Driving Food Safety Culture With Metrics

Industry experts share tips for identifying key metrics, behavioral shifts and watch-outs.  

May 27, 2020

By Chris Blasinsky

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—A fundamental piece of building a food safety culture is leveraging the support of senior leadership, and that’s no small feat. This week the International Association for Food Protection hosted its first of six webinars that focus on various aspects of food safety culture, such as identifying key metrics and implementing dos and watch-outs.

While achieving a 100% risk-free environment is impossible, there are identifiable and manageable risks within the food safety and safe food-handling spectrum to which organizations can apply meaningful metrics. Before putting the cart before the horse, however, Neil Coole, director of Americas food and retail supply chain at BSI, suggested that organizations gain a better understanding of their current food safety culture. Most fall somewhere between a “reactive” or “know” stage, while those that make food safety culture a part of the organization’s DNA have a strong commitment from the top.

A great example of a top-down and highly internalized food safety culture is Kwik Trip. For more than a decade, the La Crosse, Wisconsin-based convenience retail chain-hosted Food Protection/Food Safety In-Service event brings together the company’s partners—from growers to academia—to learn from experts in the field and see food protection practices in place at Kwik Trip’s facilities. Don Zietlow, owner of Kwik Trip, is a driving force behind the company’s food safety culture, noting that there are two things that could take down Kwik Trip: a decay of the culture and a foodborne illness.

Austin Welch and Richard Flemming of Sage Media walked webinar participants through a process of identifying key metrics that can help companies measure success, noting that over-simplifying may not yield actionable results. First, organizations should define their business objectives in a way that’s easily translatable into metrics. For example, a goal to “improve quality” could shift to a more specific and measurable goal like “decrease defects in X from 5% to 3% by year-end.”

Next, companies should consider which behaviors may need to change to achieve business objectives. For example, if a goal is making sure all employees adhere to required steps outlined in a company’s “Allergen Prevention Plan,” the behaviors each employee must take should be observable and measurable, such as employees documenting their findings, the date of inspection and signing their name to indicate that the plan’s steps have been met. 

And finally, identify knowledge gaps of skills and training that are necessary to drive the business outcome. Welch and Flemming posed a few questions organizations should consider, such as what type of information would empower employees to make better decisions around food safety? They also noted that personalized action plans can help companies crack the code at a motivation level. For example, employees understand how to wash their hands, but do they understand why? In a nutshell, solidify what employees have been taught and engage their critical thinking. (Note: Access Sage Media’s Food Safety Flow Chart here.)

Megan Kenjora, senior manager of food safety culture at The Hershey Company, shared several watch-outs when rolling out a food safety culture strategy:

  1. Don’t forget about planning and preparation, such as the costs associated with successful implementation and budgetary requirements.
  2. Don’t go at it alone. Identify internal stakeholders who can help move the strategy forward. For example, corporate communications for messaging and marketing to create a brand identify for the process.
  3. Prioritize the messaging and audiences and use language that everyone can understand—not everyone is a food safety expert with a background in microbiology.
  4. Keep the messaging fresh and frequent. In other words, hanging up some posters is not enough. 
  5. Be sure to factor in the time others will need to invest to help drive food safety culture throughout an organization, whether it’s training, travel, meetings with staff members, facilitating training, etc. Make sure everyone has access to required training, especially in larger companies with multiple locations, and be flexible to meet specific needs across those locations.

Kenjora gave a nod to creating stickiness when moving forward with a culture of food safety, noting that it’s important to keep the momentum and excitement going, while also being mindful that food safety culture is a journey, not a destination.

Chris Blasinsky is the NACS content communications strategist; she can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org, and on Twitter and LinkedIn.