The most comprehensive Food Safety Program cannot achieve its goals without the support of the people in your business.
This guide was developed to help food business owners and managers develop a strong culture of food safety that will help to protect customers from food-borne illness and other food safety risks that can damage your business.
Cultivating a positive food safety culture is one of the most important things that leadership in a food business can do. A business’s culture is made up of the shared values and unwritten norms (good and bad) that influence the behaviour of everyone in the business.
The impact of food safety culture on the success of a Food Safety Program is often understated, but without the support of your team, even the most meticulous Food Safety Program cannot achieve its objectives. Food safety must be treated as an integral part of your day-to-day operations, not just something you discuss at a weekly meeting. The everyday behaviour of your leadership and employees is a reflection of your business’s culture.
A negative food safety culture can be difficult to change, but culture is fluid and changes over time. Food business owners, managers and supervisors can achieve positive and lasting change by establishing policies and procedures that place a higher emphasis on food safety, creating a ripple effect that flows from the top to the bottom.
While the reverse can also be true, the role of management cannot be overstated when it comes to building the foundations of a strong food safety culture.
As a food business owner, manager or supervisor, you are responsible for:
- providing a suitable environment, equipment and tools that are in good condition and are made of food-grade materials that are easy to clean
- making it easy for Food Handlers to perform critical food safety tasks without disrupting work flow
- creating policies and procedures that provide clear instructions for how to make food safely
- communicating the food safety goals and priorities of the business to all employees
- providing training and resources to ensure employees understand food safety policies and procedures
- making sure every employee understands their individual responsibilities as they pertain to food safety
- identifying opportunities to improve food safety practices and procedures
- evaluating the effectiveness of the business’s Food Safety Program and food safety culture
- monitoring and evaluating staff behaviour
Why Positive Food Safety Culture is Good for Business
In today’s competitive market, you need to do a lot of things right to outshine your competitors and grow your business and bottom line. Great food at reasonable prices, a good atmosphere, a decent location and an efficient and charismatic workforce come to mind — but they’re worth less than nothing if you’re not getting food safety right.
Dirty tables, utensils or restrooms are among the top complaints of diners, closely followed by Food Handlers with poor personal hygiene.
If customers are put off by dirty forks and dishevelled servers, they won’t take kindly to undercooked chicken, broken glass in their salad or cockroaches under their feet — and that’s saying nothing of the financial and legal consequences that can follow a serious food safety incident like a food-borne illness outbreak or an allergic reaction to your food.
Food safety failures cost money and damage your reputation, which in turn costs even more money and threatens the long-term viability of the business. By investing time and resources into fostering a positive food safety culture in your business, you can:
- protect your customers from food safety hazards
- protect your brand and reputation from negative reviews, complaints or media scandal
- enjoy peace of mind knowing that your business is always inspection-ready
- avoid costly fines and closures
A strong food safety culture requires the continuous improvement and commitment of your entire staff. You’ll know if you’ve been successful if your employees have the skills and resources they need to do their job well and are invested in the success of the business. This makes it possible for management to take a step back from day-to-day operations and focus on long-term strategies to grow the business.
Make It Personal
For your food safety culture to succeed, everyone in the business must understand their role in food safety and why it’s important. As the food business owner or manager, you need to communicate the overall food safety priorities and goals of the business, as well as clearly defined rules and procedures that are specific to different teams and individual roles.
For example, if you have a specialty coffee maker in your business that needs to be cleaned on a regular basis, your kitchen staff may not need specific training or sign-off sheets, but your serving staff will need:
an understanding of who is responsible for routine maintenance (including regular cleaning and sanitising) of the machine and how frequently it must be done
training and instructions on how to disassemble/reassemble the machine and how to clean and sanitise components
sign-off sheets and other documentation to verify that cleaning and maintenance is being performed
Each team needs to have its own routine, set of rules and documentation that is customised to the tasks they perform. As the food business owner, manager or supervisor, it is your responsibility to provide these. It’s risky, and a little unfair, to assume that employees will know how to do the best job if ‘best’ is never properly defined for them. Invest the time required to help everyone to understand their role, why it’s important and what your expectations are.
It’s also up to you to make sure that employees understand that the risks of non-compliance are real and can have consequences, for the business and for themselves. When employees are held accountable for following established food safety policies and procedures, they are more likely to do the right thing — even if nobody is watching.
Don’t make it all about the consequences — you’ll find you get much better results by focusing on how your employees will benefit from supporting a positive food safety culture. A safe food business is more likely to be a successful food business, and a successful food business is in everybody’s best interest.
Employees who commit to doing the right thing for the business can reasonably expect to be able to:
make more money (more tables, more shifts and higher wages)
feel confident that they know what they’re doing and what is expected of them
feel confident that they have the tools and training they need to do their job well
enjoy peace of mind knowing that they aren’t putting the safety of others at risk
When everyone in your food business is working towards one goal, you will see lasting and positive change that can have a huge impact on all aspects of the business.
