Anyone who has spent a few years working in the food industry, whether you are involved with the production of foods, beverage or ingredients, knows the truth of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It is up to the processor’s management team and staff to build the programs necessary to keep Mr. Murphy out of their operation. One of the tools that more and more operations are adopting is what is known as “the food safety culture.” The term may be relatively new, but the philosophy is not. In fact, the philosophy may well go back as far as 1844, when Alexandre Dumas wrote “The Three Musketeers.” In other words:

“All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”

In other words, everyone in the operation is working together towards a common goal of food safety. The “food safety culture” verbiage may be relatively recent, but there are food processors that have adopted the philosophy all over the world. As an example, I was in a facility in Southeast Asia once that had developed its own food safety culture. At their morning management meeting, the management staff stood and together recited their food safety philosophy. It turned out that each and every worker in the plant not only knew this philosophy, but were able to explain it and their role in ensuring the production of safe, high quality products; all for one and one for all.

Of course, any policy must start with management. Figure 1 from the ISO 22000 standard, “Food safety management systems — Requirements for any organization in the food chain,”1 shows how the standard is organized. This figure emphasizes the importance that the developers of the standard placed on management responsibility. The standard expects management to be committed to and ultimately be responsible for the food safety management system. This responsibility includes establishing communication within the company; a communication system that must flow in both directions, that is from the top down and from the work force up. It is ultimately up to management to ensure that the programs necessary to guarantee the production of high quality and safe foods are produced under sanitary conditions. These programs must be developed, documented, implemented and maintained to meet this goal. Establishing a food safety culture where each and every person not only knows their role, but understands that they are part of the food safety equation.


Establishing a food safety culture

Frank Yiannas is acknowledged as one who has brought the food safety culture philosophy to the forefront. During his time in the industry at Walmart and Disney, he emphasized this as an integral element for ensuring the production, purchase and sale of safe food. He is now with the United States Food and Drug Administration, where among his duties are implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Anyone interested in food safety culture should consider searching for Yiannas’s books and published articles, one of which is titled “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System.”

So, there are two basic questions that need to be answered for processors, handlers or retailers wishing to implement a food safety culture in their operation. These are: What elements should be included in a company’s food safety culture, and how does one go about implementing the program?

As noted earlier, the ISO 22000 standard emphasizes the importance of management in the Food Safety Management System (FSMS), so the first element for management support and commitment to the program. This emphasis on management commitment is mirrored by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)2, which over the years has seen the different food safety audit schemes that they have approved adopted more and more of the elements making up ISO 22000 including Management Responsibility. In fact, in 2018 GFSI developed a position paper entitled “A Culture of Food Safety.” The document was assembled by a GFSI working group of 35 industry experts.3 

But, let’s talk about the role of management. Management must establish the necessary food safety policies; provide the funding for training and education, equipment upgrades or new purchases; establish policies for communicating internally and externally; and find the right people to manage not just the food safety programs but to build the culture. 

Dr. John Kotter describes eight elements that should be adopted to change a company’s culture.4 This change will not happen overnight, so the management team should establish timelines and intermediate goals, plus assign responsibility to those charged with managing the different elements. The eight elements are:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in culture

When one looks at these eight elements, the need for developing solid programs to communicate is obvious in almost each and every element. It is absolutely imperative that a system allows management to clearly define and communicate goals, and that there be a mechanism that allows and encourages all employees to share their views with their immediate supervisors and top management. The programs should encourage people to communicate with their peers. The message from the top has to be that food safety is everyone’s business (one for all and all for one) and that the workforce is going to be rewarded for their involvement, not reprimanded. 

Years ago, I observed a situation that demonstrated this very clearly. A company with which I was working had just been purchased and the new owner had sent people in to look at the operations. A member of the new firm wanted to look at production, but was stopped by a young member of the quality group who informed the gentleman that he needed to remove his tie and put on a lab coat, hair net and bump cap. The fellow said no, but the youngster held his ground. Next the fellow appeared in the plant manager’s office demanding that the quality guy be fired. The plant manager said, “No, he was doing his job and his work will be acknowledged.” This completely flustered the new guy, whose only response was “Do you know who I am?” The answer? “Yes, but there are rules in this plant and you shall follow them.” 

