Influence of food safety culture on food handler behaviour and food safety performance of food processing organisations

Shingai Patricia Nyarugwe

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



Food safety continues to be a challenge in many food companies especially in emerging economies, which are confronted with multiple issues in both the internal and external company environment. Previous efforts to improve food safety performance have been hinged on traditional and technical-oriented approaches such as sampling, testing, inspections, food safety management systems (FSMS) and auditing, which have proven to be not always adequate evidenced by inconsistencies in food safety performance. To enhance food safety performance in food companies, researchers proposed to look beyond these traditional and technical-oriented approaches towards a more integrated approach and suggested the adoption and strengthening of a positive and pro-active food safety culture (FS-culture). FS-culture encompasses a company’s technological and organisational conditions, characteristics of the individuals within the company and the company’s environment, in addition to the existing FSMS. However, FS-culture research is still developing when compared with other culture research domains such as organisational and safety culture. Moreover, there are still knowledge gaps on what FS-culture entails, its measurement, its relationship with food safety performance and how it could be improved. This thesis, therefore, focused on understanding how an organisation’s FS-culture influences food safety and hygiene-related behaviour and food safety performance of an organisation.

The literature review presented in chapter 2 identified determinants for conducting FS-culture research. Findings revealed that numerous factors transcending different disciplines are interlinked and as such a systems approach is required to assess an organisation’s FS-culture. The review showed that several elements i.e. individual, group, organisational, technological and company environment characteristics are necessary to evaluate FS-culture, and its influence on food handler behaviour and food safety performance. Moreover, the research suggested that a company’s food safety risks should be considered and to recognise the hierarchical levels as well. The research also suggested defining measurable indicators, development of classification systems, and the use of a triangulated methodology. The resultant determinants provided a basis upon which further FS-culture research could be built on.

As a result of these findings, elements suggested in the review were validated in chapter 3 as they enabled an understanding of the prevailing FS-culture of the companies investigated. Moreover, a mixed-methods approach was presented to assess the prevailing FS-culture, with dairy food companies in Zimbabwe as a case study. The methods included: microbial analysis to assess the microbial safety, observations to evaluate actual behaviour, card-aided interviews to assess organisational and technological enabling conditions, questionnaires and storytelling to collect data on employee characteristics, and document analysis to get insight into the microbial safety performance and actual behaviour. Results showed that a mixed-methods approach is suitable in FS-culture assessments due to the method triangulation, which could potentially increase the validity of the research findings. Both the FS-culture elements and the mixed-methods approach enabled the prevailing FS-culture to be distinguished into identified classification levels (reactive, active, proactive) further enhancing their validity.

Based on the empirical study, a FS-culture research framework was further developed in Chapter 4, to concurrently assess the prevailing FS-culture of companies differing in product riskiness, as well as the company’s internal and external environment. The framework assessed the following factors: supportiveness of the organisational and technological enabling conditions, employee characteristics, intended and actual behaviour, food safety performance, and the internal (food safety vision, food safety programs, vulnerability of production systems) and external (national values and food safety governance) company environment. The framework was applied to Zimbabwean food companies differing in product riskiness i.e. low, medium and high-risk. Results indicated no direct relationship between product riskiness and FS-culture. However, the company environment seemed to be associated with the prevailing FS-culture. Regarding the internal environment, the vulnerability of the food production system (i.e. susceptibility to microbial contamination) seemed to influence the prevailing FS-culture. With respect to the external environment, food safety governance and national values seemed to influence the way food safety was prioritised, food safety programs were designed, and the way food handlers executed their tasks in actual practice.

Chapter 5 further explored the role of the internal and external company environment on an organisation’s FS-culture, in companies operating in Greece, China, Tanzania and Zambia. Both the internal and external company environment seemed to influence the prevailing FS-culture. Companies in African countries (i.e. Tanzania and Zambia) exhibited similarities in the implementation of food safety programs, and in the national values and food safety governance when compared to Greece and China. Food safety governance was reflected in the food safety programs and supportiveness of the organisation to food safety and hygiene. Hofstede cultural dimensions i.e. uncertainty avoidance, masculinity and long vs short-term orientation, reflecting national values, were significantly statistically correlated with aspects of FS-culture such as risk perceptions, attitude and the enabling conditions.

Chapter 6 discusses the overall findings in this thesis and presents a broader outlook on FS-culture from an organisational, individual and company environment perspective. Furthermore, a stepwise approach to create, improve and sustain an organisation’s FS-culture is presented. Practical implications of findings in this thesis and recommendations for further research and for the food companies studied are presented.

Overall, the research presented in this thesis contributes to the existing literature on FS-culture by providing research determinants that could be useful as a basis upon which further FS-culture research can be built on. Moreover, it provides a FS-culture research framework and assessment grids that can be used for the concurrent analysis and differentiated assessment of an organisation’s prevailing FS-culture, food safety performance, and the internal and external company environment. The mixed-methods approach could enable an in-depth analysis of an organisation’s FS-culture through method-triangulation. Insights provided in this thesis could enable the identification of the prevailing FS-culture, which could be useful in designing effective interventions to create, improve, strengthen and sustain a positive FS-culture. The stepwise approach developed in this thesis could help identify improvement opportunities towards a positive and sustainable FS-culture, thereby contributing to better food safety performance

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Fogliano, Vincenzo, Promotor
  • Luning, Pieternel, Promotor
  • Linnemann, Anita, Co-promotor
Award date11 Feb 2020
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463951845
Publication statusPublished - 11 Feb 2020


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