3 focus points when working with poor food safety culture

“It’s not like they won’t find something anyway”

“We don’t have time”

“It’s never going to be perfect”

“That’s not my job.”

“We’ve done it this way for years…it’s never caused a problem”

Anyone who has worked in food at restaurants, manufacturers, or at home has run into folks who don’t hold food safety as the first priority when making food. This is hard at every level, but gets exponentially worse when executives and managers aren’t on board.

Here are some recommendations to think about for folks who are working in quality roles everywhere. These are most relevant to a dedicated quality person (like a QA manager at a manufacturer), but could also be implemented by anyone who wants to make a dent in moving food safety up the priority list for your fellow staff.

1. Make sure you are respected first.

“Dude, you’ve been here one day. It’s fine.”

No one is going to take quality culture, preventative food safety, etc. seriously if they don’t take the person leading it seriously. This is true for personal safety, lean ideas, or any other culture change. Make sure you’re not on any kind of high horse (because I’m right!), and make contributions that are relevant and help the production staff and supervisors, rather than impose burdens. Examples could be streamlining quality checkpoints or finding opportunities that improve both production efficiency and food safety.

Recommend little, but ask the questions that lead in the direction of food safety.

“If the equipment was already clean and ready to go when the operators arrive, do you think we would start-up faster or run better?”

QA direction: dedicated sanitation personnel, less conflict at startup between production goals and pre-op QA”

“Would it be easier for them to hop back-and-forth if there’s a problem if there was more space?”

QA direction: De-clutter workspace to make auditing tools and sanitation easier/more effective.

“Would it be better if they didn’t have to stop to measure and write down all this stuff?”

QA direction: installation of dataloggers, sanitizer dilution pumps, alarm-based checks

Common QA mistake: When working in an environment where a “compliant” culture isn’t in place, don’t cite regulations to make your point. No one wants to make change because the government says so (especially if they aren’t enforcing it), and no one wants to do it to make your annual audit easier. As far as the staff is concerned, audits and inspections are your problem once a year and because it’s hard for you, you’d rather make it their problem every day. Demonstrate the need for change based on risk to products, people, and business.

2. Prioritize, and let it go

The beard snood not covering my mustache isn’t the food safety risk you should be correcting in this situation.

In tandem with #1, unless you have an obviously high-risk product that is susceptible to contamination from hair or loose threads in clothing, let some of that stuff go. We know all of the basic personnel practices are important, but things like sanitation, cross-contact, and temperature control are the big ones that you need to use your “good will” currency on.

Don’t spend all your patience and points on forcing bangs under hairnets, immediately breaking down that extra (clean) cardboard, etc. And if these things need to be addressed, find allies within your organization to help enforce the small stuff so it isn’t all coming from the “quality police”. Including other staff/departments to set a good example or encourage these smaller, non-critical changes can help you save up all of your points for the big stuff.

With limited resources and limited “buy-in” your hard-line stances need to be on items that make food safer, rather than making audits easier.

3. Data, data, data

“I’m just saying that the correlation is unsettling, and we should look into it.”

Start getting quantitative verification of how you’re doing as a company, examples could be: complaints, defective products, production paperwork errors, sensory failures, mispicks, # of rags left on the floor at the end of the day, disposal costs, time cost for equipment breakdowns, time cost for rework, etc.

Lack of quality culture is many times driven by a lack of observed cost-benefit. Without data, everyone flies by the seat of their pants and can dismiss your concerns with “It’s not that much product, we produce a ton of okay product”, “it just happens sometimes”, or “it wouldn’t be worth the extra time to fix it for how often it actually happens”. Half the time “new” quality issues don’t go away, we just get complacent with them. As a new employee you didn’t bring in any of that complacency with sub-par products or food safety risk, and you have to bust some chops with data.

Data also provides a tool to those people in the company who do want to support a quality culture, but haven’t had any compelling evidence to disagree with their peers.

There are a number of resources out there for working with immature food safety cultures, and even more for immature personnel safety cultures, many of the same principals apply. I’m a big fan of the ADKAR model for change.

Here’s a limited piece of what you can directly do as a quality officer to support an ADKAR mode:.

Awareness of the need for change: Data, data, data

Desire to participate and support the change: respect, focusing only on one problem at a time (I know, it’s hard when it feels like an imminent food safety threat)

Knowledge on how to change: Come with multiple solutions or a goal oriented request (What could we change that would get the dirty mop bucket out of the room during production?), demonstrate that changes work with: data, data, data

Ability to implement required skills and behaviors: Volunteer to train employees on new procedures, and change your quality program to make it easier. Maybe you can replace that chlorine titration kit for a rapid test method? Maybe you can make a checklist? A fast reading digital thermometer could replace that old dial thermometer and make it feel like less of a chore.

Reinforcement to sustain the change: Persistence is key on your ONE issue you’re fixing. You may have changed the procedure, but your quality items are just one instruction of hundreds every employee receives every day. Even your best coworkers will need to have the entire ADKAR explained more than once. Until they’re doing it without help for at least 60 days, you don’t get to move on to your next project. If you throw it out there, move onto the next shiny change and hope it will stick, it won’t.

Ultimately you’ll need to decide if your company can embrace and make the transition, because food safety is hard and it’s only harder if your efforts aren’t recognized as beneficial to the business (did I mention data?). Make sure you can do the job ethically and legally and see what change you can effect, but know your personal lines and be ready to walk away from a bad situation.

Some of my favorite resources for reaching personnel on food safety:

Stopfoodborneillness.org is a great resources for personal stories of the impact of foodborne illness on individuals. Their “Why of food safety” video is a great refresher to regain momentum.

Behavioral Based Food Safety is a great IFSQN webinar talking about why people choose not to do the right thing, and how to create targeted strategies to get them on board.

ADKAR model for change mentioned above.

Here’s an ROI template I made you can use to make cost driven changes to QA practices.

The above were some thoughts I had while helping out another member at the International Food Safety and Quality Network who was struggling with a new company that was missing “management commitment” to a culture of food safety. Let me know what you think, or if you’ve ever run into a fellow employee, restaurant owner, or anyone who didn’t appreciate food safety and how you worked with that person.