Creating a food safety culture, part 1: Key takeaways from Fonterra and Cargill

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

The global conference took place in Tokyo.
The global conference took place in Tokyo.
"Food safety culture means different things to different people" and is still poorly understood by many food firms, according to one leading expert.

Professor Robert Gravani, from Cornell’s Department of Food Science, said recent incidents such as the deaths of 180 people in South Africa from a listeria epidemic linked to processed meats, showed there was “still clearly cause for concern”.

“Food safety culture means different things to different people,”​ he said.

“If I had a nickel every time food safety culture was mentioned, I’d have a pocket full of change. But it is still poorly understood and we need to understand that not one size fits all,”​He told the Global Food Safety Conference 2018 in Tokyo.

He said success hinged upon shared values, beliefs and actions towards food safety being applied across an entire organisation.

“There are lots of food safety culture models, some as a result of research, others from commercial entities. The key is finding which one is right for any given organisation.”

New Zealand dairy firm Fonterra based its strategy on Frank Yiannas 2009 book Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System’.

This followed ​a wide-scale recall of products in 2013 after botulism-causing bacteria was found during safety tests.

Joanna Gilbert, GM, transformation and integration at Fonterra, told the conference: “We have been on transformation in the last few years to make sure we put in places changes that would ensure we were never in that position again.”

She said the key focus of the strategy was to better understand their teams – which ranged from older men who had worked in some of its factories for decades, to younger females in others – and then tailoring communication to them.

“We focused on understanding who our people were and used marketing segmentation techniques internally, which would normally be used for consumers."

Everyday heroes

“We used everyday heroes from our teams and created board games around food safety. We also linked food safety in the home into the workplace. Our learning outcomes and engagements went through the roof,”​ she added.

She gave an example of one warehouse forklift driver, who was measured on the volume of butter he could load each day.

“He found that the barcodes on the boxes didn’t match. Instead of carrying on and making his life easier, he stopped. This made it harder for him and caused a backlog in the factory, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

“By creating clear models and structure, and always measuring what we were doing, we were able to drive this change.”

Another speaker, Sean Leighton, vice-president of Food Safety​ & Quality at Cargill, stressed the importance of understanding the organisational context of a food company before seeking to instill a food safety culture.

“I recently moved from Coca-Cola to Cargill, and one of the first things I wanted to do was assess the differences in organisational context between the companies before looking at a food safety culture.

“Now the two companies are quite different, but it was very important to understand that before moving forward.”

He also pointed out employee tenures and loyalty was at an all-time low, which had a significant impact when maintaining a food safety culture.

“In 1983, when a food safety culture was built, the chances are most of those employees were here to stay. But those days are gone and this has a profound impact on how new hires engage with an organisation,”​ he added.

In part two of this story, we’ll assess the food culture approach from Walmart, among others.

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