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5 Steps to Creating a Food Safety Culture

Doing the right thing, all the time is no accident it is the end result of a commitment to developing solid, productive habits. In a food service organization, these “habits” always begin at the top levels and trickle down to where the “rubber meets the road”. If management is not completely sold out to developing a strong culture of food safety and good customer service, then neither will their staff.


Commitment to food safety is first demonstrated daily by managers and leaders daily. What does this look like? It means that every time a manager on any level enters an establishment they follow exactly the same organizational guidelines they expect of staff. This may mean things as simple as immediately washing hands (properly) and putting on a hair net before doing anything else. If you don’t follow the proper procedures in view of everyone, then you should not be shocked that they are not following them either.


Example – A district supervisor walks into one of the many locations they oversee for a routine check of the operation. They enter the establishment carrying a fresh cup of Starbucks coffee (without a lid) and go directly to the production area to check on the staff. All the time is sipping coffee and talking. No problem, right? It is a big problem.


Organization guidelines state that upon entering the establishment hands must be washed, hair nets donned, and all personal drinking cups must have both a lid and a straw. This district supervisor, very directly, demonstrated to the entire staff that the food safety guidelines in place do not matter. They damaged the food safety culture and possibly set the stage for a future foodborne illness outbreak. Overstated? Not at all.


Staff commitment to the organizational “culture” will never be any more significant than that demonstrated by leadership, no more and no less. Remember, there is a difference between practicing and preaching.


The bottom line is that employees who are committed to food safety, personally, will do the right thing, when nobody is watching and when it is not the quickest or least expensive solution. A stable reinforced culture will create a dedication that is sustainable. In a short time, positive, productive food safety practices will become the norm and staff will begin to reinforce these amongst themselves.


Why? Everyone wants to do a good job, no one wants to make anyone sick, and we all want to have security in our workplace so practicing food safety becomes a source of pride among the staff, and they begin to hold each other accountable.

Creating and sustaining a robust food safety culture requires leaders to not only demonstrate a commitment to their words with action. This includes ensuring that organizational policies, procedures, and processes are rewarded at all levels. Good food safety practices, positive decisions, and behavior must be routinely recognized. This creates healthy completion and promotes personal pride among staff.

Of course, on-going food service staff training is vital. However, education does not always improve individual behavior. Third party inspections, internal audits, and post-education examinations are all needed. The challenge is that often time they identify issues after they have occurred and are reactive to a situation versus proactively correcting habits before a potential problem arises.

The following five steps are the foundation of creating a food safety culture that will endure.

Step 1 – Understanding What “Culture” Really is.


The “Business Dictionary 1” defines culture as, “… an organization’s expectations, experiences, philosophy, as well as the values that guide staff behavior and is expressed in staff self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world (customers), and future expectations. Culture is based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid.”


Culture also includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.

Short definition, organizational culture is simply “how things are done around here,” and it just will not work unless there is determined, commitment, reinforced by a set of formal and informal, immovable elements that are the true “DNA” of the organization.

Step 2 – Creating and Living your “Culture.”

Creating visible and concrete tools for aligning an organizations vision and operations are critical. These may include:


  • Clear organizational charts that define role, outline responsibility and chain of command. This should be supported by more specific job descriptions.
  • Define situational decision-making authority. Examples – If a staff member discovers a food safety issue at the time of service, do they have the authority to discard the suspect food or do they have to find a manager? If, during receiving, an important issue is noted with food being delivered does the receiving staff member have the authority to refuse the delivery?
  • Have clear incentives in place to recognize staff who meet and exceed organizational objectives. Incentives can include additional compensation and recognition. Competition is healthy for making the culture “stick.”
  • Develop clarity of expectation with all staff, at every level. Aforementioned is critical for the coordination of efforts across the organization. People who are not clear on how what and why will waste time, creating weak links in the culture and potential food hazards for customers.
  • Performance metrics must be in place to evaluate individual productivity, progress and re-establish “clarity of expectations.” This is where formal policies and procedures are aligned with implied or informal expectations. The reality is that often it is in the “implied or informal” where most miscommunication occurs resulting in negative work habits and potentially damaged relationships.
  • During these times of individual staff, evaluation discusses the employee’s aspirations for the organization and themselves. This can be a powerful motivator and solidify an employee’s commitment to the overall culture.
  • Encourage networks of connection with staff, mutual interests and things that encourage a “group think” mentality. Developing a “team” can be substantially more potent towards a strong culture of pride than anything else.

Step 3 – Making the Change “Stick”

Depending on your staff, reception of a culture change may be hot or cold. A lot of that depends on how it is presented to them and the level of commitment demonstrated at every level of management.

The reality is that in today’s changing workplace, having excellent company culture is no longer an option. Prospective employees consider it as much as they consider salary and benefits. Positive organizational culture is just as important as traditional benefits for retaining staff.

Check out this great article from Entrepreneur Magazine outlining ten companies committed to building a great culture with their staff –

Beliefs and feelings are compelling drivers of group behavior and the more employees believe the company has their best interests in mind, the more accepting they will be of change. Efforts to implement change should emphasize key “moments that matter,” the specific actions and decision points that can have a disproportionately negative (or positive) outcome regarding food safety.

Reinforcing the priority of food safety in an organization’s mission is an essential first step. This is accomplished by continuous, ongoing and site have driven updating of priorities through relevant training content, Standard Operating Procedures, detailed job descriptions, regular individual performance reviews, appropriate compensation, and recognition of achievement to name a few.

Group and individual thinking often have a more significant influence on behavior than rules or procedures. Logical and rational explanations (versus edicts and demands) build a greater understanding of why change is necessary and needed, while strong emotional calls to action inspire commitment, work, and innovation.

Step 4 – Developing Your Blueprint for Food Safety

 In the first three steps, we identified the foundational elements of creating a new culture within any organization. Now, what are going to be components of this new culture? The answer to this question will be unique to every organization. However, it will also be the same in many ways.

The first step for many would be to perform an internal assessment of the current food safety culture in your establishment(s). There are many tools available for this that can be found online or click here to download a simple form from FoodHandlerSolutions

Completion of an assessment will be critical in the development of a staff training plan that put your team on the best path towards the achievement of your food safety goals and objectives. This assessment will also help you to identify what the critical decisions and actions are within your organization that, if made incorrectly, have a disproportionately negative impact on food safety for your customers and your business. Once again, these are the key “moments that matter” in day-to-day operations.

There are multiple tools for making food safety training available to staff on a routine and trackable basis. One such method is found at where any level of a team from the food handler, to site manager to CEO can discover affordable ANSI (American National Standards Institute) accredited training.

Step 5 – Take Action NOW

We have all seen reports of organizations who implement the culture change initiative in response to some food safety accident, legal action or governmental crackdown. These reactive changes are usually costly, not well received by staff and can have a detrimental effect on overall profits.

Do not wait for a crisis to assess and analyze your existing food safety culture. Make a habit of routinely gauging staff attitudes and beliefs, and proactively attack any deficiencies or weaknesses you identify before potential disaster strikes.

United States General and Secretary of State, Colin Powell said it best, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”

My thought is we emphasize proactive preparation and effort so we can minimize and eliminate potential failure. RIGHT NOW!

1 culture. from BusinessDictionary website: