Hygiene is a preventative food safety tool and it is essential in gaining and retaining customer/consumer confidence and trust. Thus it is increasingly being accepted that the scope of good hygiene practices implementation needs to be broadened across the food chain. This article will consider the context in which this is happening and will propose that hygiene has an important strategic and competitive role to play in today’s food market.

Introduction

“Why should we improve our hygiene practices?”. This is a question asked frequently by food businesses. It is usually followed by… “We’ve been doing it this way for years and no-one’s ever been sick! We make and sell quality products – much better than our competitors.” The food poisoning statistics usually provide a ready-made standard response, particularly when coupled with a look at the main causes of food borne illness including cross-contamination and inadequate temperature control.

Another response might be to argue that food hygiene incorporated as a tool to gain competitive advantage throughout the supply chain makes good business sense. It is a novel, but credible approach to take, especially in the area of the manufacture and retailing of consumer food related products.

The rationale for food hygiene provides a number of benefits for manufacturers, consumers and society in providing a valuable framework for control. For the manufacturer or retailer, good hygiene practices can minimise (or eliminate?) product losses or product recalls (either through product spoilage or pathogenic risk such as Salmonella) in ready to eat foods or adulteration such as allergen cross contamination. Evidence that good hygiene practices are in place can also serve as a defence against prosecution. For the consumer and for society at large it can help to reduce outbreaks of food borne illness and act for the long term benefit of the population. Food borne diseases have a major public health impact – for instance in the United States up to 60 million people are affected causing 9,000 deaths at an estimated cost of $5 Billion each year. (Altekruse et al., 1997 ). Contributory factors include changes in consumer demographics and behaviour, changes in industrial and consumer technology, international commerce, microbial adaptation and the economic development of food importation and land use (Motarjemi, 1999)

What is Hygiene?
What do we understand by “hygiene” within the food industry? The fundamental understanding of the hygiene concept and it’s evolution has been dealt with previously (Motarjemi, 1999). As a reminder of the definition, Codex Alimentarius describes hygiene as: “All conditions and measures necessary to ensure the safety and suitability of food at all stages of the food chain.” (Codex Alimentarius, Food Hygiene Basic Texts, 1997)

Most food businesses these days accept the need to operate good hygiene practices though the understanding of what this actually means and perhaps, more importantly, the application still varies considerably world-wide. The legal requirement to implement good hygiene practices is only fairly recent, within the last 50 yrs. The adoption of the HACCP approach as a food safety management tool is even more recent, and while it is not yet legislated in a standard format, its use may assist in globalisation of common food industry standards in that hygiene is increasingly being accepted as an essential pre-requisite to HACCP implementation.

In considering the scope of the Codex hygiene principles document it is evident that hygiene applies to the whole supply chain. Food safety control should begin with a preventative approach at the primary production level, for example the avoidance of cross contamination at the slaughterhouse, or the prevention of farm waste from being used as a top dressing on fields of salad crops. The recent Dioxin issue in Belgium is another good example of where the breakdown of control at the primary level has had a major impact on the whole of the food industry.

Many food products can be made unsafe by the consumer, through for example cross contamination from raw to ready to eat foods or through poor understanding concerning products which rely on a process step such as defrosting or heating at home. Consumers have increasingly abandoned responsibility for food safety in the move to processed foods that require little preparation and take little time. They now expect food to be safe regardless of any abuse by themselves, which is why they need not just to be told what to do but to know why the proper handling of food and good hygienic practice in the home is important.

Consumers & Global Change
The consumer’s expectation is for safe food and only the best is good enough. However, in the event of failure the consumers will often blame the product itself (and by implication the manufacturer or retailer) for their failure to handle it properly. Hygiene is essential in gaining and retaining customer/consumer confidence and trust. Demographics and consumer lifestyles will continue to change and that means an ongoing challenge for manufacturers. For instance, populations in the Western world are ageing with longer lifespans contrasted with growing young urban populations in the developing world. As these, and other factors of lifestyle, demographics, economics, technology and environment change then there is a risk of further increases in food borne illness and of new food borne pathogens emerging.

Traditionally global food trade has majored on the transfer of commodity crops and meat products that are then further processed in the developed countries in which they are ultimately consumed. However, the growing countries are increasingly processing the foods themselves often under the stewardship of major multinational food corporations who can act as a catalyst to the development of global standards. Developing global standards is essential for a global food supply system. Codex provides a good outline reference standard and recently, in Helsinki, a draft Global Hygiene Standard was proposed as a document for discussion which was based on a review of thousands of standards and codes of practice currently available worldwide. (SGS and Diversey-Lever Consulting, 1999). Interestingly, whilst the volume of trade may be smaller, the value of international commerce in processed foods now greatly exceeds the value of unprocessed agricultural commodities (Henderson et al., 1996). So, perhaps the timing is right for the development of a set of international industry specific hygiene standard documents.

