5 ways to improve food safety

If customers don’t see employees wearing face masks, constantly cleaning and disinfecting, and practicing social distancing, they will leave and go elsewhere. Photo credit: kali9 / iStock / Getty Images Plus (Restaurant kitchen employer washing hands)

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed everything in our world, including the way we conduct business. To say that the hospitality industry has been hit hard is an understatement because people have been largely staying home due to coronavirus restrictions. Shutdowns, operating at limited capacity and new operational models are new territory for all of us. Even the definition of food safety culture has changed from “what you’re doing when no one is watching” to “what you do when everyone is watching.”  

Prepandemic, food safety protocols happened “behind the scenes.” Staff members took proper precautions to cook foods to proper temperatures, avoid cross-contamination, work only with reputable vendors, ensure their equipment was clean, etc. Customers didn’t pay much attention to what was happening, assuming they were served properly cooked meals prepared with clean hands.

Now, thanks to ongoing pandemic concerns, customers are watching more closely than ever before. They want to see evidence that your establishment takes safety protocols seriously and your employees are taking every precaution to reduce or eliminate risk. If they don’t see employees wearing face masks, constantly cleaning and disinfecting, and practicing social distancing, they will leave and go elsewhere. And they possibly won’t come back.

One way to move forward is doubling down on your food safety culture. Now, we must include the food safety protocols from B.C. (before COVID-19), plus follow all the new rules and regulations resulting from this pandemic. While the definition of food safety culture has expanded, its purpose remains the same: to reduce risk, ensure compliance, prioritize safety and boost the customer experience.

At this point, most companies have adopted the basic operations of our “new normal,” requiring employees and guests to wear face masks, enforcing social distancing, washing hands frequently, and cleaning and disinfecting often, using products proven to kill COVID-19. But here are five ways to enhance your food safety culture beyond the rules and regulations during this unprecedented time:

1. Include Food Safety Culture in Your CSR Plans 

Think of food safety culture as an essential part of your corporate social responsibility plans. Before the pandemic, customers were already trending toward choosing companies that ensure fair wages, guarantee safe working conditions, consider the environment with sustainability practices, and more. Now they’re watching to see how you’re treating and protecting your employees and guests during the pandemic. 

When you include food safety culture in your CSR plans, you’ll experience a trickle-down effect. If employees feel safe, customers will, too. Repeatedly demonstrate—through words and actions—that you prioritize health and safety.  Employees and customers are increasingly loyal to companies that take good care of them.

2. Treat Your Employees Well

Teamwork makes the dream work. Make sure your employees feel valued and appreciated. Location employees are the key to your success. They’re on the front lines with your customers and can make or break the customer experience. Treating them as valuable assets is critical to maximizing the organization’s performance.

Employees must fully understand your amplified food safety culture and why it’s so important. Instead of expecting employees to follow rules “because you said so,” help them understand the purpose behind what they’re doing. This encourages them to feel more invested in your food safety programs, gives them a sense of purpose and inspires them to contribute toward the common goal. 

3. Create a Supportive Compliance System

Is your compliance system tied to punishment or support? A punitive system often results in employees doing the bare minimum—just enough to avoid “getting into trouble.” Imagine instead that your new, elevated culture made them feel safe enough to be honest and forthcoming. If they feel comfortable reporting potential issues, they can help you catch the “small things” before they become big liabilities.

When you encourage reporting by removing punishment and offering assistance and attention instead, it makes it far easier for you or the person in charge to provide the right help, consistently keep your locations safe, and drive ongoing improvement. 

Ultimately, supportive systems encourage collaboration and trust, which leads to reduced risk and more proactive employees. 

4. Take a Holistic View

Another way to improve your food safety culture is doing more to gain a holistic, comprehensive perspective across your enterprise. In addition to this broad view, you also need the ability to drill down for deeper insights into specific regions and locations. When you make the effort to get both views, it becomes easier to see trends and hotspots, and you’ll know where your attention is needed most, from trainings to supply issues.  

Gaining this perspective is difficult at best, and in some cases impossible, if you’re using manual processes—such as paper, emails and spreadsheets—or if you’re using a tech solution that only does one thing, such as a checklist app. There are many quality management system software options that will provide valuable views, insights and benefits. 

5. Rethink Your Quality System Management Tools

Several things are causing hospitality and food service businesses to rethink the tools they use to manage quality systems. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration has announced a tech-forward Food Safety New Era Blueprint. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had created a demand for a visibility that requires more tech-forward, less manual processes.

Because many third-party audits have temporarily paused due to COVID-19 restrictions, an increasing number of companies are relying on frequent self-audits to get a better view of the health of their business across the entire enterprise. Whether you are an independently owned hotel with a single location or part of a national chain, the influx of data from self-audits is difficult to manage with paper checklists and spreadsheets. 

One huge benefit to tech solutions that I’ve seen during the pandemic is the ability to update rules, standards and other information to every location simultaneously, creating a single source of truth that employees know is up to date and accurate.  

The food and hospitality industries need more accurate, holistic insights to ensure the health of their businesses, employees and customers. And that’s something that only the right digital auditing tools and quality system software can provide. 

Now that the first panic of the pandemic is over, it’s time to slow down and think about how we can elevate our food safety culture plans. While we cannot predict what the future holds, one thing is clear: organizations must enhance their food safety cultures, consistently demonstrating to employees and customers that health and safety is their top priority. 

Kari Hensien is president of RizePoint.