Food businesses occasionally encounter situations where product non-conformances have compromised food safety or quality or led to an outbreak of foodborne illness. This may lead to the business needing to dump product or undertake a costly recall or withdrawal.
Root cause analysis is a technique that uncovers the true cause of product contamination or quality problems and supports identification of effective actions to eliminate the problem, prevent recurrence, and reduce risk.
Root cause analysis (RCA): an investigative approach used to determine the underlying cause of a system failure
Contributing factor: the specific environmental, biological, procedural, or behavioural factors that result in failure e.g. failure of sanitation, incorrect storage temperature, inadequate supervision
The RCA determines why something has gone wrong; while establishing contributing factors clarifies what actually went wrong.
Performing the RCA
RCA provides a structured proactive approach to incident investigation, allowing more effective long-term solutions that prevent such incidents from recurring.
Various techniques are used to determine how and why a food safety issue has occurred.
The five whys involve repeatedly asking the question WHY? This allows the investigator to scrutinise contributing factors to reveal the underlying root cause of a problem or incident.
While Ishikawa (fishbone) diagrams involve a type of cause-and-effect approach that evaluates factors that may have contributed to an incident (materials, environment, people, equipment and procedures).
The analysis will provide information on the underlying cause(s) of an incident and help establish the chain of events leading to its occurrence.
Pitfalls to avoid when undertaking an RCA include:
- Focusing on contributing factors rather than on the root causes
- Using personnel who lack sufficient investigative skills and knowledge
- Failing to ask the right questions
- Identifying a single root cause when there may be many
The outputs of an RCA support post-incident review processes, leading to changes to a business's food safety program.
EXAMPLE: Salmonella-contaminated packaged salads cause an outbreak of foodborne illness
Contributing factors: An extreme rainfall event led to increased soil contamination of fresh produce just prior to harvest, and product washing and sanitation was insufficient to control Salmonella contamination
- Insufficient scientific knowledge of risk factors (rainfall event) to predict likelihood of Salmonella contamination on incoming raw materials
- Inadequate control measures (washing and sanitation) of finished product resulting in Salmonella survival on product
- Company culture did not adequately understand product risks and failed to implement appropriate control measures in the food safety program
Investigating food contamination events and issues helps uncover weaknesses in food safety programs and supports enhanced preventative-based controls.
Pew Charitable Trusts (2020). A Guide for Conducting a Food Safety Root Cause Analysis
Food Standards Agency. An introduction to Root Cause Analysis Course.
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