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In the food industry, this optimistic bias where food safety is commonly taken for granted is high risk on all levels: wherein top management and workers are complicit thereby believing nothing will happen. This mindset is sometimes erroneously supported in the idea, if it hasn’t happened before why will it happen now. 

4 Challenges to cultivate positive Food Safety Culture


In recent years, the pressure for companies to develop a Food Safety Culture has increased (Legal and customer requirements, GFSI, etc.). With so much happening at the same time, it’s only fair that food safety professionals and companies seek support in initiating and developing a positive Food Safety Culture.


Food industry organizations must be in charge of their Food Safety Culture journey to ensure it best promotes and assures safe food to consumers. I don’t advise you to play Russian roulette with Food Safety Culture as not only you will get hurt…  but the consumers’ health and your organization’s reputation are on the line. (And neither do you want to unintentionally cultivate a toxic Food Safety Culture.)


There are four main challenges in cultivating a positive Food Safety Culture. First, there is a novelty in developing a systematic and measurable framework for promoting positive food safety culture characteristics, as there are limited references on effective approaches. Second, changing attitudes and behaviors within an existing organizational culture can be challenging, considering the various factors that influence it. Third, monitoring positive Food Safety Culture is not straightforward, as there is no direct, objective, and bias-free measurement system. Finally, consistency is crucial, as culture change is a journey that requires sustained efforts over time.

In recent years we have seen so many publications, workshops, debates, conferences looking to suggest tools and how to measure Food Safety Culture. I believe these tools and metrics will be effective, AFTER we establish in everyone the appropriate positive Food Safety MINDSET. The I’m a SLO (Saving Lives Officer) mindset should be the starting point of your Food Safety Culture Journey.


Optimistic Bias – Food Safety “like air” mindset


As I always say, starting the positive Food Safety Culture Journey is easy, but it doesn’t mean it’s simple. Based on my recent experience working with businesses and talking with food safety professionals, I came up with a path to support you and your business on this journey. This journey starts by working on the mindset and only then move forward to other steps. The 3 steps I envision to cultivate a positive Food Safety Culture are on my just published e-book: I’m a SLO – The Mindset and Framework to Cultivate a Positive Food Safety Culture. Buy the e-book here.


The big question is how do we motivate people to behave the way they are supposed to even when no one is looking? How can you direct people do what they are supposed to do just because it is the right thing to do? We need to change paradigms and give everyone a strong enough WHY to wake up every day with energy and drive and, at the end of the day, come back proudly to their families.


Back in 2019, I published the video Become a SLO (Saving Lives Officer). In my mind, Food Safety Professionals shall change whatever they have on their business cards to SLO. Most of us believe our job is to check if people are using hair nets, if they are filling records, if they are properly washing their hands, etc. With this in mind, how can we wake in the morning with the energy and drive to face one more day? Those tasks must be done (thank you all for doing that every day), but it must be clear that these are only tools we use to achieve our highest purpose. We, Food Safety Professionals are in the business of Saving Human’s Lives. We are SLOs.


Another important thing we have to change is the “Food Safety like air” mindset. When was the last time you asked “Do I need more air?”. You know that to be alive you need to breathe air, so why is such a basic requirement for survival not a priority for our brain?  Think on this: every time we enter a room, do we ask, “Is there is enough air in the room?”


Our brain is always working to keep us alive in the most efficient way. The brain consumes a lot of energy. It is estimated that an adult brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy in contrast to the adult brain is only 3% average of the body weight. For this reason, the brain is always looking to support our efforts to survive while saving as much energy as possible. One trick our brains use is to reduce our focus span whilst simultaneously ignoring distractions that are not important or that we are not focusing on.


When the brain acknowledges that air is a ubiquitous element in the environment, there is no need to waste brain energy to question if adequate air is present or direct focus to it. You can do an experiment that will illustrate this clearly. Next time you are enjoying a relaxing moment near a pool, I am positive you may be thinking of many things but certainly not: “Do I need more air?”. My suggestion is the following: if you know how to swim, jump into the pool and dive to the bottom. Wait there for a while and I am sure that (depending on your scuba diving breathing capabilities) sooner than later the ONLY thing that will be on your mind is “I need more air!”.


In the food industry, this optimistic bias where food safety is commonly taken for granted is high risk on all levels: wherein top management and workers are complicit thereby believing nothing will happen. This mindset is sometimes erroneously supported in the idea, if it hasn’t happened before why will it happen now.


