Why Food Safety Culture Matters

Building a strong food safety culture is one of the most important things a business can do. Find out why it matters and how you can improve the food safety culture in your business.
Why Food Safety Culture Matters
June 10, 2022

What is a food safety culture?

A business's culture is made up of shared values and unwritten norms that influence the behaviour of everyone in the business. The everyday behaviours of management and employees are a reflection of your business's culture.

A business with a strong food safety culture demonstrates to its employees and customers that making safe food is an important commitment, not just something to be discussed at a weekly meeting.

In a business with a good food safety culture:

  • Food Handlers know what is expected of them and how to do their job properly
  • Food Handlers follow proper procedures, even if it’s more difficult or no one is watching
  • Management makes decisions based on food safety and not just the bottom line
  • Food Handlers are engaged and encouraged to report food safety concerns to management

In a business with a negative food safety culture (or a food safety culture that needs work), you may notice:

  • Management fails to monitor or correct risky behaviours or poor personal hygiene
  • Food Handlers show a lack of interest in personal hygiene, particularly when it comes to hand washing
  • Food Handlers don’t always know the right thing to do and don’t feel comfortable asking
  • Management only demonstrates a commitment to food safety if it is convenient and doesn’t affect the bottom line

Your business doesn’t run on a set of rules and procedures — though you certainly need those as well — it’s run by people. Your people: the Food Handlers, managers, supervisors and other employees who work in and make decisions that impact the business every day.

What is the responsibility of management?

A business’s food safety culture is a reflection of the importance of food safety to its leadership. Managers are responsible for identifying food safety goals, ensuring that Food Handlers are trained in safe food handling techniques, and ensuring the business is compliant with food safety laws and regulations. Laws and regulations vary, depending on location, and can evolve over time. For example, California has a requirement that all alcohol servers and their managers complete Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) Training and obtain California RBS Certification by July 1st, 2022. As a manager, it is critical to stay current on compliance requirements, as well as hold employees accountable for following the rules and empowering them to raise food safety concerns.

Clear and consistent messaging from the top is important, but it is even more important that management “walks the talk” and leads by example. By establishing policies and procedures that place a higher emphasis on food safety, you can achieve positive and lasting change that benefits everyone in the business — including yourself!

As an owner, manager or supervisor you are responsible for:

  • Providing a suitable environment, equipment and tools that are in good condition and easy to clean
  • Making it easy for Food Handlers to perform critical food safety tasks without disrupting workflow
  • Creating policies and procedures that provide clear instructions for how to make food safely
  • Providing food safety training and resources to ensure employees know how to handle food safely
  • Complying with food safety laws and regulations as they pertain to Food Handler certification
  • Identifying opportunities to improve food safety best practices and procedures
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the business's Food Safety Plan and food safety culture
  • Monitoring and evaluating staff behaviour

How to improve the food safety culture in your business


To succeed in your efforts to build a strong food safety culture, everyone in the business must understand their role in food safety and why it's important. Invest in food safety training and make sure that everyone understands their role, why it’s important and what your expectations are.

Each team needs to have its own routine, set of rules and documentation that is customized to the tasks they perform. It's risky, and a little unfair, to assume that employees will know how to do the best job if “best” is never properly defined for them.


It's also up to you to make sure that employees understand the risks of improper food handling or poor hygiene (food poisoning and life-threatening allergic reactions, for example) — and understand that there are consequences for non-compliance.

When employees are held accountable for following established food safety policies and procedures, they are more likely to do the right thing, even when no one’s watching. But don't make it all about the consequences; instead, focus on how your employees will benefit from a strong food safety culture.

A safe food business is more likely to be successful, and a successful food business is in everybody's best interest. Employees who commit to doing the right thing for the business can reasonably expect to make more money (better tips, more shifts, more tables), as well as take pride in their work and the business they work for.

When everyone in your food business is working towards one goal, you will see the lasting and positive change that can have a huge impact on all aspects of the business.


Employees are watching; if an employee sees someone else, especially someone at a higher level, taking shortcuts or making questionable decisions — decisions based on the bottom line and not food safety — it's easy for them to decide that these are acceptable behaviours. If management doesn’t follow their own rules, employees will learn that your “commitment” to food safety applies only to situations where it is easy or convenient to do so.

This can have disastrous results — because it’s harder to do the right thing when it comes to food safety. There are extra steps involved to ensure that surfaces and equipment are properly cleaned and sanitized; to check and double-check the quality and safety of the food that is prepared; to communicate food safety concerns; and to take corrective actions, especially if those actions will have a short-term negative impact on the business or the day's operations.

Management can demonstrate a sincere commitment to food safety by:

  • Positioning food safety as non-negotiable
  • Investing in training and certification of all employees who handle food in the business
  • Supporting decisions based on food safety regardless of the financial impact
  • Recognizing and giving credit to employees who follow food safety best practices
  • Empowering and encouraging employees to raise concerns about food safety
  • Establishing formal protocols for employees to report food safety concerns

It’s important to demonstrate a positive attitude when it comes to health inspections or customer complaints. If management thinks of health inspectors or disgruntled customers as the enemy, so will the team. Have an open mind and a positive attitude when it comes to receiving negative feedback.


