The Root Cause of Root Cause Analysis Failures in the Food Industry

26 Apr 2024


My experience working in the food industry as a food safety professional has allowed me to see the inner workings of how the food industry goes about managing non-conformances received during internal and external food safety inspections and audits. As part of the corrective and preventative action process food safety teams attempt to identify the root causes so that they can proactively prevent the issues from reoccurring. Unfortunately, many food companies continue to face persistent and reoccurring food safety failures and this article aims to explore the root causes behind some of the common root cause failures.

Some of the persistent and reoccurring food safety failures we see in the industry are: 

  1. Consistently failing or just passing food safety audits.

  2. A reactive culture which has got into a routine of short-term fixes (band aids) or ignoring the problems entirely hoping they will go away.

  3. Persistent food safety problems or problems that are corrected only to reoccur later.

  4. A higher than expected number of food safety customer complaints or recalls.

Problem solving and root cause analysis (RCA) has traditionally been a weakness for leaders in the food industry. But why is this the case? Apart from the lack of sufficient resources or the lack of skills, knowledge or discipline, there are 7 pitfalls teams commonly fall into when conducting RCA:

  1. They see symptoms and not systems or processes. Sometimes what appear to be completely separate symptoms may be linked by a common root cause. For example, the failure to assign clear responsibility for tasks may result in different food safety failures, all of which are linked by the lack of clear responsibility.

  2. They duplicate corrective actions. In some instances a team may feel they are addressing root cause if they provide additional solutions. These additional solutions may still only be addressing symptoms and not root cause.

  3. They think of a cause as singular. Persistent problems often have multiple causes. Watch out for using simple RCA tools like the “5 Why’s” that consider singular root cause only.

  4. They assign blame and fault with people and think that they are the reason for the problem. A root cause for a problem can never be an individual. If an individual is involved you need to evaluate why they are exhibiting the actions.

  5. Another pitfall is conducting extra checks. I often see that additional checks are offered as a solution. Additional checks only gather information, they do not control problems. 

  6. The proposed corrective action does not prevent re-occurrence. If this happens teams often do not come up with alternative solutions in case the original solution does not work.

  7. Beware of some of the problem-solving traps where your problem solving attempts are thwarted by personal biases, story-telling, deflection, emotion and judgement.

If we conducted a root cause analysis on why there are root cause analysis failures then we would need to consider the following as realistic and probable causes: 

  1. Not having a formal problem solving process

  2. Not having the RCA skills or experience

  3. Management could be part of the problem and are unwilling to admit to it.

  4. Due to the complexities and pitfalls of RCA, it is often easier to follow a path of least resistance. Often the closer one gets to the root cause the more difficult and complex it becomes to address. 

What can be done to avoid the pitfalls and the causes of root cause failures?

  1. It all starts with Management Commitment. Leaders need to enhance their leadership skills, especially those relating to managing teams, enhancing employee engagement, transformation and of course how to problem-solve and effectively apply RCA tools.

  2. Ensure that formal problem-solving process and RCA tools are understood and implemented.

  3. Master the art of problem solving and RCA. This takes practice and the more you practice not only does it become an art, it becomes a habit.

  4. You can make problem solving and RCA a habit by ensuring it is embedded as part of your corrective actions and continuous improvement processes.

  5. Create high levels of trust in teams. One of the most important characteristics of a leader is their ability to build trust. With trust comes the ability for teams to objectively look at themselves and not to take things personally and allows them to be more neutral and less emotional when conducting RCA. 

  6. “What does not get measured does not get done!” To ensure RCA is done it is suggested that leading measures be established. For example, “the percentage of corrective actions closed out successfully using RCA tools”.

As a conclusion, I thought it would be beneficial to share with you a list of the most common root causes of food safety failures from my experiences in the industry. While this list is definitely not exhaustive, it provides a good indication of what we should be considering. Common root causes for food safety failures include but are not limited to: 

  1. Lack of food safety leadership

  2. Lack of management commitment

  3. Lack of resources (time/money/people)

  4. Lack of accountability/responsibility

  5. Lack of specifications/standards/ expectations

  6. Lack of employee engagement or weak food safety culture

  7. Lack of employee motivation, awareness, capability, knowledge and/or supervision 

To learn more about root cause analysis and EyeOnRisk: Food Safety Solutions please visit the website at