What's Your Food Safety Culture?
For the first time, NACS put a spotlight on advancing food safety and protecting public health at the inaugural NACS Food Safety Conference, held in tandem with the 2022 NACS Show.
The event was not only an industry first, it was specific to the convenience retail channel and touched on topics that are leading change and growth in not just food safety but also foodservice overall as convenience retailers seek to differentiate themselves as go-to places for freshly prepared meals and refreshment. Leading food safety experts addressed:
- How a company's food safety culture can support, align and contribute to its vision and mission.
- Understanding employee behaviors and creating interventions for organizational decision-makers, professional food handlers, store-level managers and employees—the gatekeepers of safe food.
- Discovering collaborative solutions to today’s safe food-handling challenges, including supply chain issues, recalls, staffing and training.
FOOD SAFETY CULTURE
Dr. Lone Jespersen, founder of Cultivate and food safety culture expert, shared that there is a greater need for leadership to foster a top-down food safety culture that protects and sustains the future of the business.
The 50-plus attendees learned more about the forthcoming NACS Convenience Store Food Safety Culture Maturity Model, the first and only global convenience retail industry specific model that advances food safety culture by initially focusing on the leadership level.
NACS began working with Jespersen in 2020 to create the model, which captured feedback of nearly two dozen global convenience retail companies at various stages of food safety maturity. There tailers identified common topics related to food safety, ranging from risk awareness to food safety performance, systems oversight and governance, which can be mapped to four food safety cultural dimensions:
- Values and mission
- Adaptability and risk
By segmenting culture into these 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 our culture. ... Any cultural direction set by senior leaders is only valuable if it’s translated by middle managers into practices and norms for their store teams,” explained Jespersen in the July 2021 NACS Magazine feature, “Modeling a Food Safety Culture.”
For example, a strong leadership message can create energy among middle managers, but if the culture measurements show a lack of enthusiasm among the middle managers, then the leadership messaging may not be landing as intended.
Dr. Jay Ellingson, chief scientific officer at La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip Inc., said that food safety culture is also about managing risk. While no single company can achieve 100% risk mitigation of foodborne illness factors when selling food, “one of the best ways to minimize breakdowns in the execution of food safety policies and procedures is to have good retail practices ingrained in your operations and your employees,” he said.
“If coworkers understand the why behind behaviors such as handwashing, verifying temperatures, cleaning and understanding that these actions are the right thing to do to protect the consumer and prevent illness, they are more likely to be completed and completed correctly. Training and retraining are paramount to achieving active managerial control of food safety risk factors,” Ellingson said.
Employees must also feel supported from leadership to serve and sell safe food. “Our companies should be leading by example and allocating the time our coworkers need to complete these tasks, as well as provide the tools and resources they need to be safe and effective,” he said.
Training and retraining are paramount to achieving active managerial control of food safety risk factors.”
Dr. Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, shared research on what the food retail industry has learned since March 2020 and how convenience retailers can best prepare for the future.
Chapman is also the project chair of Food-CoVNET, a team of academia and food retail supporters, including NACS, that leveraged existing food safety networks to collect and address SARS-CoV-2 concerns within the food industry. He presented ongoing research on virus persistence, inactivation and transfer, including a new hand-washing study that’s under peer review.
In the past five years, Chapman’s team at NC State has conducted 1,284 observations of consumer hand-washing behavior analysis that produced 2,889 hours of video coding, 25,680 minutes of recorded interviews and 6,686 hand-washing events that produced just 83 successful hand-washing events.
Hand hygiene, either by hand-washing or hand disinfection, is often cited as the most important measure to prevent disease transmission. In a unique industry like convenience, where foodservice programs can range from dispensed beverages to roller grill to commissary and food prepared on-site, “companies that produce, prepare or sell food have a role to play in advancing food safety and protecting public health,” said Ellingson.
As c-store foodservice offers continue to evolve, the older perceptions of “gas station food” linger. Ellingson noted that a foodborne illness outbreak from a c-store could unravel the positive perceptions of foodservice programs “and would only substantiate that stigma in the minds of those who wouldn’t choose a c-store for food and impact the entire industry—not just the responsible company.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR FOOD SAFETY?
Attendee feedback confirms that there is an industry need for another NACS Food Safety Conference. Initial plans are to have the 2023 event at the NACS Show in Atlanta, although registration will be separate for attending one or both events.
To continue dialoguing with food safety and quality assurance professionals in our industry, reach out to Chrissy Blasinsky at NACS (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or Ellingson of Kwik Trip (email@example.com) to find out how you can get involved in conversations and rely on your industry peers as a sounding board for your company’s food safety concerns.
NACS extends a special thank you to our NACS Food Safety Conference Premier sponsor, Ecosure, a division of NACS Hunter Club member Ecolab, and our General sponsor, Testo, for their dedication and expertise to advance food safety and safe food-handling procedures and processes in the convenience retail industry. Their support contributed to the success of the inaugural NACS Food Safety Conference. Visit Ecosure at www.ecolab.com/solutions and Testo at www.testo.com to learn more.