Themed ‘Emerging challenges and the future of food safety’, the GFSI Conference provided another opportunity for food safety experts across the entire supply chain to share knowledge on changing demographics, evolving consumer demand and developments in science and technology.
Over 70 speakers gave presentations over a packed, four-day conference and, for me, there was an overwhelming focus on changing consumer demands, food safety culture and what food businesses need to be aware of, which I’ll explore further in this blog.
1. Accommodating changing consumer demands
Consumers are becoming more aware of the pressures on the environment from food production and population increase. One emerging trend is a move away from global supply chains – called deglobalisation – as consumers demand locally sourced food that they know is safe, nutritious and has less environmental impact.
Young people, especially, are demanding that food producers adopt more environmentally friendly solutions in their operations and better animal welfare. This is also leading to an increase in veganism as more people think it is unethical to use animals to produce human food.
Greater access to information is making consumers aware of the chemicals used in food production and the potential effects on human health, especially cancers. Previously, food testing has focused on contamination – especially microbiological safety – but new technology is needed to quickly determine safety from chemicals used in food production to assure consumers that food is safe.
2. Improving communications
Social media can be both a problem and a solution to food safety. Social media can be “mined” to gather intelligence about current issues and emerging trends. It has been used, for example, by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) to develop software to predict outbreaks of food-borne diseases and new allergens based on monitoring of keywords and phrases.
At the same time, vast amounts of misinformation can be spread through social media either through lack of knowledge or intentionally to discredit an organisation or sow doubts about true facts. The food industry needs to respond by having greater transparency with consumers and increasing resources devoted to informing them with science-based facts and responding to their concerns. Externally, communications play an essential role, both to harvest and disseminate information on food safety. Internally, improving communications is similarly essential for playing a key part of implementing a better food safety culture in an organisation.
3. Building a food-safety culture
Failures in basic hygiene practices are still among the top causes of food safety failures, showing a new approach is needed to reduce these risks. In light of rapidly changing and increasing consumer demands, and other pressures such as urbanisation and population growth, such risks need to be mitigated now more than ever.
Improving food safety practices by staff has traditionally been seen as a training issue, but now companies are increasingly seeing that the culture within the organisation is critical to food safety. The social sciences have found that social norms and influences from colleagues in an organisation are more powerful in bringing about change than any amount of training.
Building a food safety culture involves mixing behavioural science and food science, so that members of staff share patterns of thought and behaviour through a process of socialisation.
The GFSI Technical Working Group on Food Safety Culture has produced a position paper to help food industry professionals do just this by outlining the processes to build a culture of food safety in their businesses. The paper defines food safety culture as “shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mindset and behaviour toward food safety in, across and throughout an organization.”
The position paper breaks down food safety culture into five critical areas that an organisation should focus on.
- Corporate vision and mission: support from the top to empower all employees and make them aware of their responsibilities to food safety
- Empowering all the food safety stakeholders along the supply chain, from farm to consumer
- Consistency of decisions, actions and behaviours
- Adaptability to changes in the operating environment, including crisis management
- Ensuring there is hazard and risk awareness by making relevant information and industry intelligence available to all levels of the organisation
4. Employees need to be pest-aware
All employees – as the first line of defence – need to be pest-aware. This should be done through training as part of a wider, integrated pest-management approach across the whole business – one that makes sure staff fully understand and support the control of pests for food safety and how this contributes to a positive food-safety culture.
At Rentokil, we’ve pioneered a highly effective integrated pest management solution that combines four core principles: exclusion, restriction, destruction and monitoring, which protects food businesses and minimises the risk of pest infestations. Restriction is the key area here – where staff are encouraged and trained to help spot the signs of pest activity that include the following.
- Evidence of pests
- Pest-conducive conditions
- Areas with moisture, heat, humidity
- Food or water that pests can access
- Pest harborage (interior/exterior, trash areas, drains, building perimeter weeds and debris)
- Pest entry points (doors, loading docks)
However, training alone is not enough. It’s also crucial for education on pest awareness to be adapted to individual requirements – an area I’ve been discussing recently with my colleague, Mike Wood, our Head of Innovation and Field Support, who shared his view.
“There can sometimes be an attitude among employees that pests are for service providers alone to be concerned about – and this is even in spite of training. This demonstrates the importance of tailoring education, the means by which it is carried out and what individuals are expected to do as a consequence of this. Employees need to be empowered to do the right thing and demonstrate their commitment to a positive food safety culture.
It’s also important for food businesses to remember that food safety culture is a partnership between colleagues and management, together with service providers such as pest control and cleaning companies. Ultimately it’s a collaborative effort and everyone needs to understand not just their role, but the impact it has both on pest management and the overarching food-safety culture.”