Food safety is best achieved through ongoing training and education — repetition is the key to making it stick.

Take a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to traditional training and certification courses, find ways to build five-minute training sessions into your daily schedule. Put your business's goals and expectations in writing and display them in the business.

Use visual cues to remind employees to do (and how to do) various tasks in the business. For example:

  • Hand washing poster in the staff bathroom
  • Cleaning agents cheat sheet in your chemical storage area
  • Safe food cooking temperatures fact sheet in your hot food station (we recommend laminating it)
  • Recommended food storage times poster in your walk-in cooler
  • Information about food allergens and how to identify them on product food labels

Be sure to communicate the importance of food safety to everyone in the business and return to that conversation often. The more you repeat your message, the more likely it is to stick in the minds of the people who hold your business's reputation in their hands every day — your Food Handlers.

CIFS members get the resources they need to keep food safety front-of-mind in a food business. The good news is Membership is free for a year after completing a CIFS Food Handler Certification Course.

Food safety culture assessment 

Measurement helps you to understand how you’re doing in terms of building a strong food safety culture. If you don't measure, how do you know if your strategy is working?

Some examples of what and how you can measure are:

  • Observing employee behaviour when following standard procedures
  • Reviewing health inspection reports
  • Evaluating the frequency of customer complaints and how they were resolved
  • Reviewing documentation of corrective actions that have been taken in the business
  • Assessing employee knowledge of food safety best practices
  • Assessing employee understanding of food safety goals and priorities of the company

Distribute this quiz to your employees, supervisors and other managers to do a quick “health check” on your food safety culture. It’s a simple survey using a points system, but you’ll be amazed by the insights you’ll be able to get from the responses.

Change may be slow at first — especially if you're struggling against an existing food safety culture — but don't lose hope. Change can and will happen over time; if you need help to take your food safety culture to the next level, get in touch. CIFS is a leading provider of online food safety training for thousands of food businesses and food workers across Canada.

Frequently Asked Questions

What specific steps can managers take to foster a positive food safety culture among new employees?

There are several actions managers can take in order to create a positive food safety culture among new employees. Here are some examples:

  • Orientation and Training: Introduce new employees to food safety protocols and expectations right from their induction. Provide comprehensive training that covers all aspects of safe food handling, hygiene and compliance with food safety regulations.
  • Mentoring and Monitoring: Pair new employees with experienced staff who can mentor them on the nuances of food safety in the workplace. Regularly monitor their performance to ensure they are adhering to food safety practices.
  • Clear Communication: Maintain open lines of communication where new employees feel comfortable asking questions and discussing food safety concerns without fear of repercussion.
  • Role Modeling: Lead by example. Managers should demonstrate food safety practices in their actions, reinforcing the importance of these standards.
  • Feedback and Incentives: Provide constructive feedback and recognize employees who adhere to food safety practices, potentially with incentives for exemplary behaviour.

These steps help in building a robust food safety culture that engages new employees from the outset.

What specific challenges do businesses face when trying to shift from a poor to a strong food safety culture?

Businesses shifting from a poor to a strong food safety culture face several challenges:

  • Resistance to Change: Employees may resist new practices, especially if they are accustomed to doing things a certain way. Overcoming this inertia requires persistent effort and communication.
  • Cost of Implementation: Upgrading facilities and training staff can be costly. Businesses must invest in proper equipment, training and sometimes even in restructuring the workflow, which can be a significant financial burden.
  • Lack of Immediate Results: Changes in culture take time to embed and show tangible results, which can be discouraging for both management and staff.
  • Consistency Across Shifts: Ensuring that all employees, regardless of shift or position, follow the new protocols consistently poses a logistical challenge.
  • Communication Barriers: Effective communication is critical, but language barriers, differing levels of understanding and inadequate feedback mechanisms can hinder progress.

Addressing these challenges effectively is crucial for a successful transition to a robust food safety culture.

How can businesses measure and track the effectiveness of their food safety culture improvements over time?

Businesses can measure and track the effectiveness of their food safety culture improvements over time through several methods:
  • Employee Surveys and Feedback: Regularly distribute surveys to gauge employees' understanding and commitment to food safety practices.
  • Observations and Audits: Conduct routine observations and audits to assess adherence to food safety protocols across different shifts and departments.
  • Incident Tracking: Monitor and record any food safety incidents or near misses, analyzing them for trends or areas needing improvement.
  • Training Assessments: Evaluate the effectiveness of food safety training programs by testing employee knowledge and practical skills.
  • Health Inspection Results: Review results from health inspections to identify areas of non-compliance and improvement.
    Customer Feedback: Collect and analyze customer feedback regarding food safety and hygiene to gauge external perceptions of the business’s food safety culture.

These tools help in continuously improving and maintaining a strong food safety culture.