Growing a Culture of Food Safety

Food safety must go beyond formal regulations to live within the culture of a company.

Growing a Culture of Food Safety

October 2020   minute read

By: Chrissy Blasinsky , Lone Jespersen, Ph.D.

Convenience retailers continue to up the ante on foodservice to levels that are changing the entire perspective of the industry—both operationally and among the 165 million consumers who frequent a convenience store on a daily basis.

As consumers increasingly look to their local convenience store for food and groceries, store managers and leaders of convenience store companies must invest in their cultures and consider food safety risks and how best to manage them. Even the most sophisticated and proficient organization can be one food safety illness, injury or death away from a financial crisis that could take years to overcome.

Internal Motivation

The food industry has a long history of making improvements to food safety, through training and the adoption of food safety systems. While these changes have made a difference, there is now an overreliance on the effectiveness of such systems, which in some cases have fostered a “blame culture” when something goes wrong.

Some companies have found that the missing piece to continue improvements in food safety performance and changing behaviors throughout the organization begins with culture. They are internally motivated and are often led by visionary and courageous food safety leaders.

Other companies find themselves externally motivated, waiting for or relying on outside-the-organization factors to spur them on. For those retailers, here are a few motivations:

  • Global Food Safety Initiative’s (GFSI) new 2020 benchmarking requirements across the food supply chain
  • Unannounced audits—a new GFSI 2020 requirement
  • Global adoption of Codex General Practiceof Food Hygiene (GPFH) principles
  • U.S. FDA and/or European regulations compliance
  • Requirements from investors and insurance providers

While many of the abovementioned changing regulatory and private standards are geared toward manufacturing and retailers, the bar is being raised globally for what’s expected of any company that earns a profit from making, serving and selling food to consumers.

Food safety is not a competitive advantage—it’s how foodservice will continue to elevate the industry.

Now, let’s dive into some food for thought around food safety culture.

Everyone Has One

“A Culture of Food Safety” paper from GFSI notes that culture of any kind “lives not in individuals, but in groups.” It defines food safety cultures as the “shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mindset and behavior toward food safety in, across and throughout an organization.”

All companies have a culture of food safety, but they often find a lack of consistency and agreement among employees as to what that culture looks like. It is not just about implementing processes and procedures but about understanding where a company is today and where it needs to go short-term and long-term.

The GFSI paper outlines five “cultural dimensions” and components of food safety culture that affect everyone throughout a company:

  1. Vision and Mission: Communicates a business’s reason for existence and how it translates this into expectations and specific messaging for its stakeholders.
  2. People: How behaviors and activities, from processes on the farm to practices in the kitchen and consumer habits, contribute to food safety and potentially decrease or increase the risk of foodborne illness.
  3. Consistency: Proper alignment of food safety priorities with requirements on people, technology, resources and processes to ensure the consistent and effective application of a food safety program that reinforces a culture of food safety.
  4. Adaptability: Ability to adjust to changing influences and conditions and respond within its current state or move to a new one.
  5. Hazard and Risk Awareness: Recognizing actual and potential hazards and risks at all levels and functions, which represents a key element to building and sustaining a food safety culture.

GFSI also makes the distinction that a food safety culture is not a “one size fits all” proposition. The journey takes shape when food safety has been defined throughout the organization for each member and department in ways that are “relevant and clear to them.” Furthermore, for companies to be successful and sustainable, food safety must go beyond formal regulations to live within the culture of a company—and that journey must be measurable.

Financial Benefits

While achieving a 100% risk-free environment is impossible, there are identifiable and manageable risks along the safe food handling spectrum where organizations can apply meaningful benchmarks and metrics.

First, organizations need to gain a better understanding of their current food safety culture. Leading retailers make food safety culture a part of the organization’s DNA and have a strong commitment from the owners and top leadership. La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip has a top-down culture that emphasizes food protection and food safety. For more than a decade the company has hosted a Food Protection/Food Safety In-Service event, which brings together its partners—from growers to government to academia—to learn from experts in the food protection field and see these food protection practices in place at Kwik Trip’s food production and distribution facilities.

