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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, February/March 2011

Red, Yellow, Green, Go

Color-coding influences food safety behavior

by Gina R. Nicholson, RS

Color-coding influences food safety behavior

Cultivating behavior change requires a specific communication strategy. The objectives of this strategy are to ensure that food employees and managers throughout the facility are familiar with food safety standards, their role in maintaining these standards, and the consequences of not maintaining these standards.

Methods of communication come in different formats and styles. The formats typically follow visual (pictures, diagrams, charts), auditory (listening), or kinesthetic (emotional connection, hands-on learning) methods. The visual communication method, which has been used to influence behavior internationally for centuries, is one that the food safety industry has adopted. Color coding, in particular, has been proven to modify behavior drastically.

Stop, Slow Down, Go

A great example of this is the stoplight. The colors of the stoplight evoke specific unconscious behaviors. We see red and know that we need to stop, yellow and we approach with caution, green and we continue forward. The history of the traffic light began before automobiles, in London in 1868. The first traffic light was a revolving lantern, using the colors red for “stop” and green for “caution.” Ironically, this hand-operated, gas-powered safety device exploded less than a year into its operation, injuring the policeman operating it. Due to this system’s safety hazards, more than 50 years passed before the electric traffic light was invented and installed in Detroit. This traffic light, using red, amber, and green, has been implemented at busy street crossings all over the world. The simple use of these three colors has influenced human behavior for almost a century.

Everyone Wants to Be Green

The stoplight color-coded system can now be seen in every aspect of food safety. We use it to measure our food safety metrics, indicating the facilities that are properly performing food safety practices, those that need additional coaching and training, and others that need a total food safety overhaul. It is a great motivational tool for facility managers and food employees. No one wants to be known as the yellow or red store. Everyone wants to be green.

Color coding is used in new tools, utilizing heat-sensitive materials, for temperature monitoring of TCS (temperature control for safety) foods. Temperature strips are applied directly on the food packaging or transportation packaging and indicate, through color coding, if the product has been time/temperature abused. Green always indicates safe food.

It is also used in electronic temperature monitoring and alarm systems for refrigeration and freezer cases. Green indicates that ambient air is below 40°F and equipment is working properly. Yellow indicates that ambient air is 40°F - 41°F and maintenance needs to be called. Red indicates ambient air above 41°F; remove food products from the case until maintenance repairs or replaces the unit.

Many regulatory food protection programs use the stoplight color-coding system as a way to communicate the food safety practices of licensed facilities to consumers. Columbus, Ohio’s, Public Health Department uses its SIGNS initiative to tell customers, through the use of color coding, how restaurants and other businesses are meeting health codes. Consumers have access to the inspection and enforcement statuses of more than 8,000 licensed restaurants, markets, public pools and spas, body art studios, campgrounds, manufactured home parks, and solid-waste facilities.

Color-coded signs are the centerpiece of this public information system: Green signs illustrate Columbus Public Health standards were met at inspection; yellow indicates those licensees in the enforcement process; red identifies businesses closed to protect the public from health risks; and white shows businesses placed on probation by the Columbus Board of Health. “At Columbus Public Health, helping people enjoy healthier and safer lives is our number one priority,” said Health Commissioner Teresa Long, MD, MPH. “These signs will help people make informed choices, which ultimately will help reduce food, blood, and water borne illness in our community.”

Separate, Don’t Cross Contaminate

This behavior is easier said than done. Food employees must undergo hours of coaching and training in order to understand this concept. But in a busy commercial kitchen, it can be hard for food employees to remember the specific why, when, and how to preventing cross-contamination. A quick way to influence this food safety behavior is to implement color coding.

Equipment vendors have now latched on to this concept by providing a multitude of color-coded utensils and equipment, from cutting boards, knives, tongs, and food labels to equipment such as slicers, sinks, and food prep tables. This system helps food employees to prevent cross contamination, allowing them to easily remember which types of ingredients can be prepared with which others and where in a safe manner. Color coding enables new employees and employees whose first language is not English to follow proper food safety processes with ease. The color-coding system has become universal in its use:

  • Green: fruits and vegetables
  • Yellow: raw poultry
  • Blue: cooked food
  • White: dairy products
  • Tan: fish and seafood
  • Red: raw meat

Reduce Labor

Color coding food processing areas allows an operation to run much more efficiently. Labor is reduced because employees know exactly where to process foods and can easily identify what foods to pull out of the coolers/freezers. It is also a great way to reduce loss! Using color-coded dating alerts employees to the foods that must be used first in the first in-first out method. No more trying to read someone else’s hard-to-read or smeared handwriting.

Implementing color coding as a communication strategy to influence behavior and drive cultural change in food safety is a win–win situation. Go green in color coding your food safety program. Everybody’s doing it!

Nicholson is food safety manager for the Kroger Company, corporate division. Reach her at gina.nicholson@kroger.com or (614) 898-3413.

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