In my opinion as a food safety expert, there’s a huge difference between food safety education and food safety training. Food safety education is an ongoing effort to teach food service professionals about more than just the “basics.” It’s helping them understand why food safety is so important, the proper protocols to follow, how to prevent contamination, etc. – on an ongoing basis. Think of it this way: Do you want your children to attend sex education or sex training?
Food safety education is critical. Maybe that’s where the food safety problems lie: food safety must be looked at as an education program rather than part of a one-time training program where the material isn’t reinforced or remembered.
I was recently speaking to a friend who asked me, “How do we make people really care about food safety?” We work in two different arenas within the food service industry. Having an extensive background in the industry, I want to think everyone does care and I tend to get immediately defensive about this issue, and the industry as a whole. But the fact is, there are some in the business who only care about profitability and don’t give two hoots about safe food. Will we ever be able to reach those individuals and convince them that food safety is important? I don’t know…but I give it my best shot every day.
I believe that most food service operators, corporations, and private entities do care about serving safe food, but that wasn’t really what my friend’s question was about. If you’re a CEO, stockholder or key executive, you have much more at stake in the business, and much more reason to care about food safety. If your restaurant has a foodborne illness outbreak, the damage it would cause (lowered profits, falling stocks, consumer mistrust), would hit these folks where it hurts. His question was more about how we make the entry level restaurant employees care about food safety? It’s a major obstacle that every company in the food service industry faces. That evening, I thought about this dilemma for hours.
While I believe a solid food safety culture begins at the top of an organization, many of the fundamentals of that culture must be implemented by entry-level employees as well as management. As we’ve seen over the past few years, there’s often a breakdown in execution, resulting in foodborne illness outbreaks. If entry level (or any level) employees don’t care about food safety, they may not make the extra effort to wash their hands often, remove their aprons before using the restrooms, properly clean and sanitize equipment, etc.
I’m going out on a limb and guessing that in at least a few of recent cases of foodborne illness outbreaks, the employees had received food safety training, had proper tools, and the companies had proper policies and procedures in place. Yet, the foodborne illness incidents still occurred. Why?
First and foremost, I’m an educator. I believe that for someone to care, they must understand. Employees need to understand that if they came to work with vomiting and/or diarrhea, didn’t wash their hands properly after using the restroom and handled food or equipment, it could cause a Norovirus outbreak – potentially sickening guests, harming the brand, and costing them their job. They need to understand that if ground beef is not cooked to 155°F, someone could get E.coli and die. Do these employees truly understand why they must cook poultry to 165°F, and not cross-contaminate raw proteins (poultry, meats, eggs) with ready-to-eat foods? Or was their food safety training program an exercise in futility? Did their employer train them because the task is a regulatory/corporate requirement, but soon all lessons from training were forgotten?
Restaurants’ food safety education programs should achieve positive, measurable results. A solid technology infrastructure will make the education process seamless. Instructors must be dynamic, personable, engaging, and positive, making the material relevant and memorable.
It’s essential to implement an ongoing, continuing food safety education process to maximize successes. Measure your program’s successes with third-party inspections, mystery shoppers, and follow-up software programs. These programs and solutions can be implemented regardless of a company’s goals or budget, helping them effectively, efficiently, and safely run their operations.
Reward systems are incredibly effective, so reward your employees for participating in education programs and implementing the protocols they’ve learned. Rewards can be simple and inexpensive: a paid day off, pizza parties, movie passes, etc. Make them feel appreciated. Rewards don’t always need to be monetary, not everyone is motivated by money.
I believe that we can get more people to care about food safety by properly educating them on this topic. To maximize successes, emphasize food safety education, explain why food safety protocols are important, model proper behaviors, and reward employees for following proper procedures. By properly educating employees – and getting them to care about food safety – we can reduce the foodborne illness incidents and risks.