Lead By Example
A business’s food safety culture is a reflection of the importance of food safety to its leadership. Leaders are responsible for identifying food safety goals, engaging the entire staff in the food safety strategy, holding employees accountable for following the rules and empowering employees to raise food safety concerns.
The highest levels of management set expectations for everyone in the business; clear and consistent messaging from the top is important, but it is more important that management is seen “walking the talk” and leading by example.
Employees are watching; if a Food Handler sees someone else, especially someone at a higher level than them, taking shortcuts or making questionable decisions — decisions based on the bottom line and not food safety — it’s easy for them to decide that these are acceptable behaviours. If management doesn’t follow their own rules, employees will learn that your 'commitment' to food safety applies only to situations where it is easy or convenient to do so.
This can have disastrous results — because it’s harder to do the right thing when it comes to food safety. There are extra steps involved to ensure that surfaces and equipment are properly cleaned and sanitised; to check and double check the quality and safety of the food that is prepared; to communicate food safety concerns; and to take corrective actions, especially if those actions will have a short-term negative impact on the business or the day’s operations.
Management can demonstrate a sincere commitment to food safety by:
- positioning food safety as non-negotiable
- investing in training and certification of all employees who handle food in the business
- supporting decisions based on food safety regardless of financial impact
- recognising and giving credit to employees who follow food safety best practices
- empowering and encouraging employees to raise concerns about food safety
- establishing formal protocols for employees to report food safety concerns
- taking an active role during food safety training sessions
- providing incentives for employees who exceed the expectations of management
Fostering a positive attitude when it comes to health inspections or customer complaints deserves a special mention in this section. If management thinks of Health Inspectors (or disgruntled customers) as the enemy, so will the team. As the food business owner or manager, it is important that you have a positive attitude when it comes to receiving negative feedback.
Feedback, whether it’s from an Inspector or a customer, can help you to identify opportunities where your business, your team and/or your processes can improve. If you are communicating to your team that an inspection or complaint is something to be afraid of, you do not have a positive food safety culture.
Food safety is best achieved through training and education. People learn differently; some people retain information best through listening (having something explained to them), others are visual learners (having something demonstrated to them) and others learn best from hands-on activities (doing the thing themselves). No matter what their learning style, repetition and continuous exposure to the information is the key to making it stick.
We recommend taking a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to traditional Food Handler training and certification courses, find ways to build five-minute training sessions into your weekly — or even daily — schedule. Put your business’s goals and expectations in writing and display them prominently in various stations in your food business.
Use visual cues to remind employees to do (and how to do) various tasks in the business. For example:
- hand washing poster in the staff bathroom
- cleaning and sanitising infographic above the dish sink
- cleaning agents cheat sheet in your chemical storage area
- safe food cooking temperatures fact sheet in your hot food station (we recommend laminating it)
- recommended food storage times poster in your walk in cooler
- information about food allergens and how to identify them on product food labels
These should be clear and easy-to-follow. Take the time to think about what resources will make each job easier to perform. If you were a cook on the line, what might make your job easier?
As part of your strategy, it’s important to communicate the importance of food safety to everyone in the business and return to that conversation often; the more often you highlight your business’s expectations, the more likely they are to stick in the minds of the people who hold your business’s reputation in their hands every day — your Food Handlers.
AIFS Members get the resources they need to keep food safety front-of-mind in a food business. Find out more about AIFS Membership.
Measure Your Success
Measuring helps you to understand if your efforts to foster a positive food safety culture in your restaurant have been achieved or if you need to reconsider and adjust your strategy. If you don’t measure, how can you know if your strategy is working?
Some examples of what and how you can measure are:
- observing employee behaviour when following standard procedures
- reviewing health inspection reports
- evaluating the frequency of customer complaints and how they were resolved
- reviewing documentation of corrective actions that have been taken in the business
- assessing employee knowledge of food safety best practices
- assessing employee understanding of food safety goals and priorities of the company
Change may be slow at first — especially if you’re struggling against an existing food safety culture — but don’t lose hope. Change can and will happen over time; if you need help to take your food safety culture to the next level, get in touch with us.
AIFS is committed to making food safer for Australians by improving the food safety skills of food workers; we support Food Handlers and managers in all types of food businesses across Australia.
About the Australian Institute of Food Safety
As Australia’s largest provider of food safety education, the Australian Institute of Food Safety is dedicated to helping organisations protect their business and their customers from food-borne illness.
As a community focused organisation we deliver public health information to food businesses and consumers in order to improve food safety throughout Australia.
AIFS delivers nationally recognised training that meets all federal and state compliance requirements related to food safety. This includes Food Safety Supervisor and Food Handler compliance training.
The mission of the Australian Institute of Food Safety is to reduce food-borne illness within Australia by educating, advocating and promoting food safety.