At Kwik Trip, the CEO, owners and senior management are the driving force of the company’s food safety culture, noting that there are three things today that could take down the company: a decay of the culture, a major foodborne illness event and a pandemic that severely impacts the company’s labor.

“To be ‘best in class’ in the foodservice and retail food sales arena, you need to work hard on details and education within the entire food system: from procurement, processing/production, distribution to food safe retail practices,” said Jay L. E. Ellingson, Ph.D., chief science officer at Kwik Trip.

“You need to develop a food protection system that meets your company’s business footprint and then educate everyone at all levels of the company so that they understand the food protection system and their roles and responsibilities within the system. Once that is established, then a true food safety culture can start to evolve at all levels within the company. If this is done right, the right food safety culture can evolve and lead to both public health and brand protection. This allows members of the company to be proud of their company culture and daily accomplishments as the company continues to grow,” said Dr. Ellingson.

Measuring and Benchmarking Success

The International Association for Food Protection hosted a series of webinars this past summer focused on various aspects of food safety culture. Co-author of this article, Lone Jespersen, founder and principle of Cultivate, moderated the series.

Jespersen reviewed the five dimensions of food safety culture as a baseline to help companies measure which stage on the maturity model a company is demonstrating:

  • Stage 1: Doubt—Most food safety actions are driven by external pressures.
  • Stage 2: React to (or putting out fires)—Food safety actions likely reside with just one department with limited resources (compared to other high-risk areas like data security).
  • Stage 3: Know of—Other teams in the organization are becoming more engaged and acting on food safety, and habits are forming.
  • Stage 4: Predict—Food safety actions are based on results from predictive analysis.
  • Stage 5: Internalize—The entire organization takes ownership of food safety actions that are mostly based on managing risks, and habits are ingrained.

Her work also explores the connection between economic performance and food safety culture. She and co-authors of “The Impact of Maturing Food Safety Culture and a Pathway to Economic Gain,” explore the connection between organizational culture and financial performance. After analyzing five global food manufacturing firms and calculating each company’s cost of poor quality using a percentage of sales per maturity stage, Jespersen and authors learned that companies lower on the maturity scale run the risk of spending more money on resources due to poor quality, reducing their overall economic impact.

A New Era

Following a five-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA announced its New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint on July 13, which seeks to transform the food supply chain by creating a digital, traceable and safer food system.

Although the agency’s blueprint does not outline specific guidelines, it does outline the path it would like to see industries take—including the convenience retailing industry. One of those core elements is strengthening food safety culture.

“The pandemic has given us a new perspective on what we mean by food safety culture,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn M.D. in announcing the plan, adding that making dramatic reductions in foodborne disease will require changes in how companies think about food safety and how they demonstrate their commitment to safe food-handling practices.

In addition to the FDA’s blueprint, the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Code, administered by the SQF Institute and adopted by some convenience retail chains, sought comments for SQF Code Edition 9.0 in July 2020, which includes a change that “senior site management shall prepare and implement a policy statement that outlines as a minimum the commitment of all site management” to establish and maintain “a food safety culture within the site.”

It’s simple. Food safety is not a competitive advantage; it’s how foodservice—a category that represents 25.4% of inside sales—will continue to elevate the industry by creating engaging and inviting customer experiences.

Chrissy Blasinsky

Chrissy Blasinsky

Chrissy Blasinsky is the digital & content strategist at NACS and can be reached at [email protected].

Lone Jespersen, Ph.D.

Lone Jespersen, Ph.D.

Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., is the founder and principal of Cultivate ( She also serves as chair of Food Safety Culture for the GFSI technical working group dedicated to characterizing and quantifying food safety culture across the global food industry.