didn't have the rigour and depth of understanding of the risk we faced,"​ McCain admitted. This failing, he assured, had now been addressed by making food safety central to the heart and soul of the company.

McCain reported that Maple Leaf was now more open and transparent when it encountered problematic food safety issues. He noted that management was now more suspicious of plants that didn't report occasional elevated Listeria counts rather than those that did, given the bacteria's "ubiquitous"​ nature. "Food safety is the commitment of everyone throughout the organisation certainly it starts at the top,"​ he said.

The cultural argument has certainly gained some heavyweight traction. "Food safety equals behaviour,"​ remarked Frank Yiannas, vice president food safety and health at Wal-Mart Stores USA. "If you are trying to improve the food safety performance of your organisation, what you are really trying to do is change a lot of people's behaviours."

Related topics: Food Safety

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