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Food Safety Culture - The End Justifies the Means | Part 1

Once upon a time there was a boarding school at the edge of a forest with a river running past the schoolgrounds. The river was unsafe so a fence was erected with a strict instruction to pupils that being caught at the river-side constituted grounds for immediate expulsion. Being a boys’ school there were also other rules that, if transgressed could lead to immediate expulsion, one being smoking. The head-boy of this particular school was a nice guy – popular with the pupils, respected by the teachers, good in sports and academics, and loyal to the school. However, his achilles heel was smoking.

So, when the urge called he would secretly slip away, jump over the fence and hide in the bushes next to the river to take a few puffs.  One day, as the story goes while smoking he suddenly heard screams of distress from the river; without hesitation he dropped everything and immediately ran towards the noise where he found an 8th-grader fighting for his life in the treacherous water. Being a strong swimmer, the head-boy immediately dived in and rescued the boy. As he was pulling him out onto the river bank a horde of pupils and teachers, also hearing the calls for help, gathered to lend a further helping hand. Luckily no-one was hurt, and the 8th-grader made a quick and full recovery. 

Maybe this is just a fable but apparently it has been used as case study to introduce debate on the matter of whether “the end justifies the means”. Imagine the predicament the school’s powers-that-be had to grapple with:

1) do they expel the head boy for breaking the rule irrespective of his deed of bravery?;

2) do they wave the rule and give him a medal of honour?; or

3) opt for a judgement somewhere in the middle – a mitigated punishment like a warning or taking away his head boy status?

“We should replace the fence with higher electric fencing that are linked to an alarm system” some member of the governing body would probably say; “Set more and stricter rules pertaining to the river with harsher punishment if contravened” another would likely recommend; “More elaborate monitoring systems, with security guards patrolling and monitoring the grounds every 30 minutes” another would propose; “All pupils should undergo a compulsory swimming course and staff a course in first-aid” would probably be a demand.

Ironically, although these arguments may have merit, in this story as is often the case in real-life no-one considered the pivotal moment when the head boy made the decision to dive in and save the 8th-grader, nor the considerations that impacted his decision. Yet, this was the pivotal moment that determined a decision with life-or-death consequences, dictated by thoughts and considerations probably far removed from the discussions at the school governing body. The consequences of being caught smoking, the rules and regulations of the school, whether the 8th-grader himself was contravening a rule, the implications for his future – nothing mattered; when he heard the screams, his behaviours were most probably influenced by human and social constructs such as affiliation, intuition, passion and caring – those traits and influences honed his loyalty in the first place. These elements forged a particular culture that significantly impacted his behaviour. Would it not make sense for the governing body to also strengthening the determinants that brought the head-boy to dive in, in the first place?

One may argue that in a perfect world if we adhered to the “means”, no “justifying” would be required and that if everyone followed the rules, no one would have secretly smoked nor went near the river in the first place. Unfortunately, a perfect world does not exist, and boys jump over fences daily. In the South African food industry in recent times there has been a number of instances that echoes with the proverbial 8th-grader fighting for his life, and the bottom-line question that each of us as food safety professionals have to ask is: Am I prepared to dive in?