International trade developments are driven in part by consumers who are looking for choice and continuous availability of fresh foods that can be flown half way around the world to appear in the fresh produce section of a supermarket. This is in contrast to years ago when fresh produce was mostly locally sourced and seasonal. The source of many of these products is in developing countries where the level of automation is low and there is a high level of manual contact with food. This is the environment with which we, the food industry, are faced and to which we must respond.

Hygiene & Company Strategy
So, where is the strategy debate? We all know that hygiene is important – so what’s the issue? A definition of strategic choice might be – “The set of functional competencies, assets, skills and synergies which under-pin the product/market investment strategies in order to fulfil the corporate mission.” If there is an emphasis here on enjoyable food and drink, this clearly has to be underpinned with the solid foundation of a good hygiene programme being built into company strategy. Without this consumers cannot trust brands to be safe and their expectations cannot be met.

Hygiene should be built into the fundamental business strategy for any food company. Well run hygiene standards give peace of mind and are cost effective. Hygiene, as part of a company strategy, is likely to be based on the Codex model and will be evidenced through a whole number of elements from hygienically designed equipment to well organised sanitation programmes and will encompass trained employees who consistently behave in a hygienic manner. We can consider each of the main elements of the Codex Alimentarius: Food Hygiene Basic Texts.

Primary Production
The Codex rationale for the adoption of a hygiene strategy in this area is in order to “reduce the likelihood of introducing a hazard that may adversely affect the safety of food, or its suitability for consumption at later stages of the food chain”. Primary production is the start of the supply chain and the area where consumers are most likely to perceive fresh food as healthy, wholesome and safe. It is also the area most likely to impact on the world trade of commodity items and also fresh non-local seasonal produce. An exporting nation could plan its hygiene strategy in order to impact on commerce by marketing its hygiene.

Facility & Design
As an up-front strategy, attention must be given to appropriate location, good hygienic design and construction and the provision of hygienic facilities such that hygiene is given a high priority enabling the hazards to be effectively controlled. This is very much part of the prerequisite support that a successful HACCP system needs to have in place.

Control of Operation
The definition of food hygiene as described by Codex includes measures necessary to ensure both the safety and suitability of food so HACCP can be used as an approach. In order to meet this objective the scope of HACCP would need to be extended beyond significant hazard control only. This can be achieved through implementation of pre-requisite programmes which, in any case, are seen as a foundation to the application of HACCP.

Maintenance & Sanitation
This is an extremely important aspect of any hygiene control programme and an area that can often be overlooked given that sanitation frequently occurs on a night shift and, if not given a high profile, is often given a low priority. A strategy that raises the profile is far sighted. There are many examples of food safety (and spoilage) recalls that are a result of poor sanitation. A good programme should be efficient and cost effective with clear standards and verification.

Personal Hygiene
The hygiene of a business will only ever be as good as the behaviour of the people who work within it, and as a major source of cross-contamination, either directly or indirectly, it is essential that the company is able to rely on a consistent hygienic behaviour from the workforce. A thinking and well trained workforce can be a real competitive advantage but to achieve this there needs to be a clear insightful company strategy relating to training and behavioural control.

Transportation
Clean vehicles are important not just from an external packaging contamination point of view, but also for prevention of taint. Pack damage can result in food safety or spoilage issues and can certainly lead to customer dissatisfaction and loss of repeat sales.

Product Information & Consumer Awareness
Pack labelling can be used to communicate with the consumer. Leaflets are also used, particularly by retailers and governments, in order to impart food safety information. However, this is a strategic choice on the part of the company concerned given the number of mandatory labelling requirements that already exist.

Training
Training is essential at all levels in the organisation if food safety is to be assured. Hygiene training is recommended as a legal requirement for food handlers in many countries. However, if managers are not trained to a deeper level of understanding then control can be ineffective and hygienic behaviour will not be sustained following operator level training. Training and education should be considered through a needs assessment at all levels of the organisation. Training should be linked to the company’s objectives and, therefore, become part of a long term strategic plan.

Incorporation of hygiene principles, as laid down by Codex, at the start-up phase of a food business can be an investment worth making. Many businesses begin life in premises that were not purpose built or find themselves in premises that have evolved over time and are not ideal in either fabric or layout. Choosing to build hygiene into business strategy at an early stage will ensure that, as the premises are constructed, refurbished or added to, then the correct standards are incorporated.

Competitive Advantage
A company that recognises that it needs to build hygiene into its strategy is clearly committed to food safety. But can hygiene also be used as a competitive tool? A definition of a competitive tool might include – “A device to expose the relative strengths and weaknesses in the performance, assets or skills of competitors. A leverage point which can be exploited to enter a market or to create a barrier to entry for others.” Competitive companies can be viewed as those who have an unique proposition over and above their competitors or alternatively those who are cost effective and efficient.

