Maintaining a food safety culture

Kimberly Carey
6 February, 23
With risk factors for the global food supply chain increasing, food producers need to rethink their approach to risk rather than simply hold to what has always been done.

With risk factors for the global food supply chain increasing, food producers need to rethink their approach to risk rather than simply hold to what has always been done. Here, Kimberly Coffin, Global Technical Director – Supply Chain Assurance at LRQA, discusses the actions businesses can take to proactively mitigate the risks surrounding today’s food landscape.

According to the UK Food Standards Agency study in 2022, 90% of consumers are confident that the foods they buy are safe to eat. This is testament to how well the food industry has, by consumer perception, delivered on its commitment to providing safe food over what has been a rapid and continuously reactive period of change. Unfortunately, it seems that there is no end in sight. With ongoing supply and labour shortages as well as increasing consumer demands, the need for agility remains imperative. However, managing these additional factors cannot come at the expense of food safety.

Increasing Demands on Industry

Government and regulators are setting new standards while investors are refocusing on sustainable growth from reliable brands. Many are increasingly asking difficult questions of CEOs about the environmental impact of their products. Larry Fink, CEO of one of the world’s largest investment management companies talks about the companies that he invests in needing to have a ‘social purpose’ beyond profitmaking.

Due to geopolitical upheavals, ongoing environmental problems, and pandemic aftermath, supply chains are navigating new risks. These risks have the potential to impact cost, safety, environment, brand trust, non-compliance, and loss of revenue. For example, the World Health Organisation statistics suggest that the annual cost of treating foodborne illnesses each year tops $15 billion, while the average cost of a food recall event is estimated to be around $10 million. Along with keeping food uncontaminated, there are also ethical issues that the public have a growing interest in. Approximately £4 billion was lost in brand boycotts due to ethical issues in 2021, up 18% in a year, according to the COOP.

On top of ethical and contamination concerns, climate change is one of the biggest risk factors. Figures[1] suggest that a catastrophic 2°C global temperature rise by 2100 will be due to food related emissions alone. If environmental changes or other factors cause the supply chain to fail, the effects could be catastrophic. Yet the impact can also cause reputational damage.

In the face of these evolving challenges, businesses are being asked to deliver against a complex set of risk factors. Successful navigation of the current risk environment requires an advanced understanding of critical inter-relationships and dependencies that must be monitored and measured to deliver safe food.

Food Safety Fundamentals

Seemingly, the food industry has done a good job in managing new threats to supply and adapting operating models accordingly. Yet the number and nature of food recalls reported in 2022 is troubling. Foreign object contamination recalls are now as prevalent in weekly government reports as those related to undeclared allergens. Even more concerning is the size and scale, as well as operational impact, of recalls related to microbiological contamination. When viewed using a single lens it shows that a focus on food safety fundamentals has never been more important to delivering safe food and maintaining hard earned consumer trust. 

Overcoming the Challenges

In leading food manufacturing markets, Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification – largely credited for elevating global food safety standards over the past 15 years – is the norm. Such standards provide best practice benchmarks for food safety fundamentals including supplier approval, sanitation, employing an Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP) and critical processing controls. These controls include foreign object and allergen management, so the question is: what is driving the changing dynamic in food safety recalls? 

While many may suggest that the inability to verify compliance via audits over the last two years is the cause, it is more likely that almost all companies are working in a changed environment. For example, there may be less technical support on site, fewer personnel running the same number of production lines, new or expanded approved supplier lists, or increased focus on cost savings. In light of these changes, it is concerning that critical procedures and protocols for management of food safety fundamentals may not be keeping pace. It is vital that we regularly reassess our practises regarding the following points:

  • Why do we do what we do – is it truly essential to delivering safe food?
  • Are the procedures sustainable and do we have the resources to do what is required?
  • Do current monitoring methods provide a platform for data driven decisions?
  • Responsibilities and accountabilities for food safety – do we have the skills to deliver what is required?

As such, organisations must shift their thinking and really stress-test the historical ways of working for food safety management. For this to be successful, team members need to be engaged, and different departments must work collaboratively to identify best-fit solutions.

Closing Thoughts

It is crucial that businesses assess the suitability of methodologies and processes for managing food safety fundamentals in their new working environment. The time is now, if not already overdue, to lift the reactive short-term solutions that have been applied over the past two years. The food industry must re-evaluate the effectiveness of control measures in place and verify that existing procedures remain properly implemented and fit for purpose. As our risk landscape evolves, robust change management protocols have never been more important.


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