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  • Writer's pictureKarl Kolb

Food Safety Culture

Culture of any kind lives in individuals, and subsequently in groups. As it takes many to make a village, those same diverse persons also make a culture. Change one person, the culture changes. Twin or similar villages often have very different cultures. In so far as organizations, their values are shared with new members and operationalized in groups through reinforced institutionalized norms and behaviors. Some common cultural traits are shared such as with mechanics or management personnel. Individuals and their cultural expectations sets formal systems apart from culture, in that what is “written” goes through human translation within the group to become norms – good and bad – which subsequently are shared and learned by new members of the group and accepted, rejected or modified by the established members of the group. This is one of several reasons why culture is perceived as hard to change. We are not changing formal systems, e.g., values, but rather the underlying norms and behaviors that are in many cases unwritten and sometimes unspoken.

Psychologically, our beliefs, mindsets and behaviors are impacted by multiple factors including our national culture, upbringing and life experiences. In a work environment, we are affected by the group we identify with, including our department, coworkers, our role and position, job security, formal and informal authority, and our own habits and consciousness around the job at hand. So, when we seek to not only understand how mature our food safety culture (food safety and quality) is but also how to sustain and further strengthen it, we should understand how the company’s overall values and mission affect the thinking of the individuals within their respective groups. For example, are each person’s functions, roles and expectations clearly understood, and have they been a part of defining these roles? Do they understand how their roles contribute to the organization’s mission or purpose? These are examples of questions whose answers affect how groups and individuals view senior leaders’ commitment to food safety. They are essential to any organization’s food safety culture.

It is an ever-revolving dynamic that has a life of its own. Changing rules is easy, changing a culture is not so. Leadership changes culture more than any other factor.

It is the role of the individual and the combination of roles that build to define a culture. How that individual perceives their effectiveness contributes to the overall effectiveness of the culture, hence the organization. Given how one perceives their success in their role becomes the motivation of the individual, and then the group to be effective. This effectiveness is then a force within the organization.

A food safety culture is not a “one size fits all” proposition. Making it a reality means that throughout the organization, food safety has been defined for each member and department in terms and expectations that are both relevant and clear to them. What is required of the purchasing department, for example, is different from that of the maintenance team. Purchasing should understand the importance of selecting suppliers that are both economically viable and deliver on the company’s food safety requirements, not one or the other. Similarly, a maintenance leader should look out for the condition of the equipment to maximize up-time as well as food safety performance. For smaller organizations, the owner/operator leads by example and influences food safety culture significantly. A mature food safety culture is one in which the company vision and mission have been broken down into the finer details of expectations for every department and person throughout the organization.

The food safety culture is measured through the attainment of KPI’s and various score attainment within the many audits over the course of time.

How is this culture fostered? It begins at the individual level. The US Military, a number of US companies, Japanese companies and many others have taken the line and staff hierarchy and turned it upside down. The lowest level employee is now on top. Hierarchy culture, or hierarchical culture, is a type of organizational culture that emphasizes long-term stability, consistent structure, and a shared set of values throughout the entire organization.

It begins with the individual and developing a real relationship with the company. This individual feels their true worth. In this process, the culture is built on where it starts. The individual.

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