Corporate Risk, Issues & Crisis

March 30, 2021

The biggest test of food safety culture yet?

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It has been two years since food safety culture was recognised in the BRC Global Food Safety Standard, highlighting the importance of defining, maintaining and improving a strong food safety culture within a business. But with all the challenges and disruption posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, never has it been so important to get right.

In the last 12 months, COVID-19 has tested businesses’ food safety cultures to the limit, presenting a number of issues that struck without warning.

At the start of the pandemic, when consumers were stockpiling certain categories of product, the challenge facing many food manufacturers was around keeping up with demand, often in the face of ingredient and product supply issues.

Contrasting this were those companies manufacturing for hospitality and foodservice who saw their markets disappear overnight. Some of these were able to continue operating parts of their businesses – with some colleagues furloughed, causing motivational issues for those remaining in some cases – and others were able to pivot to alternative markets.

Overlaying both of these issues were significant increases in employee absence, due to illness and self-isolating requirements, meaning fewer employees were on production lines. Those who were working were subject to COVID-19 safety measures, such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

And the government instruction to work from home if at all possible, meant that many quality teams were working remotely, at least for part of the week.

All of which added up, in many cases, to huge and immediate disruption in operations. A strong food safety culture had never been so important. Could manufacturers rely on their employees to do the right thing every time – even when they were under additional pressure to produce more, or produce different product, with fewer colleagues and at a distance? All without the oversight of the quality team on the ground?

The good news is that it seems that, yes, they could. The fact that there were no major food safety events last year, combined with an overall reduction in the number of product recalls and our experience, which showed no discernible food safety trends from the two to three product recalls we managed per month, and it all points to food safety cultures being sufficiently robust to withstand the enormous challenges being thrown at businesses.

Those organisations where acting responsibly is ingrained behaviour will have reaped the rewards. Those whose food safety culture is less well developed will have found it harder to navigate the pandemic and may well have faced near misses along the way.

In many ways the pandemic has been the ultimate test of food safety culture and the industry should be proud of its response.

As we enter a calmer period, organisations should re-evaluate their food safety culture, taking the time to review, honestly, what has worked, what could be improved and how the ongoing pandemic challenges might continue to affect business-as-usual practices. If food safety culture programmes have been paused, now is the time to re-energise and set them going again.

Instinctif Partners’ Business Resilience practice can help analyse and address food safety culture challenges. If you’d like our help contact: Julia.johnson@instinctif.com

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