In February 2020, Version 2020 of the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements was announced at the GFSI Conference in Seattle. Version 2020 includes a new element: food safety culture. GFSI Japan’s Communications Working Group spoke to Ayako Okada of BSI (British Standards Institution) Group Japan K.K., who is familiar with trends in international certification.

I became interested in food safety culture upon discovering that it was a point of focus by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) in 2017. When I was working for Walmart Japan, I realised that Frank Yiannas, of the same company, was promoting the concept of food safety culture, and I gained an interest in the evolution of this concept. I believe Frank Yiannas himself was the initial reason for the term’s spread worldwide.

Mr. Yiannas, now the Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), published Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System in 2009 combining elements of public health from the perspective of social-behavioural science from his experience through former roles at Disney and Walmart.

Following Mr. Yiannas’s promotion of food safety culture, various organisations have developed models related to food safety culture, and GFSI also issued a position paper in 2018. This paper was formulated by the GFSI Technical Group (Chairman: Lorne Jespersen) to consolidate the evaluation model for a variety of existing food safety cultures.

According to Mr. Yiannas, scientific knowledge and policies are not enough to achieve food safety sustainably in an organisation. Measures that raise individual awareness and lead to actual behaviour changes are required from the perspective of social-behavioural sciences. That is the basic idea of food safety culture.

Why is food safety culture important now?

The way food is produced and distributed in the modern world has been changing dramatically. 

The two main methods currently being used to reduce the risk of foodborne illness in retail stores are regulatory inspection and education/training in the organisation, but Yiannas believes that education and training alone do not produce dramatic effects.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infected employees cause 20 percent of outbreaks. In particular, the FDA has reported that infected personnel handling food caused two thirds of outbreaks originating from restaurants. Many food safety issues and accidents result from employee practices, attitudes or behaviours.

Therefore, changing employee behaviour is critical for all food business operators. It is important to build an action-based food-safety management system that integrates food science and social-behaviour studies.

The word culture is often considered to be abstract. Could you clarify what ‘culture’ implies here?

I think that food safety culture will be cultivated by corporate leadership steering their companies in the direction of emphasising food safety and an environment encouraging discussion, sharing and mutual compromise among individual employees regarding food safety. Conducting these activities on a regular basis will lead to an emphasis on food safety as an organisation.

There are two important points here: leadership and a perspective of social behaviour.  For the former, the intentional commitment and efforts of leaders at all levels of the organisation are essential to foster a food safety culture as an entire organisation.

Specifically, leaders are required to express to the entire organisation their willingness to foster a food safety culture and to make management decisions necessary for its realisation, such as system construction and resource allocation.

The mindset of making matters related to food safety culture a personal concern and taking the lead in making appropriate actions is essential among not only the leadership of an organisation but its employees on the front lines as well. What are the necessary steps from the social-behavioural studies perspective for achieving that?

Encouraging people to change their behaviour, especially those related to safety and hygiene, is not easy. In such cases, for example devising environmental or physical factors, it is important to motivate people to take specific actions. Such environmental and physical factors range from the design specifications of the facility, to the use of equipment, and the provision of work tools. Walmart, where I used to work, holds a company-wide event regarding food safety culture to foster employee awareness once a year. Walmart also created an educational tool, called Food Safety High Five, designed to help in a casual manner anyone in easily understanding the five essential points of food safety.

In addition, it is also important to build an action-based food safety management system using a continuous improvement model.

What exactly is the improvement model?

There are 6 steps in the model: 1. Expectations 2. Education/Training 3. Communication 4. Goals/Accountability 5. Measurement 6. Reinforcement.

The first step is to present and communicate the performance in food safety expected of each employee as a clear and achievable indicator (1. Expectations), followed by education to encourage behavioural change (2. Education). The content should be created in a convincing way so that employees can recognise the actual food safety risk, explanation through case studies as more effective than presenting statistical data.

The following step is to share daily information on food safety and feelings among employees (3. Communication). In addition to communication in writing, using multiple forms of media to convey information helps to communicate easier.

Moreover, food safety would be recognised easier as an organisational culture not only by stating concepts and numbers but by also providing specific case studies. For example, case studies can be effective in expressing how and who develop allergic reactions, and organisations can use images to express tragedy for an allergy accident. Posters should be designed for simplicity by using symbols, photos, and figures. Posters should also be updated frequently. Facilitating interactive communication between employees on the theme of food safety is also effective.

Goals must also be set and measured to understand the results of efforts in education/training and communication (4. Goals and Accountability, 5. Measurement). Food safety goals should be achievable and documented as concrete, risk-based and measurable goals.

The evaluation index should capture the physical condition of facilities and foods, process, knowledge, and behaviour. The evaluation index should also be set and measured in combination with the leading index (input index, food safety culture survey data within the organisation, employee proficiency test, etc.) and the lagging index (output index, food poisoning occurrence data, food recall information, etc.).

Finally, based on the results of these processes, appropriate food safety behaviour will be strengthened and affect the next behaviours of employees (6. Reinforcement). The results of the process can be presented in a timely and clear manner to encourage more effective behavioural change.

It is important to encourage individual behaviour changes by repeating these 6 steps and rotating through the PDCA cycle.

Thank you for the very clear explanation. How will including food safety culture in the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements affect certification programme owners and certified food companies?

Up until now, GFSI has maintained a working group on and has been actively discussing food safety culture. In 2018, the summary regarding food safety culture was presented, and food safety culture was added as a new requirement on the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements (Version 2020) issued in February 2020.

In Version 2020 of the Benchmarking Requirements, “elements of food safety culture, at a minimum consisting of: communication, training, feedback from employees and performance measurement on food safety related activities” as well as “the senior management’s commitment” is required in a food safety management system. It is stated in paragraph “FSM 2 Management commitment and food safety culture”

I think all food companies are concerned when it comes to what needs to be done to address food culture. The BRC certification guidelines will be helpful when considering specific items. The Food Safety Culture Strategic Plan is included in the guideline. In the Plan, a company is supposed to establish methods for implementation and measurement activities, a planned time schedule, and an action plan. Companies are also required to review for the effectiveness of completed activities as well as set, implement, review, and improve KPIs related to food safety culture. However, specifying the points that should be looked at as a more specific index will be a future task. The accumulation of cases and discussion among stakeholders will continue to be required.

How does this impact the Japanese food industry?

Okada: The GFSI Benchmarking Requirements includes food safety culture, and it will be included in the updated Codex. In the UK and Australia, an ombudsman checks company strategies on food safety culture.

There is a possibility that governmental regulations will come to include food safety culture in Japan too. In the future, as with the HACCP system, not only companies that deal with global food distributors but all companies would be required to take action related to food safety culture.

Traditionally, Kaizen is a field of specialty for Japanese companies, especially in manufacturing. We can say that Japanese people have a culture to move naturally in terms of how they can contribute to work, even if the obligations of employees are not stated in contracts and job definitions. Therefore, I think there is a possibility to show Japan’s unique model of food safety culture, a tip for cultivating food culture, to the world. I have great expectations for the efforts of Japanese food companies so that the mechanism of the food safety management system, including this food safety culture, will spread and develop.


Courtesy: GFSI Japan Local Group Communication WG

This feature appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE