BRCGS Food Version 8 is the first GFSI certified standard to set requirements related to a food safety culture. Soon, this will no longer be a unique selling point, as the updated Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) audit criteria will be published in February 2020. Among the most important new features is the food safety culture audit. But, what is that actually, how can a food safety culture be assessed and maintained, and why is it so significant? All the answers here:

1. What is a Food Safety Culture?

The GFSI Technical Working Group defines food safety culture as "shared values, norms, and beliefs that influence food safety attitudes and behaviors within the organization, across divisions." Does that sound fuzzy to you, too? Let's take a closer look at the definition:

"Shared Values, Norms, and Beliefs"
Culture is not formed in individuals, but in groups. Values are shared with new members of the group and lived out in the form of norms and behaviors within the group. Input, such as through formal systems, transforms through human translation within the group and becomes norms and beliefs shared by group members and passed on to new members.

For this reason, culture is perceived as difficult to change. After all, it is not the formal systems that are changed, such as values, but the underlying norms and behaviors, which in many cases are neither expressed in words nor written down.

"Influencing Attitude and Behavior"
Psychologically, our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are influenced by several factors, including our national culture, upbringing, and life experiences. In the work environment, we are influenced by the group we identify with, such as the department, colleagues, function and position, job security, formal and informal authorities, our own habits, and awareness related to the job.

If we want to examine how mature the food safety culture is, or how to maintain and strengthen that culture, we need to understand how the corporate values and mission influence the thinking of individuals in different groups. One possible question would be: Does each person understand their role in the organization and what it entails, and were they involved in defining those roles? Do employees understand how their work contributes to the organization's mission and purpose?

Questions like these reveal how groups and individuals view management's commitment to food safety. This is essential to the food safety culture of any organization.

"Within the organization and across divisions"
One-size-fits-all solutions do not exist in food safety culture. To make it an everyday reality, food safety must be defined across the organization in a way that is appropriate and understandable to each member and department. After all, the requirements for the purchasing department, for example, are very different from the requirements for the maintenance team. Purchasing needs to understand the importance of selecting suppliers that are economically viable while meeting the organization's food safety requirements - not just one or the other. Similarly, the maintenance team must pay attention to equipment condition to ensure that operating time is maximized as well as food safety performance. In smaller operations, the general manager serves as a role model and has a significant impact on food safety. For a mature food safety culture, the company's vision and mission must be customized for each department and individual.

2. How can Food Safety Culture be assessed and maintained?

Unlike standards and laws, a food safety culture cannot be easily implemented. It develops spontaneously and instinctively, manifesting itself in rituals, company climate or core values, for example. Note: These are merely manifestations of the culture, not the culture itself.

In order to be able to nurture something so elusive, it is first necessary to analyze what the food safety culture is like at that moment. The BRCGS Food Safety Culture Excellence Module can help with this. An anonymous employee survey is used to map the current state of the food safety culture. Upon completion of the survey, a report is issued that reflects the current state of food safety and provides general recommendations for improving the food safety culture. The system builds on 19 years of scientific research and industry experience and is based on a structure that addresses four dimensions of food safety culture: People, Process, Purpose and Proactivity. Get all the information you need on the BRCGS Food Safety Culture Excellence Module here.

GFSI has also published a position paper on food safety culture, addressing three key areas:

  1. The critical role of leaders within an organization in implementation (a point that also figures prominently in the ISO 9001:2015 revision)
  2. Factors such as communication, training and education, collaboration and personal liability
  3. How learned skills such as adaptability or hazard awareness transfer food safety practices from theory to practice.

View the position paper summary here. You can download the full GFSI Working Group document titled "A Culture of Food Safety" in English here.

Incidentally, the contradiction between a culture that develops spontaneously and instinctively and the advice and checklists offered is acknowledged by GFSI. However, it says the issue is too important not to address. GFSI states that all information in the position paper was taken from direct human experience and wide-ranging observations. Thus, the position paper reflects reality as much as possible.

3. Why is Food Safety Culture so significant?

A corporate culture that values food safety shows employees directly and indirectly that food safety is important and necessary to succeed in the company. This influences behavior and helps ensure that employees do the right thing.

Although, or perhaps because, cultural standards do not follow formal rules and straight lines, are often passed on in casual conversation and reinforced through thought and action, they become embedded in the subconscious. The subconscious commitment to food safety actually has an impact. Surveys by BRCGS show that companies that have applied the Food Safety Culture Excellence Module have reduced the risk of food safety incidents by 84%. An inadequate food safety culture, on the other hand, increases the company's vulnerability to food fraud. With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that 80% of all food experts believe that establishing a food safety culture is the most important job of any technical leader.

Constanze Illner

Constanze Illner (she/her) is Research and Communications Officer in the area of sustainability and food safety. In this position, she keeps an eye on all important developments in this context and informs our clientele in a monthly newsletter. She also moderates the annual Sustainability Heroes conference.


Relevant articles and events

You may also be interested in this
supplier-evaluation-dqs-container from bird's eye view

IFS Logistics Version 3: Everything you need to know about the revision


IFS Food Version 8 - All changes of the revision at a glance


IFS Action Plan: A helpful guide