Four tools to help fight food borne illness & boost food safety efforts

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Related tags Food safety Foodborne illness

Declaring that public health professionals are “losing the battle” against food borne illness, a former president of the International Association of Food Protection suggests food safety specialists over-rely on training, inspecting and testing and instead need to adopt new strategies to succeed. 

Pointing to a baseline study from FDA that tracked compliance rates for risk factors of food borne illness, Walmart’s Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas expressed frustration about ongoing improper temperature, personal hygiene and protection from contamination over a decade ending in 2008.

“We can’t even significantly reduce the risk factors of food borne illness. Why is that?​” he asked attendees at the 2017 Consumer Food Safety Education Conference in Washington, DC, Jan. 26.

The answer, he suggested, is “food safety specialists haven’t had enough tools in their toolbox.”

He added that the three tools most often used are inspections, testing and training, and all three have limited impact.

“Some of you will say … ‘training today is really good. I’m a great trainer,’ but, listen, the training you might be doing is a little better, but it doesn’t really impress me. We have been training food safety professionals for a long time,”​ he said.

As for inspections and tests, he noted that they are reactionary and there is no way to inspect or “test our way to food safety.”

He added: “Think about how despite the fact we have trained millions of employees, despite the food safety community conducting millions of inspections and conducting millions of tests, and the number of tests continue to increase exponentially, food safety is a significant public health challenge, and most of you tell me we are not winning the battle against food borne disease.”

Acknowledging that the behavior changed needed to make real progress against food borne illness “is complex stuff,”​ Yiannas said, “to be successful, you must do a good combination of blending traditional food science – what we learned in college – and behavior science.”

On the behavior science front, he suggested food safety professionals:

  1. Embrace enclothed cognition – This is a “proven principle”​ that what people wear influences how they behave. Yiannes pointed to a 2012 study that asked college students to perform a “complex, difficult cognitive task”​ wearing either street clothes or a doctor’s coat. Those in the doctor’s coats had 50% fewer errors than those in street clothes. An example of this in food safety is a Walmart program that directed associates to wear a black apron at work. The company used that apron as a physical reminder and symbol of the responsibility to follow food safety standards, Yiannas said.
  2. Teach both the right way and the wrong way – Showing people how to reduce the risk of food borne illness alone is not as effective as also showing them what happens when they make mistakes. Sharing lessons learned can drive home the consequences and give people experience gleaned from the “wrong way”​ in addition to knowledge and skills learned from the “right way,”​ Yiannas said.
  3. Make food safety the norm – Most people want to fit in, so if they are told 75% of people wash their hands with soap and water they are more likely to follow suit than if they are told 25% don’t wash their hands, Yiannas said.
  4. Make it rhyme to keep it in mind – Dry PowerPoint presentations and handouts delineating food safety standards are lucky to get a once over, but a catchy rhyme, like the chorus of a song, can easily become stuck in someone’s head – driving home the message and likely influencing behavior. Walmart followed this advice by making a memorable, modern rap song and video about food safety standards for their deli employees, Yiannas said. 

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