How do you assess a company's Food Safety "culture"?

One of the hardest things to do is assess a food, beverage, ingredient or flavor manufacturer's Food Safety and Quality culture.

Gulf Stream Search specializes in the placement of top Food Safety and Quality talent with US food and beverage manufacturers and suppliers. You can imagine we hear quite a few stories and anecdotes that clearly show a gap between what a company publicly states as their Food Safety & Quality "culture" and how that culture manifests on the production lines, in the boiler room or behind the doors in the Executive suite.

So how do you assess what's real and what's not - how do you determine what company will have your back as a Food Safety or Quality professional, and which ones will leave you on an island when you call out issues?

Here are a couple things we look for:

A "self-auditing" culture.

A "self-auditing" culture is one who goes above and beyond government regulations. It's the classic "over-achiever" mentality that you get a sense of when you interview. How do other departments and executives view Quality? Does the company skew towards satisfying "minimum standards" or to a higher level.

Is the company appropriately and thoughtfully staffed?

Does the company have food safety subject matter experts on staff? Operations Quality, Quality systems, Ingredient Quality? Get a feel for the organizational structure, current state and future growth.

Reporting structure, systems and protocols

Who does Sanitation report into? Who does Food Safety / Quality report into? Who is the subject matter expert internally with pathogens? What reporting systems are in place and who manages these systems? Who on-boards suppliers? What criteria are in place to take on new suppliers?

If the answer keeps going back to one or two people, the company is "under-structured". That doesn't necessarily make it a deal breaker - it just means your next questions should be around what the company's plans are in the next 12-24 months to bolster the FSQA team.

A strong, respected, credible FSQA officer whose voice and influence is felt at the highest level of the organization.

Do you get the sense the top FSQA officer in the company has an equal voice to their executive peers? If not, be wary.

Why is the company interviewing you?

Does the company have a proverbial gun to its head? Does a current customer mandate getting up to date with FSMA, to a certain SQF level or up onto a Supplier Platform?

If this is case, be wary - scrambling to get FSMA compliant is similar to going on a diet before beach season. Binge dieting is not a "lifestyle", nor is constantly being under the gun with FSMA requirements a "culture" - it's a short-term strategy to satisfy a short-term goal...and not necessarily an optimal one.