Modeling a Food Safety Culture

Introducing the first, global food safety maturity model for convenience stores.

Modeling a Food Safety Culture

July 2021   minute read

The convenience industry’s present and future is food. Although the broad foodservice category took a hit in 2020 due to pandemic-related restrictions, for the past two decades foodservice has been a fast-growing category within the convenience store channel.

More than 60% of the category is prepared food, which saw a 7.4% drop in sales in 2020, according to NACS State of the Industry data. Commissary, which is largely prepackaged foods and the only foodservice category with sales growth during the tumultuous second quarter of 2020, ended the year with 13.3% category sales contribution. These products conveyed a sense of confidence among c-store shoppers as safety and wellness shifted shopper behaviors.

With new methods of getting product to consumers quickly and safely—drive-thru, curbside pickup and delivery, for a few examples—convenience retailers that are serious about foodservice as a profit center should be consistently reviewing their food safety procedures, and that includes embedding food safety culture into an already-established company culture.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating and sustaining an effective food safety culture, there is a shared goal: protecting public health.

Building the Model

After listening to several convenience retailers discuss how they measure their food safety maturity, NACS began working with Dr. Lone Jespersen, founder and principal of Cultivate, in 2020.

Jespersen held the Six Sigma leadership role at Canadian-based Maple Leaf Foods, when in 2008, a Listeria outbreak took the lives of 23 Canadians. From that point until 2015, her focus became developing and executing the company’s food safety strategy. Maple Leaf had to acknowledge that its culture needed to change. It needed to evolve beyond internal and external audits and internal self-assessments to look at employee mindsets and behaviors from the top down.

In a recent NACS Convenience Matters podcast, Jespersen explains that among the company’s senior leaders, there wasn’t en established rhythm or acknowledgement that food safety performance and KPIs had to be at the table every day. “When you go through something like that, it changes who you are. And that’s why I wake up every day and want to work with my colleagues at Cultivate to avoid others from having to go through it,” she said.

The experience at Maple Leaf led to Jespersen developing a five-stage maturity model with five dimensions that focus on bringing clarity to food businesses about their current culture of food safety. The five stages—Doubt, React, Know, Predict, Internalize—are the foundation of Cultivate’s globally accepted Food Safety Maturity Model, as well as the foundation for the global convenience store industry’s first and only NACS Convenience Store Food Safety Culture Maturity Model.

The industry-specific model captured the feedback of nearly two dozen global convenience retail companies at various stages of food safety maturity. The group identified nine common topics related to food safety, ranging from risk awareness to food safety performance, systems oversight and governance, that can be mapped to five food safety cultural dimensions:

  • Values and Mission
  • People Systems
  • Adaptability
  • Consistency
  • Risk Oversight

By segmenting food safety culture into these five dimensions, the model can help retailers understand where their food safety maturity is strong, in-between or weak. This helps strengthen culture by focusing on the opportunities instead of broadly stating, “We want to improve.”

For example, a strong leadership message can create energy among middle managers (Values and Mission), but if the culture measurements show a lack of enthusiasm among the middle managers (People Systems), then the leadership messaging may not be landing as intended. “Any cultural direction set by senior leaders is only valuable if it’s translated by middle managers into practices and norms with their teams,” said Jespersen.

The model can help retailers understand where their food safety maturity is strong, in-between or weak.

During the retailer interviews, several themes emerged around agility, invisibility and proximity.

Agility: The pandemic aside, employees at the store level are accustomed to pivoting around changes such as new product launches and how they’re managed. “There’s an agility here that can be used for food safety,” said Jespersen.

Invisibility: Of the 21 people interviewed for the NACS food safety culture model, only three had food safety in their title and the rest focused on foodservice while managing multiple other areas. “They’re not just focused on one area, and I think we have to formalize food safety because it’s business critical,” she said.

Proximity: This is different for convenience stores. “If you are a line operator in a milk powder plant, all you might see is stainless steel all day. It’s hard to translate that you can make somebody sick because you never see anything resembling product or people eating,” she said. However, in a convenience store, employees directly interact with customers all day. “Proximity is important because if you can look a customer in the eye and know you’ve just taken a shortcut and could have introduced something that can make someone sick, you’ve got to be a special person for that not to tug at your heartstrings,” she said.

The Journey

Convenience retailers can embark on their own food safety culture journey by acknowledging the evolution inherent in any type of culture.

“First, we start by looking at being compliant and have a set of requirements so we deliver on those consistently. Then we go into the next stage, which is the plan. Now we start to self-assess against the plan and rely on audits. And third, we evolve from that—we don’t need to have a regulator or somebody external or the audits to prompt us. We just act on food safety every day because it’s part of the success of our business. And that’s where we get to culture,” she said.

Jespersen found that the convenience store sector is in the early stage of evolution when it comes to food safety, with many retailers still relying on store audits to ensure employees are acting on food safety requirements and procedures.

“We are at a point now where we want to improve and deliver on what we trust, which is we walk into a convenience store, we pick up food or a drink and we trust inherently without questioning that it’s safe for consumption. If we really want to deliver on that consistently as an industry, we must get to the culture step in that evolution.

“Unless we take that step into where food safety is just part of doing business, then we’re always going to be stuck in that mode where people get sick. And I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with that status quo, and I want to bring it to the next level,” she said.

For more information on the NACS Convenience Store Food Safety Culture Maturity Model, reach out to Chris Blasinsky with NACS at [email protected].

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