FDA's Pursuit of Food Safety Culture

In today's food industry, ensuring safety and quality is paramount.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing Writer

May 16, 2024

6 Min Read
FDA's Food Safety Culture
FDA offers various resources on a mature food culture, including food safety courses and webinars.zimmytws / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

In a recent webinar, the US Food & Drug Administration mentioned several tools that could be helpful in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks including predictive analytics, the use of intuitive and effective data sharing systems, artificial intelligence, genome tracker, and virtual reality assisted training.

Yet while FDA is pursuing multiple pathways to reducing foodborne illness outbreaks, food safety culture is a recurring theme in this webinar and across several other webinars the agency held in conjunction with the organization Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness.

Food Safety Responsibility

As FDA holds manufacturers’ and suppliers’ management responsible for food safety, it’s likely too that FDA will hold a company’s food safety culture accountable too. In fact, food safety culture is core element 4 of the New Eara of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint, a 10-year plan to create a safer food system. There are three other core elements: tech-enabled traceability, smarter prevention and outbreak response, and new business models and retail modernization.

Chris Waldrop, senior health scientist, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, spoke during the April 24, 2024, webinar held by FDA. “We included food safety culture as part of our new era of smarter food safety because we recognize that in order to make dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne disease, we need to do more to influence what employees think about food safety and how they show a commitment to this goal in their everyday work. Food safety is the result of individual and collective behaviors, and behaviors stem from attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and values of both individuals and organizations.”

He said that FDA wants to support efforts to make food safety a social norm across the food industry, to promote a food safety culture throughout the food system and, as importantly, throughout FDA. “We want to lead by example,” he said.

One of the first steps the agency took in understanding what a food safety culture means was an examination of the literature where they found a consensus on the definition of the term: “the aggregation of the prevailing, relatively constant, learned, shared attitudes, values, and beliefs contributing to the hygiene behaviors used within a particular food handling environment and general agreements on the determinants of a strong and effective food safety culture.”

FDA also found in the report determinants of a strong and effective food safety culture, such as leadership, communication, commitment to food safety, risk awareness, and more. However, while FDA learned the basic concepts of food safety culture, the agency found that more research is needed to quantitatively demonstrate the connection between food safety culture and food safety outcomes. “We're pretty confident that a mature food safety culture leads to positive food safety outcomes,” Waldrop said.

“So what data can we rely on to demonstrate that in a quantitative way? We think new data could really help inform our work on food safety culture. And that is the linkage between food safety culture and food safety performance. Are there ways we can look at data from the food industry that's anonymized or disaggregated and use machine learning and AI to explore that correlation between food safety and culture maturity? With enough data, what insights can we learn about the development of food safety measures? How can we better understand the drivers to food safety and food safety culture performance? So that's an area we'd like to explore further," he added.

As FDA explores these questions and others, Waldrop said the agency would love input on how best FDA can continue to support and foster industry efforts in this space.

Food Safety Education

In terms of developing their own food safety culture, the agency developed a training course for their investigators and other FDA staff. “This was an introductory course designed to expose FDA staff to the concepts of food safety culture,” Waldrop explained.

“The course looked at a number of different issues including how you identify whether a firm has a good food safety culture and how to know the difference between a food safety program and a food safety culture. Now this wasn't designed as a course so our investigators could begin inspecting a firm for food safety culture, rather the course serves as a food safety culture one-on-one so we could begin socializing the idea within FDA," he added.

Over 1,200 FDA staff in human and animal foods programs have been trained. The course is available to FDA’s federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners as well.

Additionally, FDA collaborated on an 11-part webinar series with Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness. Nearly 23,000 people registered for the series.

“We explored a range of issues such as how to build a coalition of food safety culture champions across your organization,” Waldrop continued. “We talked about the importance of measuring food safety culture and provided some ways that you might be able to do it. We talked about storytelling and the importance that can play in shaping and reinforcing messages and inspiring employees.

And we talked about how food safety culture and food safety management systems work together to improve food safety. And because people learn in different ways, we've also been posting white papers after each webinar that summarizes the content and highlights the key points of what was talked about in that webinar. These are all downloadable from FDA's website.”

In the January2024 webinar held in conjunction with Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness, Dr. Conrad Choiniere, director, Office of Analytics and Outreach, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition talked about FDA’s journey as it relates to food safety culture. Important questions were raised: How are food safety culture principles applied both internally within the agency as well as through the agency’s external interactions with stakeholders? More to the point, what does food safety culture mean as a regulator?

Ultimately, one wonders what food safety culture means to organizations subject to regulations. How will culture be evaluated and quantified during FDA inspections?

Food Safety Management

Third-party audits and regulatory inspections often look at systems. Former FDA deputy commissioner Frank Yiannas noted the difference between food safety management systems and employee knowledge of food safety practices in his book "Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System."

“While having a food safety management system is critical, food safety culture looks beyond just processes to human behavior," he said.

In webinar 10 of the series, Choiniere noted confusion about the difference between food safety culture and food safety management systems. “I have noted that confusion also exists within the agency,” he said. “But I don't want to say that in a way to minimize or degrade the importance of food safety management systems. In fact, FDA has done some research on the impact that food safety management systems can have and the benefits that food safety management systems have on food safety behaviors.”

FDA conducted a 10-year retail study called the Retail Food Risk Factor Study that took place over a 10-year period to detect trends in certain behaviors. Those with food safety management systems routinely fared better in terms of compliance with specific types of food safety behaviors. “In this study, FDA measured compliance in terms of personal hygiene behaviors, dealing with contaminated equipment, looking at improper holding and temperature, as well as behaviors related to cooking,” Choiniere said.

“Not only was it shown that having a food safety management system helpful, but the quality of the food safety management system also mattered. Those that had better, or highly developed, food safety management systems scored even higher. In my mind, the food safety management system gets at the ‘what’ we should be doing, but the food safety culture gets at the ‘why,’” he added.

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing Writer

Cindy Hazen has decades of experience in the food industry in R&D and quality control. She is a food safety officer for a Memphis, TN-based distributor, as well as a food safety auditor. Cindy is PCQI, HACCP, and ISO 22000 trained.

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