Last updated: 01.09.17

Creating a stronger food safety culture away from foodborne illness and poisoning

Any professional working in the food service industry understands implicitly how important it is to maintain the highest possible standards when it comes to food hygiene and safety. However, when it comes to making that ambition a reality, things can become a little more complicated.

After all, food handlers are likely to be well aware of the need to wash their hands, store food at the right temperature and take care when handling raw ingredients, but translating this understanding into a self-sustaining workplace culture that's geared towards upholding better standards of safety is a much more complex process.

This is why it's important for food businesses to think about the issue of food safety from a more holistic perspective and consider the broader principles and practices they can put in place to ensure the entire organisation is working towards the same goal, from top to bottom.

Learning why it's important

The values and culture of an organisation impact everything a company does and define the way in which every employee approaches their job. As such, it's vital for those looking to change their organisation's food safety culture to understand the purpose of what they are trying to achieve.

For example, most businesses understand the need to meet the safety standards set by regulators, but they may not know that it will become mandatory for businesses that serve or sell food to display their food hygiene rating publicly from 2019, or that the 260,765 food hygiene inspections carried out in 2015 resulted in 181,877 formal enforcement actions.

Similarly, they may understand that consumers are savvy about food safety issues to some degree, but might not be aware that 38 per cent of diners are concerned about food hygiene while eating out, with 30 per cent worrying about food poisoning and 24 per cent wary of hormones, steroids or antibiotics in their food.

By taking the time to do the research into why a strong food safety culture is so important, it will become much easier for business leaders to instil the right values for the right reasons.

Changing attitudes among managers and workers

Simply understanding the right things to do isn't the same as instilling a commitment to upholding those standards as a central pillar of a working culture, especially when many members of staff have grown used to working with different priorities in mind.

Many managers, for example, are conditioned to emphasise revenue generation even at the expense of crucial safety rules, while staff will often respond poorly to being given a laundry list of additional tasks to complete without sufficient explanation of why they are important, or how they should be incorporated into a day-to-day workflow.

As such, it's vital that bosses and employees alike are properly drilled on the purpose and benefits of a stronger food safety culture, with an emphasis on explaining how a better approach to food hygiene will complement their existing goals - whether that be improving profitability, enhancing efficiency or simply producing better food.

Tackling presenteeism

Improving food safety requires a lot of hard work and commitment from all members of staff, but it's important to make sure that the desire to raise standards doesn't manifest as the kind of self-sacrificing overexertion that can cause more harm than good.

A 2015 study from the US indicated that 12 per cent of food sector staff admitted to working while they were ill, experiencing vomiting or diarrhoea during two or more shifts during the previous year. This problem was compounded by the fact that almost half of the restaurants surveyed did not have a written policy on sick employees, with workers shown to be more likely to work through illness when their employers did not have a policy that required them to tell a manager when they were sick.

A strong work ethic is to be lauded, but presenteeism is ultimately adverse to a strong food safety culture, and should be tackled accordingly.

Investing in training and technology

Instilling a culture dedicated to food hygiene isn't just about pinning a set of rules to the wall - it's about education, monitoring and constant evolution of workflows over an extended period of time.

As such, companies that are serious about effecting this kind of change would be well-advised to invest in tools that can help them achieve this. E-learning can be a particularly effective means of providing the necessary food safety training in a way that's engaging, flexible for workers and easy for managers to track, while other technological innovations - such as automated fridge monitors, mobile apps and cloud data storage - can provide visibility into how an organisation's safety culture is working in real time.

By making full use of all of the different facilities available, food service companies will be able to take a step closer to achieving the kind of all-encompassing commitment to better hygiene standards that differentiate the best in the business from all the rest.

Summary: Creating a strong food safety culture takes more than simply knowing basic hygiene and contamination standards - it's about changing attitudes and putting better systems of working in place at all levels of your organisation.

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