A employee walks inside a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Richmond, west London
Inadequate resource supply and lack of support within an organisation have been identified as significant obstacles to implementing effective food safety practices. Reuters

As a result of the unprecedented challenges that came with COVID-19, many grocery stores and their customers have made the safety of food a top priority.

While grocery retailers have long been committed to promoting food safety using cost-effective methods, the heightened health concerns and increased safety consciousness among consumers have elevated the significance of a retailer's safety procedures. In fact, these procedures can be the deciding factor between gaining a loyal customer or missing out on a potential sale.

Food quality and safety serve as the bedrock of any successful business, whether it involves a time-honoured product with centuries of history or cutting-edge innovation. In affluent nations, supermarkets play a pivotal role as the primary suppliers of grocery foods. While they offer a diverse range of staple and healthier options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, they are also known for supplying less nutritious foods and sugar-laden beverages.

It is imperative for every player in the food industry, including supermarkets, grocers and other food establishments, to adhere to legislative standards for food safety. Across the entire food supply chain, from farm to fork, business owners must actively manage and maintain food safety, in line with these general principles.

So, supermarkets must go the extra mile to reassure consumers that their products are safe and secure. Meeting this expectation can be as simple as ensuring that the packaging demonstrates that all products were kept safe since they were packaged, offering customers a vital sense of confidence.

Here at International Business Times UK, we will examine cutting-edge tactics used by retailers to protect their customers' health while maintaining the finest possible product quality as we delve deeper into the topic of food safety and its crucial position in the grocery sector.

What is food safety culture in the UK

In the food and beverage industry, grocery stores play a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and quality of the products they sell. While some stores still have room for improvement, many have recognised the importance of cultivating a robust workplace food safety culture. Such a culture not only establishes the values and priorities of a company concerning food safety but also instils confidence in both consumers and employees.

A supermarket's food safety culture refers to its values and practices when it comes to ensuring the safety of the food it sells. A strong food safety culture sends a clear message to stakeholders that producing safe food is a top priority for the company. Recognising the significance of this culture, many supermarkets have embraced it as an essential component of their operations.

Establishing and nurturing a supportive culture for food safety is crucial for supermarkets. By doing so, they demonstrate their commitment to selling safe foods and show genuine care for their customers. This dedication is reflected in their stringent adherence to food safety guidelines, implementation of effective training programs and continuous monitoring and improvement of their practices.

Studies have consistently identified cross-contamination, poor personal hygiene and insufficient temperature control as the most prevalent risk factors for foodborne illnesses. The behaviour of food handlers, such as inadequate hand washing procedures, improper temperature maintenance of ready-to-eat food and unsafe handling of utensils and equipment, is often implicated in these risks. A strong food safety culture addresses these concerns head-on by promoting proper practices and emphasising their importance.

Inadequate resource supply and lack of support within an organisation have been identified as significant obstacles to implementing effective food safety practices. Studies have shown that a lack of a positive organisational culture can contribute to the adoption of improper food safety practices. Recognising these challenges, forward-thinking supermarkets strive to create an environment that supports and empowers employees to prioritise food safety.

The British government recognises the fundamental role played by a robust regulatory framework in safeguarding the trust and safety of the country's food supply. Evaluating the effectiveness of the UK's regulatory framework for food safety is crucial for ensuring food security across the nation. Supermarkets, as key players in the industry, work in tandem with regulatory bodies to ensure compliance and uphold the highest food safety standards.

In the food and beverage industry, supermarkets are increasingly recognising the importance of developing a solid food safety culture. Creating a supportive environment, addressing key risk factors, overcoming organisational challenges and adhering to regulatory frameworks are just a few ways supermarkets are demonstrating their unwavering commitment to providing safe and high-quality food to their devoted customers in the growing food and beverage industry. Building a strong food safety culture is not only a business imperative but a vital step towards enhancing consumer trust and ensuring the overall well-being of the community.

Transforming food safety culture: Putting people at the forefront

In a revolutionary move, leading companies including McDonald's, PepsiCo, Compass Group and 3M, have collaborated with The British Standards Institution (BSI) to unveil global guidance that highlights the pivotal role of people in food safety incidents, quality failures and recalls. A recent publication by BSI of this guidance has shed light on a critical issue: it is not equipment or technology, but human factors that most often contribute to such incidents. With the power to prevent a recurrence, people emerge as the key players in maintaining food safety standards.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) grimly estimates that tainted food leads to a staggering 600 million illnesses and 420,000 fatalities annually. Alarmed by these statistics, an industry steering group was formed following a thought-provoking panel discussion at the 2019 International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) Annual Meeting. Their concerted efforts culminated in the creation of a groundbreaking document: Developing and sustaining a mature food safety culture (PAS 320). This comprehensive resource aims to assist organisations of all sizes in the food, beverage and retail industries to foster a culture where people are prioritised, where everyone is committed to food safety, actively reports problems and possesses the authority to drive meaningful change.

