Communication Currents

Food Safety: It's a Talking Matter

December 1, 2009
Health Communication

E. coli in hamburgers and spinach, Salmonella in peppers and tomatoes--almost every week the media reports on another event of contaminated food and food recalls. Americans, and the U.S. government, continue to worry about the safety of the food supply. While warnings and recalls form a final line of defense for consumers, employees in food companies, and the way they communicate with each other as they do their work, form a more preventive line of defense. Their communication might make the difference between safe food and deadly food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Center for Food Protection and Defense sponsored research to study and learn from an exemplary food company. The researchers identified five participatory communication practices that help explain the food company's safety success. The five practices are receiving information, sending information, organizational openness, ongoing training, and limited individual influence on decision making.

When organizations encourage employees to be attentive and to share their observations and ideas, employees may be more willing to communicate their concerns. When organizations encourage employees to voice diverse opinions, dissent, and corrective feedback, they serve to enhance, not detract from, the shared purpose and desired outcomes. Participatory workplaces ensure that the individual has a voice, the opportunity to express an opinion that will be heard, and the potential for providing an opinion that may make a difference in decision making. Similarly, in participatory workplaces, employees have access to information about their activities and the desired outcomes, and all employees experience genuine opportunities for discussion.

Some food companies have a history of no contaminated food and may be the source of best practices for other food companies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to study these high performing companies—the companies that do things right. One such plant is a turkey slaughter and processing facility that sits at the outskirts of an average-sized, Midwestern town. The plant has a record of no associated food borne illness outbreaks. Furthermore, the plant has never had to issue a recall of their turkey products.

Researchers who studied this best-case plant believe organizational mindfulness may be the explanation. Organizational mindfulness characterizes ways of acting and styles of learning that enable the plant to manage unexpected threats more effectively. Moreover, organizational mindfulness is characterized by preoccupation with failures rather than successes, reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise. Mindfulness at the organizational level, then, can be expected to correspond to improved risk reduction, crisis prevention, and crisis mitigation.

Through interviews with managers and employees, employee surveys, and observations of practices in the plant, the researchers were able to learn about the communication interactions in the plant and identify employee practices by which organizational mindfulness occurs. Five forms of employee communication emerged as work place practices that create organizational mindfulness and may explain the plant's food safety record.

First, employees are in the know; that is, they receive the information they need to know at all times. At the plant, employees talk of the continual breakdown and setup of the line as they fill different orders. Yet, they experience no information bottlenecks. They report continuous access to information such that they could make the frequent line changes appropriately.

Second, employees feel free to speak up and voice their concerns. Managers and supervisors at the plant talk about always paying attention, monitoring, and speaking up when things appear amiss. They believe every employee has these opportunities and responsibilities. Employee vigilance for food safety means watching for risks and initiating possible corrective actions by speaking up.

Third, employees engage in, and participate in, continuous, on-the-floor training. The plant struggles with high employee turnover. Managers and supervisors sometimes think that turnover endangers safety. However, upon reflection, they note how turnover results in continuous training—training that occurs each and every day. Training, therefore, shapes the floor conversations, affects all employees on a daily basis, and requires that experienced employees and supervisors assume training responsibilities.

Fourth, employees see the managers and supervisors demonstrating respect for each individual and awareness of everyone's unique contribution. Supervisors typically take their breaks with the line employees and engage in social conversations. Moreover, the flat organizational structure and the frequent employee turnover appear to facilitate equitable treatment by eliminating overt discrepancies of preference or power. The appreciation of mutual respect fosters a work environment that encourages all employees to engage and interact.

Finally, employees typically do not make individual decisions about their work activities; however, they think the organizational decisions and their individual actions make a difference. Their actions contribute to safer food. Managers and supervisors talked about the end consumers, such as school children, and how they were devoted to keeping the children's food safe. Neither did they want to sicken themselves, a real possibility since the plant cafeteria serves the company's product to employees at no cost every day. They perceived their individual actions, the actions of plant inspectors, and the actions of the organization to matter and directly influence food safety. They strongly believe that every individual could cause a food safety problem or, conversely, maintain safeness and quality.

Findings from this study suggest communication processes and practices that can provide government leaders, industry officials, and risk managers with recommendations for shaping workplace communication practices in organizations that deal with food safety risks. As fears of food-related crises have escalated, the way employees communicate remains one of the most important functions of risk assessment and management. Workplaces that promote participatory conversations and discussions about work goals and activities may actually reduce risk and prevent food-related crises.

Participatory communication is most needed during tough times, when organizations confront risk and crises. The findings from this study indicate that employees engaged in participatory communication not only create organizational mindfulness, they also improve an organization's ability to detect and manage risks that threaten personal, organizational, and national health and well-being.

About the author (s)

Tim Sellnow

University of Central Florida


Tim Sellnow