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Using Behavior-Based Training To Create A Food Safety Culture

The food industry has long recognized that proper food safety training is a critical component to ensuring a safer global food supply. And yet, issues surrounding food handler personal hygiene and cross contamination continue to top the list of food safety risk factors in processing plants.

The food industry has long recognized that proper food safety training is a critical component to ensuring a safer global food supply. And yet, issues surrounding food handler personal hygiene and cross contamination continue to top the list of food safety risk factors in processing plants. Current and widely accepted food safety training models are designed to work from a very basic assumption that we are able to devise comprehensive and prescriptive rules for all food safety practices that will be followed at all times, regardless of the situation. However, we all know from real life experience that this isn’t always the case.

We have heard industry leaders say that in order to reduce or even eliminate food safety risks from our supply chain, we must create a culture of food safety. How do we achieve such a tall order? Our research tells us that cultures are shaped by people’s beliefs and behaviors. With this in mind, NSF International combined leading research on human behavior and psychology with their expertise in food safety to design an intelligent behavior-based food safety assessment model that helps companies build a food safety culture.

Addressing the rogue factor: human behavior

Through using the right certified equipment and designing sound quality manufacturing systems, many facilities are able to significantly reduce food safety risks and develop sanitary environments. However, one rogue element will always remain. Humans, regardless of the sanitary environment in which they are working, still contribute the greatest risk to food processing environments. The prescribed solution to mitigating this risk is to ensure these individuals are given the time, tools and training necessary to facilitate proper food handling practices. However, our assessment of nearly 10,000 trained food handlers to date revealed that 41 percent of these workers still demonstrate a dangerous gap between their knowledge of food safety handling practices and their actual application of these principles in the workplace. How can we close the gap?

People are dynamic. We don’t simply do what we are told, and we can’t be programmed like a computer to perfectly perform at all times. Our research and experience to date, and that of the food companies we work with, confirms our belief that sustainable safe practices within the food sector are best achieved when we go with the grain of human behavior. Only by affecting change in food handler behaviors will we be successful in embedding food safety within organizational culture to bring about change and improvement.

The behavior-based food safety training model

In conjunction with workplace psychologists, NSF International designed a range of assessments and interventions that are designed to achieve sustainable safe behaviors at the lowest possible cost.

Phase 1: Human influence on critical control points

The first phase of this model focuses on identifying the critical control points in the manufacturing process and where these points are influenced by people. It is important to focus on those controls influenced by human behavior, rather than those controlled mechanically.

Phase 2: Safe food handling fundamentals

An assessment is then made to determine if the processing facility has the fundamental elements in place to facilitate proper food safety handling practices and behaviors. This includes determining if there are food safety training programs in place and if food handlers are given time and access to proper tools to follow safe handling practices.

Phase 3: Understanding current behaviors and the reasons for them

This phase is where we start to understand what factors are shaping food handler behaviors (e.g. cultural, attitudinal, lack of knowledge). Food handlers are surveyed to evaluate their understanding of safe food handling practices and how confident they are in their knowledge. By utilizing an online assessment tool, we are able to identify:

  1. Those food handlers who understand in what areas they have been trained
  2. Those who do not understand certain areas and what areas those are
  3. Those who misunderstand their training but have confidence in their knowledge

The latter group is those food handlers who follow incorrect food handling practices with complete confidence and influence those around them to do the same. Food handlers who fall into this category are more pervasive than previous thought. Our research on nearly 10,000 trained food handlers revealed that one-third fall into this category, posing a great risk to food safety systems throughout the supply chain.

Phase 4: Interventions to bring about change

This phase is where we start to implement strategies that create a culture of food safety in the workplace. Nearly three years of research, including understanding key theories on human behavior (e.g. Social Cognitive Theory, Reason’s Barriers, etc.) led us to the understanding that people will follow correct behaviors if they understand implications of mistakes and are confident in their knowledge. Human behavior is also influenced by a number of so-called ‘behavior enablers’:

  • Fear of being caught – I do the right thing because I am worried about being caught
  • Conscience – I do the right thing because I am aware of the consequences of what could go wrong
  • Herd Factor – I do the right thing because everyone else does
  • Incentives – I do the right thing for reward or to avoid punishment
  • Leadership – I do the right thing because I see my boss doing it that way

With the data we collected on food handlers in Phase 3, we can pinpoint bad food safety behaviors and develop systems to reinforce the right food safety behaviors consistently and long term. Instead of applying a blanket food safety training program that may or may not work for all employees, we are able to intelligently apply strategic, behavior-based programs in the specific areas where they are needed. This allows processors to get the most value out of their training resources, while also making the greatest impact on food handler behavior.

Phase 5: Monitoring

An online assessment tool provides clear before-and-after evaluations to help us understand how well the programs are working and where we need to make adjustments to ensure effectiveness.

NSF International food safety experts will offer a seminar on their new behavior-based food safety training model this summer for companies interested in learning more. For more information, contact Dan Fone at 734-214-6241 or [email protected].

Dan Fone is a food safety expert with more than 25 years of experience in the food industry, including extensive knowledge of safety management systems in the U.S. and Europe. As Business Development Director for NSF International’s global food safety division, Fone focuses on assisting global companies improve their food safety systems.