Food Safety - It Is Personal

Clarice Oelofse
 June 20, 2014
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Food Safety

What could be more personal than the food you eat? And what could be more personal than the hand that prepares your food? The issue of food safety is as close as your next meal.


Food safety awareness is hot news – firstly, new trends and legislations are playing a huge role in the supply chain and secondly, consumers are eating more meals which have been prepared outside of their home environment. Yet, the whole “food hygiene thing” covers widespread challenges such as food recalls, traceability, cleaning & sanitation, effective allergen management, management of non-conforming products, endless audits, inspections, training, legal compliance and micro-testing.


The human element in these activities can’t be ignored. Clearly, all food safety issues stem from human behaviour. There have been various indications that most foodborne illness outbreaks can be attributed to food workers’ improper food handling practices and/or a general lack of education and/or and lack of motivation.  For instance, the Campylobacter issue – did you even know you are not supposed to wash raw chicken before cooking it?


Thus, human behaviour is an important component of any food safety system. Take this into account, and we see that behavioural science can be an important tool in any food safety outlet to ensure that food workers handle food safely. Most food safety interventions provide knowledge to food workers with the expectation that workers will almost automatically and immediately  translate this knowledge into practice. Yet numerous studies on different types of behaviour, including food safety, indicate that although knowledge may be an essential component of behaviour change, it is not always sufficient. Human behaviour is complex, and multiple factors, not just knowledge, affect whether humans engage in any particular behaviour. Several behavioural science theories have focused on identifying these factors, which include elements such as knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about the behaviour, intentions to engage in the behaviours and perceived behavioural norms. It is obvious that there is a need for food safety interventions that do more than merely provide food safety education. The answer could lie in the creation of a food safety culture, which focuses more on people (what they believe about food safety and consequently how they react to their beliefs, which is then translated into their behaviour).


In essence, a behaviour based food safety management system is processed focused, as well as people focused. In order to improve the food safety performance of your organisation, it is essential to change behavioural patterns of staff. Let’s compare the “old” and the “new”


 Traditional Food Safety Management

 Behaviour Based Food Safety Management

 Focus on process

 Focus on process and people

 Solely focus on food science

 Emphasis on Food Science, Behavioural Science,      and Organisational Culture

 Simplistic view of behaviour change

 Behaviour change is more complex

 Linear thinking

 System Thinking

 Creates a food safety program

 Creates a food safety culture

 Employees are accountable for food safety

 Employees are responsible for food safety


  There are several ways to address this. Here are a few pointers:

  • encourage managers and supervisors to engage in activities that address factors (other than theoretical knowledge) that impact safe food handling, such as supporting a food safety culture in general and removing barriers to safe food handling, including inadequate staffing, inadequate equipment and inadequate process flows. The critical issue here is leadership. The old saying: “As the leader goes, so goes the nation…” comes to mind.
  • Managers and practitioners can conduct activities that would increase understanding of the factors that impact safe food handling in their respective areas. Storytelling and current affairs prove to be prevalent in their workplace – tap into that. Use eye-catching graphics and highlight what they can do as a food handler through your stories.

Frank Yiannas, vice-chair of the Global food Safety Initiative and Wal-Mart’s vice-president of food Safety, encouraged South African companies to work toward implementing a culture of food safety by working through a five-step process, which will help to change their employees’ behaviours and improve their food safety results:

  1. Create food safety expectations
  2. Educate and train all associates
  3. Communicate food safety frequently
  4. Establish food safety goals and measurements
  5. Put emphasis on consequences of behaviours

It is no small challenge to build a positive food safety culture in a multi-cultural society. We can unanimously agree that food safety is about more than training, but training is a good place to start. You see, you can’t change anyone’s behaviour if you are not addressing what they believe deep down…


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