Leadership in food safety management
COVID-19 has sharpened our focus on safety, with lockdown providing an opportunity to reflect on current approaches and where improvements to compliance policies and practices could be achieved.
Food safety management systems in Australia have largely not changed on the safety front. A one-size-fits-all approach to food safety management systems is widespread across the foodservice sector — a certain recipe for failure. All too familiar food safety problems persist at unacceptably high rates.
Leaders (at all levels) do not fully understand their food safety obligations — they are wanting a quick fix so they can tick the regulatory box.
Characteristically, a leader within an organisation will copy and paste another organisation’s food safety management system and make minimal changes; or they will download a template to assist them develop what they believe is a compliant system. This leader fills out a few text boxes here and there throughout the document, which is done in isolation of operational employee consultation and involvement. The newly created food safety management system completely lacks operational detail and bears no resemblance to site-specific operational and food law requirements.
Validating the system and developing robust verification mechanisms are poorly understood, and in many cases does not occur.
Production processes impacting on food safety are not fully understood by operational leaders and employees, or there is inconsistent understanding of the processes. If leaders and employees do not know how the food safety system works (or is supposed to work), how can they improve it?
There are significant shortcomings around resource allocation, including sub-par training — there is no genuine commitment to training, nor are there any accountability processes in place — this is just another example of ticking the box.
Food handling employees need to know:
- what to do,
- how to do it,
- why it’s important, and
- what corrective actions to take when required.
Corrective action is a critical food safety step that helps prevent a food safety incident from occurring.
The dated ‘compliance-based training’ and ‘mandatory online modules’ approach and refresher training has failed. New training and learning habits and practices will need to be created.
Implementation and meaningful review of food safety management systems rarely occur. An organisation must be able to demonstrate that it is complying with its food safety management system and conduct a regular review — a requirement of Australian food law.
A review is of critical importance as food production activities within the operation will change over time, such as when new equipment is purchased or changes are made to cooking methods.
The involvement of senior leadership is required in the review process, to provide an opportunity to examine business activity from a different perspective. Soft or inconsistent regulatory audits are simply not helpful and place the organisation and other stakeholders at risk, including the regulator. In many situations food safety management is not a priority and is not taken seriously, with a ‘she’ll be right’ approach, until there is a food safety incident or regulatory intervention. This can often lead to unwanted and negative (social) media attention.
Food safety colleague Dr Doug Powell explained that when there is an outbreak of foodborne illness many food operations will rely on a go-to soundbite, “Food safety is our top priority”.
For Dr Powell, a former professor of food safety for 17 years at the universities of Guelph and Kansas State, this sets up a mental incongruity: if food safety is your top priority, shouldn’t you show me?
The other common soundbite is, “We meet all government standards”.
With a changing regulatory landscape, advances in technology, and food products and ingredients travelling great distances, it is time for senior leadership and boards of directors to elevate the food safety conversation within their organisation.
Far too many foodservice operations are leaving brand protection to government inspectors or auditors — this is a bad idea.
Organisational leaders should commit themselves to achieving optimal industry standards in food safety management instead of aiming to meet minimum requirements. Leaders must be actively involved in celebrating team success and equally the reporting and development of risk-reduction strategies when a food safety issue arises. Leaders must hold every employee accountable for consistent adherence to recognised food law requirements and safety practices. Failing to respond to these matters leaves many organisations (and employees) vulnerable to a myriad of risks.
Originally published here.
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