Interview with Damian Hankin - Food Safety Culture

Denis Treacy interviews Damian Hankin about his career journey and the most important factors of food safety and the implementation of Food Safety Culture in food businesses.

SC: A brief introduction, who you are, your work journey so far,  what brought you to work in the Food Supply Chain?

DH: "I graduated from Salford University in 92’ after becoming a graduate member of the institute of meat, before joining Dalehead foods as a site microbiologist. From there I followed a traditional QA route for some years before changing tack completely. My next 10-12 years were in mainly hygiene-related roles including hygiene manager, with large businesses such as Bakkavor, RHM Hovis, and others. I returned to Technical to further develop my career before moving to certification in 2018, which is what I do now. A full and varied food career for sure."

SC: What are your 3 most important general considerations for food manufacturers, in ensuring food is safe for consumers?

DH: "My fundamentals for considered manufacturers start with Food Safety Culture, which I will cover in more detail later. The next I call the ‘silent killer’, allergen management, and for me the most prevalent concern in food manufacture currently. The last is ‘right first time’,  as every failure in food safety presents a direct risk to consumers. Focus has to be on failure reduction, failure elimination, and the circumstances that create success. Making sure our Standard Operating Procedures, our Critical Control Points are all focused on getting it right, rather than a capability to fail and recover well."

SC: How much of a difference does culture make in Food Safety performance, how can it be defined?

DH: "Food Safety Culture is a learned behaviour. Just as children learn behaviours and values from their parents, the critical layer of junior & middle management and the shop floor operators learn their behaviours from the senior leadership team. As such, the leadership team needs to constantly show, prove and communicate their commitment to food safety, in contrast to prioritising productivity and profit. The financial performance is important of course, but should never be at the expense of food safety. If there is a tipping point, with cost vs safety, the food safety culture of the business should drive the decision in favour of safe food. There is a distinct differentiation between Quality & Safety. Product quality could have a sliding scale of acceptability, there may be opportunity for a ‘commercial’ decision, whereas Food Safety is binary, black and white, Stop Go.

Food is either safe or it isn’t and when business leaders make a decision that either supports the values of food safety or indeed compromise it, they have set the standard for the business and for its Food Safety Culture - the behaviour is learned."

SC: What does a good Food Safety Culture look like, how do you recognise it?

DH:  "The important indicators to me, when I approach and investigate a business are its Good Manufacturing Practices. Often these can be stage managed for a visit, audit or event, but when the discussions are engaged and the responses evaluated, it can become clear where the true values of a business are. When people are honestly sharing what they do and how they approach food safety, the energy is self-evident in voice tone, behaviour & response. Conversely, when people are trying to respond in a way that portrays something they don’t honestly believe, the evidence is also clear to see.

Again the Food Safety values, the understanding and communication through leadership to middle management to the shop floor. I also look at training, the level, extent, and value to which a business invests in Food Safety training. How much energy a business puts into ensuring the understanding of food safety - what I call my ‘Food Safety Contract’, tells me much about the accountability for food safety. I draw strong parallels with Health and Safety, where both employers and employees share a collective responsibility for the wellbeing and safety of all. Just as a business with a poor safety culture will allow its employees to take personal risks, a business with a poor food safety culture will allow consumers to be put at risk."

SC: What challenges conflict with Food Safety Culture, what stops it from being a 'go-to' strategy for all businesses?

DH: "First and foremost, the cost or perceived cost of Food Safety Culture - captured in three areas… Monitoring, Time, and Resources. The cost of implementing a food safety culture, the time taken to implement it, and the impact of learning on productivity may be regarded as nonvalue costs in some circumstances.

The reality is that often the speed of a process can cause its own problems, so just slowing a line down by a few clicks can reduce issues and defects dramatically, but unfortunately, the budget often demands an unsustainable or incapable level of output, which then drives its own risks.

Finally, the more complex the solution, the more difficult it is to implement. My preference is the KISS concept - Keep It SImple. The easier a process is to follow, the more likely it is to be successful."