Study Looks at Enhancing the Food Safety Culture to Reduce Foodborne Illness


If providing safe food is a priority, why do large outbreaks of foodborne illness keep happening? Incidents like 2010's salmonella-in-eggs outbreak sickened more than 1,900 across the U.S. and led to the recall of 500 million eggs. A new study by a Kansas State University professor and colleagues finds how the culture of food safety is practiced within an organization can be a significant risk factor in foodborne illness.

Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety at K-State, said how businesses and organizations operate above and beyond minimal food safety regulations and inspections, or their food safety culture, is often overlooked.

"You'd think making customers sick is bad for business, yet some firms go out of their way to ignore food safety," Powell says. "Some places are motivated by money and efficiencies. The amount of regulation, inspection and audits just doesnt seem to matter. And those 'Employees Must Wash Hands' signs don't really work."

Powell, along with Casey Jacob, a former K-State research assistant, and Ben Chapman, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, examined three food safety failures: an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Wales in 2005 that sickened 157 and killed one; a listeria outbreak in Canada in 2008 that sickened 57 and killed 23; and a salmonella outbreak in the U.S. in 2009 linked to peanut paste that killed nine and sickened 691.

Their study, "Enhancing Food Safety Culture to Reduce Rates of Foodborne Illness" is being published by the journal Food Control.

"Creating a culture of food safety requires application of the best science with the best management and communication systems," Chapman says. "Operators should know the risks associated with their products, how to manage them, and most important, how to communicate with and compel their staff to employ good practices -- it's a package deal."

According to the researchers, individuals focusing on food safety risks within an organization with a good food safety culture do the following:

- Know the risks associated with the foods they handle and how those should be managed;

- Dedicate resources to evaluate supplier practices;

- Stay up-to-date on emerging food safety issues;

- Foster a value system within the organization that focuses on avoiding illnesses;

- Communicate compelling and relevant messages about risk reduction activities, and empower others to put them into practice;

- Promote effective food safety systems before an incident occurs;

- Don't blame customers, including commercial buyers and consumers, when illnesses are linked to their products.

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