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Food safety culture: closing the expectation gap

Risk & Crisis
Food safety culture: closing the expectation gap
jen upton author 2

By Jen Upton, Head of Risk & Crisis Preparedness

According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years.

Having robust processes and procedures is clearly recognised as a way to minimise food safety incidents, but in more recent years, the role of psychology and the importance of behaviour-based approaches to food safety management have become more prevalent. In fact, having a positive food safety culture has been a requirement of the BRCGS Global Food Safety Standard since 2019.

It’s jarring, therefore, that even with this strengthened approach to risk management and crisis preparation, the number of European recalls in the food & drink industry has recently risen above the 5-year quarterly average.

Is the food industry’s attitude towards food safety culture to blame?

Conscious incompetence

For a food business, food safety is non-negotiable. It is at the absolute core of its promise to customers: that the food they are served will be safe to consume.

For a long time, process (what we do) and procedure (how we do it) is what a food business would look to when considering how to improve its resilience. Culture (how we behave) was never recognised as an important part of food safety programmes until much more recently.

Having a team with shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mindset and behaviour toward food safety seems an obvious factor that could either contribute to – or take away from – the production of safe food. Despite publication of Frank Yiannas’s (Deputy Commissioner of the FDA) book on food safety culture in 2009, it took another decade for food safety standards to introduce the concept.

The last couple of years has seen the biggest progression in the industry, with food safety culture being given more recognition by internationally recognised standards, including the British Standards Institute, Global Food Safety Initiative and Codex Alimentarius. However, perhaps the most significant development was when EU Regulation was revised to include food safety culture, meaning it now forms part of the legal base for food safety in the EU.

This top-down approach has been successful in getting food safety culture on the agenda, but making it live and breathe within a business has been another challenge entirely.

Expectation vs reality

It would be unfair not to mention that there are some businesses which have fully embraced food safety culture. We’ve seen some strong food safety culture programmes, impressive improvement plans, and integrated resilience frameworks.  Adding to this, retailers are beginning to strengthen their approach when it comes to assessing the food safety culture of their suppliers, which has required some innovative thinking.

By our very nature, humans will act differently when we know we’re being observed, so how do you get a true measure of culture? Reviewing CCTV footage in in the moments leading up to an unannounced audit of a supplier’s site, to see natural behaviours of employees (and possible changes once they’ve been informed there is an auditor on the premises) and checking Glassdoor and Indeed reviews, as part of due diligence prior to approving a new supplier, are becoming common practice.

As new ways to assess, establish or improve food safety culture become more advanced and the perception of “what good looks like” grows, the gap between expectation and reality widens. The risk is that those food businesses, who have not yet adopted a solid approach to food safety culture, will be left behind.

Licence to operate

Without efforts being made to develop a good food safety culture, businesses – and more importantly, consumers – will continue to suffer the impact of food safety incidents which would have otherwise been preventable.

Start with management commitment. Senior level buy-in is paramount in building the foundation of food safety culture. You can’t force change, but you can inspire change in people, and this must come from the top.


  • Do your leaders inspire and reward the right food safety behaviours?
  • Are your first-line supervisors leading by example – or avoiding issues?
  • Are your operatives motivated to do the right thing – or just going through the motions?
  • Do you have a culture of learning from near misses – or hoping for the best?
  • …is it time to make some changes?

As the supply chain starts to approach food safety culture in a more robust and rigorous way than ever before (it has taken long enough), food businesses can no longer get away with paying it lip-service.

We find ourselves at somewhat of a launching point. It is now up to the food industry to navigate to a future that values culture in the same way it does process and procedure. Without doing so, food businesses will no longer be able to keep their promise of safe food – a non-negotiable.

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