This situation is the kind of short-term win that gets around to everyone, and it did circulate quickly throughout the plant. Properly establishing the food safety culture means eliminating the fear factor. All of the team must understand the expectations and work to ensure that procedures are followed. Ultimately, the members of the team should develop a sense of pride and ownership in the company, what they do and the products that they are involved with. This includes, which is often hard for people, correcting and reporting workers who do not adhere to what is expected and whose actions could compromise the safety and quality of what is being manufactured. 

The real key to developing, documenting, implementing and maintaining a food safety management system (FSMS)—of which the food safety culture would be part—is establishing clear written procedures and ensuring that each and every individual in the facility understands what they are supposed to do and why. This is why the terms education and training were used earlier. When one educates a person, he or she not only learns what is expected but why it is important and the consequences of not following the established protocols.

Now, any procedure may be altered at any time, but if changes are made, it must be done through management and adhere to established change management procedures. Change is one element that the establishment of a food safety culture should encourage. If a line worker, through his or her experience, feels that a protocol can be improved, there has to be a means for them to go to management with their idea or ideas. If the change is adopted, there must be some form of acknowledgement that John or Jane Doe came up with an idea that improved efficiencies and helped save money. Many companies have set up such programs which usually include acknowledgement in the break area, but also rewards such as coupons for groceries or movie theaters. This encourages others to contribute and helps build pride in the company. 


Dimensions of a food safety culture

In the GFSI position paper alluded to above, the authors developed a figure (Figure 2) that addresses five dimensions of the food safety culture. As may be seen, there are several points in this figure that we have already discussed—specifically, management commitment, communication, education, documentation and change management. A food safety culture will include concrete expectations such as the procedures that were alluded to, but it is also an entity that should be evolving constantly. And, it must not and cannot stagnate because that will create a situation where something will go wrong—that is, a visit from Mr. Murphy. This is why the fourth dimension is entitled adaptability.

The status quo is unacceptable so strive for continuous improvement, make a commitment to educating the workforce and reinforcing that they are an integral element in the food safety equation, and make sure that problems are not only solved but become a learning experience. The food industry has been quite good when it comes to learning from their mistakes. The Schwann’s salmonella incident of 1994 led to the emphasis on the importance of tanker wash facilities and the need to validate them; outbreaks of salmonella from raw almonds resulted in the Almond Board of California mandating processing of almonds to ensure safety using approved equipment and recognized process authorities; and a series of food poisoning outbreaks attributed to unpasteurized juices lead to the juice HACCP regulation and the production of safer juice products. 

The biggest challenge with adopting and proper maintenance of a food safety culture is the line workers, especially if a company has a relatively high rate of turnover. New employees, be they temporaries, persons on track for full-time employment or full-time hires, need to be properly educated on company policies and expectations. This orientation must include quality and food safety policies, including the company commitment to a food safety culture, the basic elements making up a food safety program such as allergen management, the HACCP plan and prerequisite programs. And, then each and every person must understand the procedures they are to follow. Assigning a mentor who knows the system and has shown that he or she is fully committed to the program is a great tool for bringing the new hires along. 

Emphasize what is expected of each person and the metrics for evaluating performance, and do let them know what is unacceptable. For example, let people know that the company has a policy that no cell phones are permitted on the production floor, in the warehouses or loading/receiving docks. And, make sure that they understand why. And, emphasize the importance of each employee’s role in ensuring the production of safe and wholesome foods, beverages or ingredients which includes empowering them to make decisions if necessary. If someone is doing something stupid or that could compromise safety, stop them. 

Establishing a food safety culture has become an integral part of a food safety management system. The ultimate goal is to establish a company culture where each and every person working in the facility is part of the system; all for one and one for all. This is not something that can be implemented overnight, so management must make a long-term commitment to developing the program following Dr. Kotter’s eight elements for implementing change. As noted, perhaps the key issue for following this roadmap for changing culture is communication: up, down and horizontally. Proper communication will help ensure that the program is properly implemented and that each and every person in the company not only understands their role but realizes that they are an integral part of the overall food safety equation.



1 International Organization for Standardization, (2005), ISO 22000: “Food safety management systems — Requirements for any organization in the food chain,” ISO, Geneva, Switzerland

2 Global Food Safety Initiative, (2018), “A Culture of Food Safety”:

3 “A Culture of Food Safety”:

4 Dr. John Kotter’s eight elements for implementing change: