Food Safety Supervisor Guide to Food Safety Culture

Without a strong food safety culture, even the best Food Safety Program can't achieve its goals. Find out how you can foster a positive food safety culture in your food business.
June 5, 2019

A food business's culture is made up of the shared values and unwritten norms (good and bad) that influence the behaviour of everyone in the business. Developing and fostering a positive food safety culture is one of the most important things a food business can do. As the Food Safety Supervisor, you play a pivotal role in achieving this goal.

The impact of a positive food safety culture on the success of a business is often understated, but without the support of your team, even the most comprehensive Food Safety Program won't be effective. A commitment to food safety must be incorporated into your day-to-day operations, not just something you discuss at a weekly meeting.

A positive food safety culture starts at the top and flows downwards, creating a ripple effect that influences the actions and behaviours of everyone in the business.

Management is responsible for:

  • providing a suitable environment, equipment and tools that are in good condition and are easy to clean
  • creating policies and procedures that provide clear instructions for how to make food safely
  • communicating the food safety goals and priorities of the business to all employees
  • making sure every employee understands their individual responsibilities as they pertain to food safety
  • evaluating the effectiveness of the business's Food Safety Program, food safety training and food safety culture
  • providing food safety training and resources 
  • monitoring and evaluating staff behaviour

Why a positive food safety culture is good for business

In today's competitive market, you need to do a lot of things right to outshine your competitors and grow your business and bottom line. Great food at reasonable prices, a good atmosphere, a decent location and an efficient workforce come to mind — but they're not worth anything if you're not getting food safety right.

Food safety failures cost money and damage your reputation, which in turn costs even more money and threatens the long-term health of the business. By investing time and resources into food safety training and fostering a positive food safety culture, you can:

  • protect your customers from food safety hazards
  • protect your brand and reputation from negative reviews, complaints or media scandal
  • enjoy peace of mind knowing that your business will pass health inspections
  • avoid costly fines and closures

When your employees have the skills and resources they need to do their job well and are invested in the success of the business, management can take a step back from the day-to-day operations and focus on long-term strategies to grow the business.

How to foster a positive food safety culture in your business

MAKE IT PERSONAL

For your food safety culture to succeed, everyone in the business must understand their role in food safety and why it's important. As the Food Safety Supervisor, you need to communicate the overall food safety priorities and goals of the business, as well as clearly defined rules and procedures that are specific to different teams and individual roles. Make sure everyone understands their role, why it’s important and what your expectations are.

It's also important that employees understand that the risks of non-compliance are real and can have consequences, for the business and for themselves. When employees are held accountable for following established food safety policies and procedures, they are more likely to do the right thing, even when nobody's watching.

But don't make it all about the consequences — you'll find you get much better results by focusing on how your employees will benefit. A safe food business is more likely to be a successful food business, and a successful food business is in everybody's best interest. Employees who commit to doing the right thing for the business can reasonably expect to be able to:

  • make more money (more tables, more tips, more shifts and higher wages)
  • feel confident that they know what they're doing and what is expected of them
  • feel confident that they have the tools and training they need to do their job well
  • enjoy peace of mind knowing that they aren't putting the safety of others at risk

When everyone in your food business is working towards one goal, you will see lasting and positive change that can have a huge impact on all aspects of the business.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

A business’s food safety culture is a reflection of the importance of food safety to its leadership. Leaders are responsible for identifying food safety goals, providing food safety training and guidance, holding employees accountable for following the rules and empowering employees to raise food safety concerns.

The highest levels of management set expectations for everyone in the business; clear and consistent messaging from the top is important, but it is even more important that management is seen leading by example.

If a Food Handler sees someone at a higher level than them taking shortcuts or making questionable decisions — decisions based on the bottom line and not food safety — it's easy for them to decide that these are acceptable behaviours. If you don’t follow your own rules, employees will quickly learn that your “commitment” to food safety applies only to situations where it is easy or convenient to do so.

This can have serious consequences — because it’s harder to do the right thing when it comes to food safety. There are more steps involved to ensure that surfaces and equipment are properly cleaned and sanitised; to check and double check the quality and safety of the food that is prepared; to communicate food safety concerns; and to take corrective action, especially if that action will have a short-term negative impact on the business or the day's operations.

Management can demonstrate a sincere commitment to food safety by:

  • positioning food safety as non-negotiable
  • investing in food safety training for everyone who handles food in the business
  • supporting decisions based on food safety regardless of financial impact
  • recognising employees who exceed the expectations of management
  • empowering employees to raise concerns about food safety
  • taking an active role during food safety training sessions

Fostering a positive attitude when it comes to health inspections or customer complaints deserves a special mention in this section. If management thinks of Health Inspectors (or disgruntled customers) as the enemy, so will the team. As the Food Safety Supervisor, it is important that you have a positive attitude when it comes to receiving negative feedback.

If you are communicating to your team that an inspection or complaint is something to be afraid of, you do not have a positive food safety culture.

REPEAT YOURSELF

Food safety is best achieved through food safety training and education. Some people learn best through listening (having something explained to them), some are visual learners (having something demonstrated to them) and some learn best from hands-on activities (doing the thing themselves). No matter what their learning style, repetition and exposure to the information is the key to making it stick.

We recommend taking a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to traditional food safety training and certification, find ways to build five-minute training sessions into your weekly (or daily) schedule. Put your business's goals and expectations in writing and display them in various stations in your food business.

Use visual cues to remind employees to do (and how to do) various tasks in the business. For example:

  • hand washing poster in the staff bathroom
  • cleaning and sanitising infographic above the dish sink
  • cleaning agents cheat sheet in your chemical storage area
  • safe food cooking temperatures fact sheet in your hot food station (we recommend laminating it)
  • information about food allergens and how to identify them on product food labels in your Food Safety Program

(Note: You can find and download many of these resources free-of-charge from the AIFS Resource Centre.)

As part of your strategy, it’s important to communicate the importance of food safety to everyone in the business and return to that conversation often; the more often you highlight your business's expectations, the more likely they are to stick in the minds of the people who hold the business's reputation in their hands every day — your Food Handlers.

MEASURE YOUR SUCCESS

Measuring helps you to understand if your efforts to foster a positive food safety culture in your restaurant have been achieved or if you need to reconsider and adjust your strategy. If you don't measure, how can you know if your strategy is working?

Some examples of what and how you can measure are:

  • observing employee behaviour
  • reviewing health inspection reports
  • evaluating the frequency of customer complaints and how they were resolved
  • analysing documentation of corrective actions that have been taken in the business
  • assessing employee understanding of food safety goals and priorities of the company

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has created this handy questionnaire to help food businesses do a quick “health check” on their food safety culture. The questionnaire is designed as a simple ranking system with space for comments. Ask your employees, managers and other Food Safety Supervisors to fill out the questionnaire and analyse their responses to gain insights into where you're getting things right, and where you can improve.

Be sure to choose a good cross-section of employees and decision-makers to complete the questionnaire and compare the results. If you're getting dark blues across the board, congratulations — your food safety culture is in great shape! If supervisors and managers are giving the business top marks but your kitchen or service staff don't agree, you know there are probably some areas that need your attention.

We recommend giving employees the option to submit their responses anonymously to encourage honest, no-holds-barred responses. Employees may feel uncomfortable voicing concerns or criticising the business openly, and your goal is to get an unbiased, accurate picture of what's going on in the business from many different perspectives.

Change may be slow at first — especially if you're struggling against an existing food safety culture — but don't lose hope. Change can and will happen over time.

AIFS is committed to making food safer for Australians by improving the food safety skills of food service workers; we support Food Handlers, Food Safety Supervisors and food businesses of all types across Australia. If you need help taking your food safety culture to the next level, get in touch with us. We're here to help.

This public health information was produced and distributed by the Australian Institute of Food Safety Foundation.