Neil Coole, Director of Food and Retail Supply Chains at BSI, emphasises the transformative potential of a positive food safety culture that centres around people. "A food safety culture that values individuals and empowers them to champion quality can have a profound impact, ultimately reducing the risks associated with consuming contaminated food," Coole asserts.

Coole underlines the importance of translating ambition into action to achieve continual improvements within a company and across the broader supply chain. He notes that shifting the perception of food safety culture from a mere compliance concern to an investment in individuals can bring about significant positive outcomes for individuals, businesses and society as a whole.

Scott Steedman, Director-General of Standards at BSI, expresses deep concern over the distressing number of lives lost each year worldwide due to tainted food. He emphasises that this issue cannot be ignored within the business sector, calling for immediate action to address it. Steedman highlights the crucial role of people in food safety, stressing that an organisation's attitude toward food safety has the potential for ongoing development.

The recently released guidance has caused a fundamental shift as the global food business struggles with the pressing need to address food safety concerns. A strong food safety culture can emerge if people are given priority and are given all the power.

Food safety and quality in the UK

Henry Dimbleby, the lead author of the government-commissioned review, known as the UK's Independent National Food Strategy, looked at the functioning of the food system, the harm it is causing to both human and environmental health and the most effective solutions for preventing these harms. Shedding light on the most effective solutions for curbing these harms, the report uncovered a web of "destructive feedback loops" within the food system, fueled by a fiercely competitive market and the prevalence of low-cost, unhealthy ingredients.

The allure of high-fat, sugar and salt-laden (HFSS) and ultra-processed foods looms large in this landscape, driven by their affordability, accessibility, convenience and aggressive marketing tactics. For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has released new guidelines that advise against the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) for weight control.

NSS has been found to be ineffective in controlling body weight and increases the risk of worsening or developing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, hypertension and stroke. Food manufacturers find themselves compelled to invest in and churn out copious amounts of these nutritionally deficient, energy-dense products. Alas, the consequence is a cycle of reinforcement: customers, swayed by their economical nature, readily opt for these items, inadvertently fueling further production, investment and overconsumption.

The National Food Strategy report forcefully highlights the urgency of targeting the root of this problem — the food environment and the overarching food system itself. It underscores the need for policies that initiate transformative changes, ensuring that every family in the UK is granted an equitable opportunity to attain and sustain good health.

The recently released guidance has caused a fundamental shift as the global food business struggles with the pressing need to address food safety concerns. A strong food safety culture can emerge if people are given priority and are given all the power. Now, let us examine the significant implications of placing people at the forefront of food safety and see how this has a beneficial impact on people, businesses and society at large.

Combating unhealthy and fewer quality foods in UK supermarkets

As the battle against unhealthy and low-quality food rages on, the UK government has taken a momentous step by enacting legislation that sets restrictions on the promotion of high-fat, sugar and salt-laden (HFSS) items in prominent areas of qualified retailers. Effective as of October 2022, these laws aim to reshape the supermarket outlook and encourage healthier choices among consumers.

To ensure compliance with the stringent record-keeping requirements associated with these regulations, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has introduced a range of models designed specifically for supermarkets. These invaluable resources would aid in providing retailers with the knowledge required to fulfil their duties and protect the purity of the food they handle.

Under the ambit of the EU General Food Law, supermarkets that deal with food bear crucial responsibilities. At the forefront is the paramount duty of prioritising safety, ensuring that dangerous food products do not make their way onto store shelves. This accountability extends throughout the entire supply chain, with the food industry taking full ownership of the transportation, storage and sale of consumables.

Crucially, the EU General Food Law mandates that all suppliers and consignees be easily identifiable, creating a transparent and traceable network that enhances accountability and safeguards against potential risks. In the spirit of transparency, operators are required to promptly notify the appropriate authorities in cases where the food they handle, store, or sell is deemed unsafe. Swift action must be taken to withdraw any allegedly dangerous products during emergencies, protecting the well-being of consumers.

Embracing the principle of prevention, operators must proactively identify critical control points within their processes and implement stringent measures to minimise risks. Regular reviews and evaluations of these controls ensure that they remain effective and adaptive in the face of evolving challenges.

Recognising the magnitude of the task at hand, the food industry is urged to collaborate closely with the relevant authorities. By forging strong partnerships and working hand-in-hand, supermarkets and regulatory bodies can collectively reduce the dangers posed to food safety.

The fight against the sale of unhealthy and subpar goods in UK supermarkets is still very much ongoing. A better, more nutrient-dense future is however within reach with strong laws, sector-specific guidelines and a common commitment to safeguarding consumer health and well-being.