I’m a SLO – The starting point of the Food Safety Culture journey


SLO Mindset First, then the tools. What you should know right away is that there is no magic pill that can change the Culture you already have, to the positive Food Safety Culture you would like to have, in a day. Prepare for a journey. The good thing is that you are not alone and hopefully you join a movement of Food Safety Professionals who proudly say “I’m a SLO”.

The 3 steps I envision to cultivate a positive Food Safety Culture are on my just published e-book: I’m a SLO – The Mindset and Framework to Cultivate a Positive Food Safety Culture. You can get the e-book here


Much has been written on Food Safety Culture, especially in the last decade. Three of the most relevant documents are certainly the GFSI’s Guidance Document for Developing Food Safety Culture (2018), Codex Alimentarius General Principles of Food Hygiene (2020 version) and the EU Commission Regulation 2021/382 which in 2021 added an annex on Food Safety Culture to Regulation (EC) 852/2004. This regulation enforced the need for Food Business Operators (FBOs) to establish, maintain and provide evidence of an appropriate Food Safety Culture in the EU.


In all those documents, evidences of a positive food safety culture can be assessed looking to different dimensions. In the figure below, the 5 dimensions proposed by Codex Alimentarius and used in the EU Commission Regulation are presented.



The initial advice I give when I’m working with my clients is to describe what these dimensions mean to them. Codex and the EU Commission Regulation provide brief descriptions but a more detailed explanation of the business expectations for each dimension is necessary to enable the assessment.


I have noticed in my experience that most of the time employees have different visions and perceptions about the organization depending on where they work. Probably this kind of assessment will have different results depending whether employees work on the plant floor or at the management level. This is why in my opinion it would be an error to average the survey results. Moreover, the questions used in the assessment should be adapted to the two different levels.


For this reason, I include in this framework a 2-level assessment. Organizations should prepare different surveys for front line workers and for managers. Results will be evaluated separately but should be compared. In the case of very different results the organization should assess why there is perception gap for a specific dimension. If you believe a 2 levels assessment, at least on the first years of your journey, will be confusing, by all means use the same survey for everyone.


The last stage of the framework is to follow Key Performance Indicators KPIs that indirectly measure the impact Food Safety Culture has in the organization’s performance. Examples of KPIs that can be used are: Participation in Food Safety Trainings, Knowledge of Food Safety Risks, Food Safety Budget, etc. If organizations’ already have KPIs defined, it is worth the work to assess if they can be correlated with any of the dimensions before starting to create new KPIs, at least in the first years of the Food Safety Culture journey. This would look like a reverse engineering exercise where from the KPI we identify which Food Safety Culture dimension(s) impact the KPI.

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  1. Radionuclides: Radioactive isotopes of elements (radionuclides) are naturally present in the environment, and that includes our bodies and our food and water. We are exposed to radiation (also known as background radiation) from these radionuclides on a daily basis. Radiation comes from space (i.e., cosmic rays) as well as from naturally-occurring radioactive materials (radionuclides) found in the soil, water and air. Radioactivity can be detected in food and water and the concentration of naturally-occurring radionuclides varies depending on several factors such as local geology, climate and agricultural practices.

  1. Radionuclides Rule: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates radionuclides in drinking water to protect public health. Radionuclides in water at amounts greater than the drinking water standards may cause health problems. On December 7, 2000, EPA published the Radionuclides Final Rule. The new rule revised the radionuclides regulation, which had been in effect since 1977. The revisions set new monitoring requirements for community water systems (CWS). This ensured customers receive water meeting maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for radionuclides in drinking water.
  2. The United States Food and Drug Administration is a federal agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.–Hazard-Analysis-and-Risk-Based-Preventive-Controls-for-Human-Food—Potential-Hazards-Associated-with-the-Manufacturing–Processing–Packing–and-Holding-of-Human-Food-%28Chapter-3%29-Download.pdf

This article was written by:

Nuno F. Soares

Contributing Editor: Jocelyn C. Lee, Food Safety Consultant

Disclaimer: The information contained on this article is based on research done in the last months and the authors personal experience and opinion. It is not intended to represent the view of any organization they work for or collaborate with. The authors will not be held liable for the use or misuse of the information provided in the article.

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