Elevating Your Food Safety Culture to a “Safety First” Mentality

Written for GOJO USA  | Published 9/21/2020


Clearly, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all do business, and foodservice companies are no exception.

Food businesses had already been focused on food safety – such as avoiding cross-contamination, cooking foods at proper temperatures, storing foods properly, etc. Now there’s an amplified need to boost overall safety, health, and wellness in all efforts by using an additional set of guidelines dictated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to protect employees and guests from COVID-19.

Over the past few years, Chipotle has overhauled its food safety policies and procedures, significantly elevating its food safety culture, programs, and protocols. Through this effort, the national chain demonstrated to staff and customers that food safety was their top priority.

As a result, the chain is now widely viewed as having one of the best food safety programs, addressing even nonfood safety diseases like COVID-19. Chipotle was well prepared to handle the COVID-19 pandemic due to the progressive food safety protocols they’ve established over the past few years.

Some of the protocols Chipotle has put into place include advanced technology, ingredient traceability, enhanced restaurant procedures, restaurant inspections, and food safety certifications. Combined, these efforts help mitigate risks and ensure a safer and healthier environment for customers.

All foodservice establishments must elevate their food safety cultures and protocols similarly. A “safety first” mentality is more critical now than ever before, as organizations need to demonstrate to employees and customers that they’re taking every precaution and prioritizing safety. The first – and most important – step to a successful food safety program is educating your employees.

To do so, you will need the following:

Ongoing education programs.

Food safety education is an ongoing effort to teach foodservice professionals about why food safety is so important and the proper protocols to follow. Food safety education must be viewed as an ongoing program (and a priority!), rather than a one-and-done training.

Leadership buy-in.

Food safety culture begins at the top of an organization. Leaders must “walk the walk,” modeling proper protocols and behaviors. If leadership dictates that employees must wear personal protective equipment (PPE), they should wear masks themselves. Not only must the leadership team practice what they preach, but they should also explain why the rules are in place. For instance, instead of dictating that staff should store raw proteins on the bottom shelf of the refrigerators or walk-ins, explain that if these items are stored on higher shelves and their juices drip down, they could contaminate ready-to-eat foods and potentially sicken guests. Once employees understand the reasons behind the rules, they’ll be more likely to comply.

COVID-19 protocols.

Now, in addition to educating staff on food safety protocols, organizations must also educate them about new COVID-19 policies and procedures. For instance, companies now must follow guidelines from the CDC and their local jurisdictions to reduce coronavirus risks. Often, that means requiring employees and guests to wear PPE – such as masks – while on-site. It also means following social distancing guidelines, making certain that people stay 6 feet apart while at dining tables, in lines, etc. Other protocols include increased cleaning and sanitation, more frequent handwashing, one-way traffic patterns, physical barriers, maintaining adequate airflow, etc.

Effective communication.

Communication is essential in food safety education programs as well as during every shift. Employees should be informed about the protocols and the importance of complying. Whenever there’s a policy update – such as those updates that come from the CDC, local jurisdictions, or the corporate office on COVID-19 information – every employee, across every location and shift must be informed. Managers must emphasize the importance of food safety to all staff members. If employees don’t understand the magnitude of food safety, they may not make the extra effort to wash their hands often, properly clean and sanitize equipment, wear PPE, etc.

Amplified cleanliness.

Cleanliness has always been an essential part of food safety, but now the need is greater due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. Employees should regularly wash their hands, disinfect surfaces, and properly clean equipment. COVID-19 has made cleanliness even more critical, and now organizations must clean, sanitize, and disinfect their facilities often throughout the day. Ensure that employees don’t overlook high-touch points, including doorknobs, credit card keypads – and disinfect even the smallest details like restroom stall latches.

Digital tools.

A solid technology infrastructure will help make the education process seamless. Use digital tools – rather than antiquated pen and paper systems – to audit, inspect, and analyze data. That way, you’ll have a more holistic, robust view across the enterprise to determine compliance and take corrective actions, as needed.

Reward systems.

Rewards are incredibly effective, so incentivize your employees to participate in education programs and implement the protocols they’ve learned. Rewards can be simple and inexpensive: a paid day off, pizza parties, movie passes, etc. Spotlight employees who are following all the rules (food safety protocols and the new COVID-19 guidelines) and embracing the elevated food safety culture. Make employees “doing the right thing” feel appreciated.

Chipotle has worked diligently, and they have been extremely successful in transforming their food safety culture and protocols. In fact, they are being spotlighted as a positive example of a food business that is doing a great job implementing the “safety first” mentality.

All food businesses must get their employees to care about food safety by properly educating them on this topic. To maximize success, emphasize food safety education, explain why food safety protocols are important, model proper behaviors, and reward employees for following proper procedures. By properly educating employees – and getting them to care about food safety – you’ll reduce foodborne illness and COVID-19 incidents and risks and keep everyone safer.