Despite efforts to establish food safety systems mostly in medium to large-sized food business operators (FBOs) in Kenya, food safety incidents are still a major problem that in many cases go unreported but also lead to wastage and losses, as well as reputational and health consequences.
It is wrongly assumed that food safety is just about processes and implementing food safety management systems (FSMS). That, once you do this, the safety of food processed, prepared and served, or retailed will be guaranteed.
Establishing an FSMS in your FBO is just one element. The other key component is creating and inculcating a food safety culture in your food business. By only focussing on FSMS without a concomitant change in the behaviour of staff and attitude of management towards food safety, is like buying a laptop or phone without the software to run it.
Food safety culture is what makes the food safety management system effective. Food safety is, therefore, more behavioural than system management.
According to a recent report, acute foodborne illness kills 5,000 people and sends 325,000 to the hospital each year in the United States alone. Financial cost to the US is an estimated 152 billion per year in healthcare and other economic losses.
Even though I have not come across similar data on Kenya, I would imagine the cost to our country due to foodborne illnesses is equally astronomical. The Foods and Drugs Administration of the US estimates that implementing food safety programmes will lead to nearly 1,000,000 fewer illnesses annually, saving the food industry in the US nearly $2 billion per year.
My dealings with small and medium food enterprises over the years in Africa has revealed a sense where food safety is sometimes perceived as an avoidable cost instead of an investment. Processors or food service providers and food retailers are cautious of increased costs when establishing food safety systems, especially in the short term.
The cost of implementing a food safety programme varies based on FBO size and segment of the food industry. But the basic processes would centre around prerequisite programmes and sanitation standard operating procedures as well as implementing hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plan and training of employees.
Additional costs may be incurred in obtaining and maintaining certification to internationally recognised food safety standard like ISO 22000 or FSSC 22000 among others. Although smaller FBOs may experience the most financial burden associated with implementing food safety programs, the benefits outweigh the costs in the long run.
The implementation of food safety practices must be considered as investments in the food industry and is key to long-term viability of FBOs.
Although cost may be pivotal in the decision to implement new processes, the long-term benefits associated with improved food safety, that include, fewer foodborne illnesses and reduced health care expenses, lower employee turn-over and loss of valuable man-hours, fewer litigation costs and loss of market share due to reputational decline, must also be considered.
An ineffective FSMS will undoubtedly also lead to food waste due to the food safety mishaps that lead to destruction or recalling of foods already in the market that is suspected to be contaminated, or reduced shelf lives due to food contaminated with spoilage microbes.
Even though it is impossible to guaranteed that as a FBO, you will not encounter food safety incidences, with an effective FSMS, you can proactively minimize the risk of safety concerns and make it an extremely rare occurrence, and with less severe consequences if it occurs.
So, how then do you improve the effectiveness of your food safety system? By shifting from merely establishing an FSMS to a behavioural-based FSMS, centred around creating a food safety culture in your enterprise.
Food safety culture is not necessarily a new concept but enterprises and professionals have tended to focus more on testing, inspection, auditing and establishing food safety management systems. But having well-defined standards and processes is not enough if the people factor is not integrated in the process.
Food safety culture focusses on changing people behaviour and the training on behavioural-based FSMS emphasises on the WHY in addition to the WHAT and HOW of food safety; it goes beyond systems and processes. A staff member is bound to do the right thing if they understand why they are doing something and the consequences of not doing it that way.
Food safety becomes second nature to them i.e. doing the right thing even when no one is watching. Similarly, the leadership and management of FBOs are also likely to invest resources and dedicate more time on food safety if they also understand the why and visualize the connection between food safety culture and cost-cutting.
If you are a FBO, you are not just in the business of producing, processing or preparing and retailing food but you are essentially in the business of food safety. Therefore, inculcating a food safety culture will lead to effective prevention, control and monitoring of food leading to a reduction in food safety-related breaches and consequently costs.
When the Food and Feed Control and Coordination bill eventually becomes law in Kenya, there will undoubtedly be a cost to compliance, to FBOs, but this should be considered as an investment that will translate to long-term savings.
The most important asset in FBOs is the food workers and therefore investing in education and training as well as integrating a strong food safety culture into the workforce and your FSMS is your ticket to sustained profitability.
It is a high time the food industry shifts from food safety management system to behaviour-based food safety management system with food safety culture as an integral element. That means training management and staff on how to integrate a food safety culture in all your processes. Remember, food safety equals behaviour.
Dr Liavoga is a Researcher and Food Safety Expert