Comment: How to get food culture into the board room

Food safety

Published on 11 October 2018

With two recent deaths alleged to be linked to allergic reactions to ingredients in sandwiches and the Government "urgently" reviewing food safety and labelling laws, a Sunderland academic says the whole food industry needs to look at its culture of working practices.

Dr Derek Watson, a senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland whose research focuses on food safety cultural compliance, believes the food sector is failing to win the war against food contamination.

“Such failings are not ring fenced to third world micro businesses but include first world multi nationals who invest significant revenues in the pursuit of food safety” he says.

“Before those executive decision makers in grey suits shake their fingers at the title of this article, reflect on the key issues; the statistics are more than concerning with over a million cases of food poisoning that result in approximately 430 deaths in the UK.

Dr Watson says tragedies linked with incorrect labelling could sadly be replaced with a poisoning and or loss of life due to failures in food safety systems associated with chocolate, frozen vegetables, baby milk, etc.

He adds: “Having reflected on the statistics, we must ask the question: how effective are the food quality systems embedded in your organisation and when was the workforce asked the question of ‘if you were in charge what changes would you make to enhance food safety’?

“The stark reality is that employees are the first line of defence and a proactive food safety culture requires more that the attainment of a certified quality system. It necessitates the full and enduring support of their executive team, not just words but tangible commitment, such as: interactive food safety tours, active participation in food safety committees and a clear wiliness to network with employees to clearly communicate that their opinions are valued and not suppressed.

“The key challenge facing organisations concerning food safety culture is that senior management, historically, over anticipate the level of commitment and underappreciate the level of resources required to establish and maintain a proactive safety culture, in terms of control, co-operation, communication and competence.

“The reality is that an organisation’s proactive cultural plans often fail to gain traction due to work pressures and failing to nurture a proactive cultural mindset.

“Executives need to appreciate their pivotal role in the pursuit of a positive food culture. They ultimately have the power to regulate the company culture rather like a thermostat. It is the minority that fosters the culture that in turn affects the majority of the workforce. They are ultimately the cultural engines of the organisation.

“Failure to appreciate the importance of culture at a boardroom level will lead to breaches in food safety at the ultimate cost to the consumer.”

Dr Derek Watson Dr Watson is a senior lecturer in the University of Sunderland’s Institute of Business, Law and Tourism.

He is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, founder of the Faculty ‘Business Clinic’ and the Doctoral lead for the University’s ‘Research Fridays’ programme.

Dr Watson has experience of mapping skills requirements in emerging sectors. He also has extensive links and networks as a result of sourcing and embedding external engagement opportunities across the curriculum, with an international portfolio of clients and contacts, such as the British Cabinet Office, Indian Government Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Dubai Police and Canon International.

His research focuses on academic-industry collaboration, investigating the impact of knowledge exchange on practice and food safety cultural compliance.