Food safety culture needs to be second nature

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Food

Production staff are being encouraged to 'own the process'
Production staff are being encouraged to 'own the process'
Food safety culture needs to become second nature so all production staff do the right thing, says Rick Pendrous

Key points

The latest consumer research carried out by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that confidence in Britain's food safety watchdog has fallen slightly, which may be, to some degree, a result of the horsemeat scandal earlier this year.

While ‘horsegate’ may not have posed a major food safety risk, given the very low levels of the veterinary drug phenylbutazone (bute) that were detected in meat products contaminated with horsemeat, it did highlight deficiencies in food supply chain traceability. This failure should concern food manufacturers, since next time food safety issues could be involved and the inability to know where products came from and ended up could cost them dearly.

At Food Manufacture’s Food Safety Conference: What have we learnt from recent crises?, which takes place at the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull on October 17, Sue Davies, chief policy adviser with consumer group Which? will describe how much damage the horsemeat scandal has caused to consumer confidence and outline what the industry needs to do to restore it.

At the same event, the FSA's director of operations Andrew Rhodes will explain how the regulatory regime is likely to change in light of the scandal. Other speakers will focus on the practical impact of horsemeat contamination and other food safety incidents on the way food businesses operate. Traceability will be a central theme at the conference, with speakers giving presentations on the latest computerised traceability systems and new EU research into ‘farm to fork’ traceability.

Traceability concerns

In its evidence to the government's review into the balance of competences between the UK and EU, contained within the ‘Animal health and welfare and food safety report’ , the Health Protection Agency (HPA) – now part of Public Health England raises big concerns about traceability along the food supply chain and what is sometimes seen as the reluctance of the industry to be more open about problems.

“This information is selectively shared and is rarely obtained and supplied in a way that lends itself to protecting public health,​” says the HPA in its response. It also calls for greater use of the “precautionary principle” ​as far as microbiological contaminants are concerned.

The HPA is quite scathing about the traceability systems in place in the food supply chain. It says: “To effectively protect the public from harm it is clear that information should be shared routinely with those who need to know in order to take appropriate action."​ But, in the HPA’s view, this is clearly not happening.

It notes that EU regulations (178/2002) provide for “one step up/one step down” ​traceability, yet there is evidence that smaller businesses do not have traceability systems comparable to larger retailers or grocery distribution groups. As a consequence, distribution trails are often incomplete, it claims.

“This has implications for public health but also denies food and drink manufacturers the opportunity to review their food safety systems following incidents,”​ it states. “The lack of prescription in the current legislation does not always allow for products to be easily or rapidly traced back to the country of origin in cases where they are repackaged or used as ingredients in complex foods, such as bagged salads or ready meals."

What ultimately protects manufacturers against food safety incidents and product recalls is the engagement of their staff. Having people that understand the importance of good food hygiene; why critical control points need to be in place; and, more importantly, adopt the right practices is what it's all about.

Training and culture

Appropriate training needs to be a priority and one that supports a culture of good hygiene – from the boardroom to the shopfloor. Critically, it also means that production demands must not trump correct hygiene procedures, so that cutting corners is not acceptable.

It is something that dairy processor Meadow Cheese Company, a subsidiary of the Irish Dairy Board based in Ledbury and employing around 100 staff in supplying grated and processed cheese to other manufacturers and the foodservice sector, has been closely involved with over the past year or so. Meadow Cheese's technical manager Rachel McNeill says: “For us the food safety culture is the most important thing."

The company operates 24 hours a day from Monday to Friday, running two production shifts from 6.00am to 2.00pm and 2.00pm to 10.00pm, and an overnight hygiene shift. “That's one of the reasons why we see culture as the driving force because managers are not here during the night shift or on the later shift so we really need everyone singing from the same hymn sheet."

McNeill, who heads up a team of seven, adds: “Instead of technical staff being the policemen who force knowledge onto people, we are trying to make sure the technical team are available and easy to approach to ask questions; creating a culture where the guys on the shop floor are learning from us … it's a real switch – certainly from the way I've worked in the past.”

She cites the example of production staff carrying out technical monitoring checks so that they “own”​ the process. "For example, on our processed cheese line the CCP [critical control point] is cooking and filling at a time and temperature, so we get the line operators to do those checks so they feel responsible for the product reaching the right temperature … we are slowly but surely seeing a change in the culture." The biggest challenge in achieving cultural change was in getting the commitment of all managers, McNeill notes. "It's trying to get everybody involved right from the start.”

The trouble is that not all companies give training the priority it deserves. And lack of time is the greatest barrier to food companies providing effective food safety training, with some companies training staff for as little as eight hours a year, according to the results of a global survey carried out earlier this year by Alchemy Systems, in association with Campden BRI, and food hygiene scheme owners Safe Quality Food (SQF) and the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

While companies identified that product quality and higher staff morale were identifiable benefits of food safety training, more than 70% of those surveyed said that lack of time was the most significant barrier to training.

Top three goals

“While organisations’ top three training goals were improving employee performance, providing safe products and developing a food safety culture, when we analysed how much time was actually being spent on training, it transpired that it is only about eight hours a year,"​ says Paula Morris, Alchemy's UK business development manager. “Effective food safety training simply cannot be maintained on just one day, especially if a top training goal is to implement a company-wide food safety culture.”

More than four out of 10 of those surveyed said that verifying training effectiveness was another issue when implementing a training programme, as was dealing with language issues, resource problems and keeping training programmes up to date.

Alchemy Systems offers a workplace safety training package called Sistem, which it claims simplifies the delivery and documentation of FDQ accredited Food Safety Level 2 training to individuals or groups of up to 150. It has around 20 UK food manufacturing clients, with names such as Kellogg, Bernard Matthews, Karro Food Group and Kerrygold among them.

According to Morris, the next release of Sistem in 2014 will include a training audit module.

Food safety conference

At Food Manufacture's Food Safety Conference on October 17, BRC technical director – food schemes, David Brackston, will describe how third-party audits under the BRC Global Standards are changing in response to recent food safety crises and changes in the regulatory regime. At the same event, David Edwards, executive director at NSF International will describe how to create a food safety culture in the workplace.

“There is a lot of pressure and things coming into the industry at the moment with the new labelling regulations, allergens, etc, and I do feel sorry for manufacturers,”​ says Morris. "They have a lot of pressure on them from retailers and regulations – and training is another headache.”

Edwards believes issues such as climate change, population growth, increasing supply network complexity and emerging pathogen challenges will make life for manufacturers even harder in future. Under such major change, he is convinced that it will be even more important to create a culture in the workplace where "doing the right thing​” is second nature.

“The food industry has got to get a lot cleverer about making sure that the people in the food factories and the people in the supply chain do understand the risks and are motivated to do the right thing.”

For details of the Food Manufacture's Food safety conference, visit FoodManEvents​. 

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