Food Safety Culture – The Missing Ingredient

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Notice how much conversation there is about Food Safety Culture these days? It's great, but there's a missing ingredient no one is talking about, and it's keeping food and beverage companies from achieving their Food Safety Culture and Cost of Quality objectives.
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The European Commission has published draft legislation that now includes the concept of Food Safety Culture.

Food Safety News is reporting the EU is expected to adopt a revision of its standard on General Principles of Food Hygiene in the next few months to include Food Safety Culture as a key performance indicator.

Response has been mixed from industry partners at the public hearings.

I’m inclined to believe, unfortunately, that inclusion of food safety culture creates necessary dialogue but whether it will be a magic pill to achieve the desired end goal is questionable.

Is Food Safety Culture important?  YES.

Is Food Safety Culture critical to a company’s performance, brand, goodwill and overall sustainability?  YES

Will it matter?  Not if one big issue isn’t addressed by every food and beverage company.

That issue is a continued absence of ANY discussion around hiring and selection.

BACKGROUND

I’ve scoured FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas’s writings, Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System and Food Safety = Behavior, which are fantastic books for strengthening Food Safety Culture of your existing employees.  

Frank’s books are focused on BEHAVIOR, which is absolutely crucial – employing techniques to achieve desired behavior through training is critical.

This is not a critique of the Deputy Commissioner’s work(just the opposite – it’s a must read for any Food Safety practitioner), but it’s an example of where the focus has historically been when it comes to changing employee behaviors – on changing behavior of current employees through training with no discussion around recruitment, hiring or selection.

The issue is NOT that focus on training and focus on behavior is a problem – it’s that the singular focus on training and behavioral change(with time, money and budgets) is done at the expense of or the absence of an equal focus on hiring and selection.

Frank and others like Lone Jespersen and other industry leaders deserve ALL the accolades for the work they’ve done to bring a focus to strategic and impactful behavior-based training to the forefront for companies in the food and beverage space.

Attitude, mindset, closely held beliefs, thinking style, behavioral style – all of these are just as important.

I’ve scoured other noted Food Safety publications discussing Food Safety Culture and have found it interesting that hiring and selection is NOT addressed.

But with this great focus on training, something is still missing that’s AS if not more important than training.

Why food companies aren’t addressing this ingredient of a strong Food Safety Culture?

Is the lack of conversation around aligning hiring and selection because Food Safety and Quality headcount and hiring is low relative to the rest of the organization?

That’s flawed if so – EVERY EMPLOYEE, including those in the corporate office away from the production floor, are linked to a company’s food safety culture. The conversation is bigger than getting the hiring criteria right for your next Quality Assurance Manager – it’s about doing the same for the next Chief Marketing Officer or Vice President of Sourcing.

This is why true leadership is critical of a Food Safety leader – each Food Safety leader, by example, has the opportunity not only to change the hiring process for their own team members but also the entire food or beverage company, just by leading by example and insisting on a deeper dive into “assessing” and interviewing for the necessary behaviors.

Is the lack of dialogue around hiring and selection in the food industry a result of the difficulty finding employees, or issues with discrimination, worker safety, Covid-19, etc.?

Maybe, but that’s no excuse.  

Rather, it points out how important it is to constantly refine your hiring and recruitment practices to keep a steady pipeline of candidates, but that’s a story for another day!

Is the lack of conversation a result of Food Safety, Operations, Regulatory and Quality not being as visible or influential in an organization as say, Sales and Marketing?

That too is a problem.

Is it just a lack of awareness by all parties?

If so, that’s why I bring it forward – spend any time around sales, marketing or consumer insights professionals and you’ll realize they are keenly aware of their ability to influence a prospect or potential customer’s behavior.  They realize “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Yet, when it comes to Food Safety Culture and believing we can “train our way there”, why do we continue to focus on training potentially untrainable and unwilling employees?

HIRING AND SELECTION

The reason why hiring and selection needs to be elevated into the Food Safety Culture conversation is rooted in behavioral psychology.

Any amount of training or attempts at behavioral modification are limited by an individual’s willingness and capacity to execute the desired behavior.

Consider for a moment that money spent on the following “job seekers” is wasted or unlikely to result in desired behavioral change.

  • The person who doesn’t wash their hands after using the restroom.
  • The person who refuses to wear a mask in public places despite local, state or federal mandates.
  • The person who openly complains about “restrictive” rules they don’t believe are important.
  • The person who undermines a supervisor or manager’s best efforts at change management by influencing other employees.
  • The person in leadership who “says” the company is all about Food Safety Culture, but in reality is overtly lobbying against scientifically validated laws or indirectly subverting regulations meant to increase production or sales at the expense of consumer safety.
  • The salesperson or Marketing employee who, when faced with a decision to accelerate a product launch or push a sale through, sidesteps company food safety or quality control protocols.

All of these individuals, if hired, will fight against a  company’s Food Safety Culture and Cost of Quality goals.  And these mis-hires COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED if these traits, mindsets, and behaviors were identified BEFORE the person was hired.

All of these candidates could have been identified as resistant or unlikely to support the company’s Food Safety Culture by strategic interviewing steps and pre-employment assessments.