Hygiene is a preventative food safety tool. Therefore, there is a competitive advantage from the prevention of food safety incidents. Catastrophe can impact on shareholder value, some companies recover and some don’t.

Hygiene can be used as a marketing tool and it seems that advertisements for consumer sanitation materials are based on their hygienic properties and are marketed to the consumer in this way. Some domestic cleaning materials are now labelled with claims such as “Effective against Listeria and E.coli”. Sometimes the style in which this is done almost preys on the consumers concerns and begins to threaten them with the consequences. This strongly competitive positioning almost dares the consumer not to use the product and implies that they are negligent towards their family if they do not use it. Supermarkets and foodservice outlets are less direct yet hygiene is inherent in their proposition. Their advertisements usually feature seemingly clean well lit premises with smiling fresh-faced staff in clean uniforms with no jewellery or hair in sight. It helps to create the right hygienic image. We have mentioned other vehicles such as pack labelling and leaflets which can also be used to communicate with the consumer and to impart information. Again, done well, this could instill customer loyalty and build trust.

In the area of industrial services the benefits can and are being realised across the supply chain as, increasingly, hygiene as a service is provided by cleaning chemical suppliers, plant & equipment designers, uniform suppliers, pest control suppliers etc. In this business to business environment as well as in the consumer food producer and retailer environment one of the main benefits which is being traded is “trust”. This element of trust in hygiene practices operates across the supply chain, even to prestige caterers and retailers whose customers “trust” the hygiene standards because they know it is imposed as a mandatory quality standard all the way down the supply chain. One large general and food retailer in the UK is a good example of a retail outlet where customers are prepared to pay more, not only for quality, but because they trust that the manufacturers operate to a high standard. Global food service operators also use this consumer trust to their advantage.

Is, then, hygiene linked to quality in the eyes of the consumer? There are few, if any, surveys on this topic and, indeed, the answer may be “yes” for many of the population. Certainly in regard to premium branded packaged food from major brand manufacturers and global food service brands. Probably hygiene is also linked to quality in the trend for craft foods in the Western world – handmade products such as cheeses, chocolates, pies and other specialist delicatessen products which are “must-haves” for some people. Alternatively, consider the different standards of hygiene world-wide and in the case of a refugee in the Third World who is offered food “off the back of a lorry”, it is unlikely that they would worry about the hygiene standards or where it comes from.

One of the keys to being competitive is to be able to know where hygiene is necessary for food safety control and when it plays a merely aesthetic role for image presentation to customers. This is a risk assessment approach and can help to keep a company competitive in that resources are focused on the critical areas for food safety. It would be as well to include quality management in the cost equation as well given that good hygienic practices also control non-hazardous physical contamination and the growth of spoilage micro-organisms. This is where the HACCP approach will provide direction: it requires a shift in thinking to apply this tool successfully. This approach systematically evaluates the food process, identifying and analysing hazards and applying control measures. Understanding the relationship between Critical Control Points, Control Points and Prerequisite Hygiene is fundamental (Mortimore & Wallace, 1998).

Hygiene is, clearly, a prerequisite when it comes to the high risk food types or those that are aimed specifically at the immunocompromised population. However, if the food business is to remain competitive, the level of hygiene operated has to be based on an evaluation of requirements using sound science.

Competitive companies who have hygiene built into their strategy are also likely to have other tools in addition to HACCP such as Statistical Process Control, Total Quality Management, Sanitation Programmes, Training & Education Programmes etc.. Depending on business complexity, it may not be solely the fact that they have good hygienic practices which will make them competitive.

In conclusion, consumer expectations are higher than ever. Given the global changes, a challenge to industry is that all organisations will have to focus on hygiene and food safety otherwise consumer confidence will be lost. We will have to focus on standards, culture and systems. We have gone beyond what is “necessary and appropriate” – we now have to look at what can be done over and above necessary hygiene such that we generate confidence, loyalty and trust from consumers with our assurance that food is protected from contamination. Hygiene, and the degree to which it is implemented, is a strategic choice. Hygiene is no longer a technical issue – it is essential for brand protection and thus it must surely be used as a competitive tool.

References:
Altekruse, S.F., Cohen, M.L., and Swerdlow, D.L., Emerging Foodborne Diseases. Emerging Infectious Diseases 3, (3), 1997
Codex Alimentarius Commission, Food Hygiene Basic Texts. Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organisation, 1997
Henderson, D.R. et al., Globalisation of the Processed Foods Market. Washington DC, United States department of agriculture, Agricultural Economic Report No. 742, 1996
Mortimore, Sara and Wallace Carol, HACCP – A Practical Approach. Gaithersburg MD, Aspen Publishers Inc., 1998
Motarjami, Yasmine, The Starting Point – What is Food Hygiene?. New Food, 3, (2), 25-30, 1999
SGS / Diversey Lever Consulting, The Global Hygiene Standard, Draft 1.4 Document for Discussion. Hygieneomics Conference, Helsinki, 1999