Food safety culture: Driving change in hospitality

We hear from Sterling Crew, FIFST, FCIEH, FRSPH, former vice-chair of the Institute of Food Science and Technology, about the importance of food safety culture.

Culture is increasingly cited in reports relating to food safety incidents and has been identified as a significant emerging risk factor in food fraud. The challenge for food businesses is to inoculate a food safety culture into their operations so good practice becomes second nature – embraced from the boardroom to the shop floor.

Only by understanding and changing food handler behaviour will we be able to embed food safety in an organisation’s culture and drive improvement. A strong food safety culture will ensure that good practice is understood and followed. Real food safety happens when managers are not present and individuals are left to their own devices. This is a real challenge in the hospitality sector as many businesses have multiple satellite site operations and work shifts.

Illustrating its importance, food safety culture has been included in the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety Issue 8. The main focus of attention for the new issue has been on the development of product safety culture. Section 1.1.2 states: “The sites Senior Management shall define and maintain a clear plan for the development and continuing improvement of food safety culture. This shall include: defined activities involving all sections of the company that have an impact on product safety, an action plan indicating how the activities will be undertaken and intended timescales and a review of the effectiveness of completed activities.”

What is food safety culture?

The food safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to and the style of proficiency of an organisation’s food safety programme. A simpler definition might be “It’s the way we tend to do things around here”. It relates to the behavioural operating characteristics of individuals and teams and how they are conditioned by their working environment.

What is clear is that every business has a food safety culture, whether it recognises it or not. The board and leadership team of an organisation sets the food safety moral compass. Training and development should be at the very heart of a hospitality business. A positive food safety culture can only be delivered as a result of concrete action. It will not evolve by accident. A business’ food safety culture cannot be created in isolation and cannot be divorced from other elements such as health and safety, environment and human resources.

The importance of training

Most food businesses have comprehensive rules for all food safety practices. The challenge is to ensure that they are being followed at all times, regardless of the situation. This is where culture and understanding of behavioural drivers plays an important role. Training alone can give a false sense of security. Trained food handlers can still demonstrate a dangerous gap between their knowledge of food safety handling practices and their application of these principles. In my experience, when I found operatives not following the rules, they never said they were not trained or did not understand what they must do. Rather, to use behavioural science jargon, they were driven by:

  • Optimistic bias – “It will not happen to me, problems happen to others”
  • Illusion of control – “Nothing has gone wrong – I know what I am doing”
  • Cognitive dissonance – “I am doing wrong but there is a good reason”
  • Attitudinal ambivalence – “There are more important matters”

Food safety must be embedded into business values. Priorities may well change in an organisation, but values do not.

There is a new appreciation that understanding food safety cultural drivers is a useful addition to the food safety toolbox. Effective management of behavioural interactions is essential to develop positive attitudes and the necessary behavioural changes to drive food safety. Unsafe behaviour simply results in unsafe food. Food handlers will carry out the correct behaviour if they understand the consequences of getting it wrong and have confidence in their knowledge and its relevance and that this is supported by the business culture. In order to reduce or even eliminate food safety risks from our hospitality sector, we must create a positive active culture of food safety. This will deliver safety and give confidence and assurance for customers.

To get help with your food safety management, call us on 020 3740 3744 or email

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Sterling Crew

Health & Safety

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