Challenges and benefits of operating to quality standards

The empirical evidence available on the impact of complying with food safety standards and regulations is limited. This CIMR Debate in Public Policy, chaired by Professor Helen Lawton Smith, sought to shed light on the issue by offering perspectives from industry and academia into the positive and negative impact of food safety standards, not just on consumer health and safety, but on business performance and innovation.

The seven deadly sins of standardized management systems

Martí Casadesús Fa, Professor in the Department of Business Management and Product Development at the University of Girona, focuses his research on quality management. He began the debate by sharing an overview of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of standardisation:

  • Pride: companies may view standardisation as a marketing opportunity, rather than a necessity for business operations.
  • Envy: processes are not clearly assigned to an individual, or are shared unequally between individuals.
  • Wrath: increased bureaucracy in standardized management systems can cause understandable anger.
  • Sloth: relates to negligence or carelessness in following procedures.
  • Greed: systems can be difficult to implement when they have been designed by consulting companies without the final user in mind.
  • Gluttony: relates to the excessive appetite for the standardisation of everything.
  • Lust: some organisations implement standardisations when they are not needed and when they do not have a great impact.

The evolution of food safety standards

Jon Murthy (LGC ASSURE) provided further context for the importance of standardisation in management systems and the challenges of implementing safety measures.

A set of consensual standards were developed by supermarkets in order to allow numerous suppliers to conform to one audit. There are now approximately 200,000 manufacturing, processing and distribution sites that are certified, representing about a fifth of total retail sales.

Jon argued that food standards add value by reducing the workload inherent in conforming to different criteria for multiple organisations. Individual case study data suggests that standards are helpful, but there has been a historic lack of published data on this topic.

Jon noted that the food industry spends less on compliance as a proportion of retail sales compared to other industries and cautioned that a lack of compliance can lead to illnesses and avoidable deaths. He also highlighted the role of standardisation in meeting the expectations of growing number of consumers who are taking an increased interest in ethical production.

A case study in challenges and benefits of operating to quality standards

Jacob Mogensen (Food and Bio Cluster, Denmark) shared insights into standardisation processes in Denmark as a case study example of challenges and opportunities. He argued that regulation and standards are drivers for innovation, having been the starting point for the development of new technologies and even new industries in Denmark. These initiatives have created a lot of jobs and growth potential, for example in new areas such as biogas.

However, Jacob also highlighted instances in which standardisation can cause frustration, for example for startups and smaller companies where compliance represents a greater demand on resources. For standardisation measures to be successful, he called for ‘close and dynamic cooperation between public authorities, private commercial interests and academia’.

Do food safety standards promote innovation?

Dr Marion Frenz, Reader in Management at Birkbeck and joint-Deputy Director of the CIMR, shared the findings from research conducted with discussant Ray Lambert on the impact of standardisation in the UK.

In a survey distributed by BRCGS, the largest food safety standards scheme in the UK, businesses agreed that certification led to improved product quality and safety and that adherence to a standard has led to better training of staff.

Perhaps more surprisingly, 30% of participants also agreed that certification led to an increase in product innovation. Certification had a positive impact on market opportunities, especially in the export market, and led to greater competitiveness. In contrast, participants listed the cost of audits and training as a negative impact of compliance.

Summing up

Dr Ray Lambert, Visiting Fellow of the CIMR, highlighted the key points for discussion in concluding the presentations:

  • Martí emphasised that standards must be actively used as a tool by management and not simply relied on as a crutch.
  • Jon made the point that there is still limited take-up of food standards.
  • Jacob offered solutions to the problems encountered through compliance.
  • Marion noted that food standards seem to drive innovation, perhaps by reducing pressure on management to devote time to safety measures.

The presentations were followed by a Q&A with the audience. We would like to thank our speakers and attendees for a thought-provoking discussion.

The recording of the workshop is available here.