THE MISSING INGREDIENT – HIRING AND SELECTION

Hire people who have an inclination and predisposition to be aligned towards your desired food safety culture.

Too simple?

It’s not.

In surveys we’ve done with over 700 companies in the food and beverage space in 2019 and 2020, less than 5% are “guessing” their way to hiring employees that align to a strong food safety culture.

The other 95% are doing the following…

  • Guessing
  • Using their “instinct”
  • Using a patchwork approach to reviewing resumes, pre-hire screens, interviews and final selection
  • Letting HR and Talent Acquisition assess candidates for “company culture” without integrating “food safety culture” into the equation
  • Nothing

The result?

Companies aren’t assessing candidates to determine whether they’ll resist, accept or embrace your company’s food safety culture.

That means you have employees that fall into 1 of 3 categories.

RESISTERS, ACCEPTERS AND EMBRACERS

Resisters

Resisters ignore training, ignore protocols and don’t wash their hands when no one is looking.

Resisters take their peers down with their negative attitude.

Resisters endanger your company’s brand and consumers when they betray company policies.

Resisters aren’t promotable into manager ro leadership positions.  

Accepters

Accepters accept your food safety culture.  

Acceptors go along to get along.

Acceptors, to stay out of conflict, can be influenced by resistors, especially in small teams and worse yet, if their supervisor or manager is a Resister.

Acceptors have the potential to be an Embracer, if they are surrounded by Embracers and are exposed to as few Resisters as humanly possible.

Embracers 

Embracers are earth-movers when it comes to changing a culture.

Embracers confront Resisters and limit a Resister’s ability to damage a food safety culture by holding Resisters accountable for their actions and behavior.

Embracers influence Accepters and “bring them along”.

Embracers find ways to identify “Resisters with potential” and turn them into Embracers.

Embracers continually reinforce and influence Accepters until they too become Embracers.

Wouldn’t you like to know who the Resisters, the Acceptors and the Embracers are BEFORE you make them an offer?

Wouldn’t your training budget go further if it was only spent on Acceptors and Embracers?

Well, it’s possible if you only hire people that have the capacity, willingness and interest in being an Embracer.

IS THE QUALITY OF FOOD SAFETY TRAINING NOT UP TO PAR?

ABSOLUTELY NOT.

Training is an absolutely critical part of developing a strong Food Safety Culture, and food safety training partners, whether they be HACCP training or PCQI training or SQF, BRC, etc., are fantastic at their craft.

But even with the best of trainers or online platforms or magic tricks, if you don’t have a receptive audience to the training, then you’re not going to achieve the desired end state of an impenetrable Food Safety Culture and a favorable Cost of Quality metric.

If Food Safety Culture is hard to quantify, isn’t Quality of Hire hard to quantify?

No, in fact, any leading indicators of Food Safety Culture level(Cost of Quality) will be achieved faster if a company aligns its hiring criteria against the behaviors necessary for a strong Food Safety Culture.

Absent this alignment, it can take 5-8 years for a company to go from a Level 1 or 2 Food Safety Culture maturity level to a Level 5(the highest where Cost of Quality is <3%).

Absent this alignment, a company will experience its normal level(or worse) of turnover, food recalls, morale shifts, underperformance, financial challenges and production issues, all symptoms of sub-optimal Cost of Quality.

With appropriate alignment of thinking styles, behavioral traits and attitudes consistent with a strong Food Safety Culture(Level 5 maturity level), employee retention will be higher, financial performance will be better, product quality will be higher and potential risks and threats will be minimized.

All of these factors lead to a faster, more efficient and straight line ascent to a strong Food Safety Culture, all because hiring and selection criteria are being tied to EACH HIRE made into the company.

SUMMARY

The food industry’s focus on training as the magic pill for achieving a strong Food Safety Culture is admirable but incomplete.

The lack of focus on aligning hiring and selection criteria to Food Safety Culture across the entire company is the missing ingredient why companies are running at a high Cost of Quality and not achieving the returns on their Food Safety training when it comes to Food Safety Culture and changing employee behavior.   

Now that the EU has taken a first step towards inclusion of Food Safety Culture into a company’s Food Safety scorecard, it’s a good time to address the shortcomings of a singular focus on “training your way to a strong Food Safety Culture”.

The food industry, especially Talent Acquisition, company executives and Food Safety leaders, should start to elevate and align their hiring and selection criteria to more closely align with the behaviors they’ve deemed critical to achieving their Food Safety Culture mandates and Cost of Quality goals.

Bob Pudlock leads the Food Safety Practice at Gulf Stream Search and President of Gulf Stream Growth. Bob also is a contributing author to the Food Safety Insider and other industry publications.

To read more about Food Safety Culture, check out Food Safety Culture – The Missing Ingredient

We’re always happy to discuss or help you elevate your company’s food safety culture.

Use our food industry job board to post your job openings with or without our pre-employment assessment tests.

Connect with Gulf Stream Search for confidential, discreet or executive recruiting help.

Something else?  Drop us a line here and we’ll be happy to connect. 

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