Can We Measure Culture?

Departments - Consumer Perspectives

December 8, 2017

DARIN DETWILER, Assistant Dean; Northeastern University College of Professional Studies; Boston, Mass.

Audience size, approval ratings, votes, gun deaths, stock values, quarterly earnings.... Elected officials and news reports provide an increasing amount of data to support their narratives. We are offered comparisons and rebuttals. We want to see where our state or our political party stands on these statistics.

In our current world of quality assurance, the “Culture of Food Safety” takes up a dominant amount of conference agendas. I believe this is for a good reason: we cannot easily deal with food safety concerns if they are otherwise invisible to the eyes of those in the industry.

From a consumer’s perspective, a culture of food safety is something that should have been around all along, not simply a movement that has grown over the last 25 years. The majority of food companies — the ones that always did prioritize a mission of safe food — did so without a sign or declaration of this culture. Perhaps this unrecognized stance allowed others in the industry to perceive that food safety was not a priority for all.

Food Safety Culture is not a quality that is easily measured. At multiple conferences over the past three years, Wholesome International Chief Food Safety Officer and QA Editorial Board Member Jorge Hernandez has shared many thoughts about the difficulty of analyzing a “culture.” He described it as “something in the air, but you can’t easily define it.” However, his views on leadership reflect what consumers perceive the culture would be: “Expectations from day one…from the ground up…to the last employee…to support food safety all the way to the end.”

While some industry leaders tend to discuss reacting to audit reports, gap assessments, and data-driven decision-making, others paint a realistic picture of data surrounding a Culture of Food Safety, saying that it is very hard to measure. We need to take into consideration the notion that while executives are asking, “How do you measure commitment?” most employees on the production line are asking, “Do I have a job or not?”

Evaluating a Culture of Food Safety requires far more than any single measure. Unfortunately, the numbers that have long been most tangible are illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. To compare one food safety failure to another based on these numbers offers little in terms of condolences to those families who, unlike the stock values or profits of the company that failed their consumers, will never “return to normal.”

So how do we measure a Culture of Food Safety? State and federal regulators have long measured compliance, but, again, this is only a measure of one set of factors at one point in time — and compliance (or lack thereof) is not always shared with consumers.

I stop by the food court at the train station on a weekly basis — not to eat there, but to point out to one restaurant its failure to post its sanitary inspection grade as required by a city statute. While the others in the food court post their grades of “A” from the city’s inspection department, this one cannot display an “A” because it failed its inspection. However, this doesn’t shut down the restaurant. It still operates without posting its grade because it doesn’t want consumers to know that it did not pass its sanitary inspection.

Time after time, consumers are left in the dark about a restaurant’s inability to pass an inspection or a recalled product still being available for sale. Take, for example the recent discovery that had still been selling I.M. Healthy soy nut butter months after federal officials had recalled product due to an E. coli outbreak — which raised serious concerns. Section 216 of the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act specifically prohibits the sale of recalled products. Consumers assume that if an item is for sale, including online, that it has not been recalled.

Many say that this culture is not a science, but some sort of art. Do we measure empowerment? Advocacy? Acceptance? Engagement? Again — many qualities sound good on paper, but are not measurable. We learned in 2015 that we cannot measure a company’s Food Safety Culture simply because it advertises its products as “food with integrity.”

Perhaps the only way we can truly measure a Culture of Food Safety is by the number of industry leaders who are willing to publicly prioritize and act on this culture on a regular basis. We too often hear, “Now is not the time to talk about new laws” immediately after a tragedy. But, unfortunately, CDC statistics show that each day, on average, 131,000 Americans become ill, 350 Americans are hospitalized, and eight Americans die from failures in our food safety systems.

For those victims and their families — and for the next victims — the rest of their lives will be forever touched by the weakest links in our Culture of Food Safety.