Traditional food safety management vs. behavior-based food safety management

Frank Yiannas, vp of food safety at Walmart and the author of the 2009 book, Food Safety Culture, penned a piece for GFSI’s (Global Food Safety Initiative) latest newsletter about why behavior-based food safety management is key to enhancing food safety. An edited excerpt is below:

The term food safety management system, as traditionally used, often refers to a system that includes having prerequisite programs in place, good manufacturing practices (GMPs), a Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Point plan, a recall procedure, and so on. It’s a very process focused system. A behavior-based food safety management system is process focused, but it’s also people focused.

At the end of the day, food safety equals behavior. And to improve the food safety performance of your organization, you have to change people’s behaviors.

Traditional food safety managers are focused on the principles of food safety, temperature control, and sanitation – the food sciences. They believe that managing these scientific principles will lead to food safety success.

Behavior-based food safety managers have mastery over the food sciences. But they understand that the food sciences are not enough. They understand that achieving food safety success requires not only an understanding of the food sciences, but of the behavioral sciences too. Accordingly, they are students of behavioral change theories, the behavioral sciences, and principles related to organizational culture.

Traditional food safety managers place an overemphasis on training and inspections in an attempt to change behavior and achieve results. They believe that desired behavior change can be achieved by simply training employees and inspecting processes and conditions against established standards. But as stated so elegantly by B.F. Skinner (1953), behavior is a difficult subject, not because it is inaccessible, but because it is extremely complex. While both of these activities (training and inspections) are important, behavior-based food safety managers realize they are not enough to achieve food safety success. They understand the complexity of behavior and, before jumping to an overly simplistic solution; they study and analyze the cause of the performance problem (lack of skill, ineffective work system, lack of motivation, etc) to propose the right solution.

Traditional food safety management often addresses specific food safety concerns and strategies in isolation or as individual components, not as a whole or complete system. In other words, it approaches food safety with a sort of linear cause-and-effect thinking. Behavior-based food safety management realizes that this sort of linear cause-and-effect thinking is not fully adequate to address complex issues related to an organization’s food safety culture or an employee’s adherence to food safety practices.

Behavior-based food safety management understands that there are numerous factors (physical, organizational, personal) that affect performance and they consider the totality of the numerous activities an organization may conduct and how they are linked together to influence people’s thoughts and behaviors.

Traditional food safety management relies on formal authority to accomplish objectives. Food safety managers get others to follow them or their program because they have authority over them and hold them accountable to the rules. Behavior-based food safety managers also use a system of checks and balances, but they use them differently. For example, they use them to observe employee behaviors related to food safety, give feedback and coaching (both positive and negative) based on the results, and provide motivation for continuous improvement.

More importantly, behavior-based food safety managers have figured out a way to go beyond accountability. They’ve figured out a way to get employees at all levels of the organization to do the right things, not because they’re being held accountable to them, but because they believe in and are committed to food safety. They create a food safety culture.

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About Douglas Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here. Dr. Douglas Powell editor, retired professor, food safety 3/289 Annerley Rd Annerley, Queensland 4103 61478222221 I am based in Brisbane, Australia, 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time