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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2012

Case Studies in Cultural Awareness in Food Safety

by Neil Canavan

Personal behavior often has a cultural context, and cultural norms can vary between racial/ethnic groups, which explains the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Because of the strong relationship between personal habits and food safety, however, effective communication of standardized safety rules and regulations to a multicultural labor force can only happen if everyone is on the same page. For instance, in 2011, the California legislature passed a law that mandates training for all food workers working in a retail foodservice establishment—followed by a test to earn the California Food Handlers Card. One of the companies translating that requirement into action is StateFoodSafety.com of Orem, Utah.

“We were the first CFHC provider,” said Christie Lewis, PhD, president of StateFoodSafety.com. The online training course is fully audio-visual and is available in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese. “The strength of our organization is that we really work very closely with each of the stakeholders to provide them what they need.” The company works with health departments throughout the country, and courses are tailored to the cultural needs of the workers and the regulatory needs of the region.

“One of the things that’s important in terms of cultural differences is that none of the training or tests rely on literacy levels.” Materials are written at a sixth-grade reading level and bolstered by companion audio-visual components so that “everything should be understood by everybody,” said Dr. Lewis.

In training, cultural sensitivities are first addressed by avoiding the use of real people in visual aids. “Our programs are all illustrated, because that allows us the opportunity to bring in different cultures into the imagery,” Dr. Lewis said. In her experience, the use of an actual person invites the viewers to divorce themselves from the message being presented. “They say, ‘That doesn’t look like me,’ and they won’t identify.”

StateFoodSafety.com is also very careful with the specifics of language. “The communication must be very straightforward—you can’t use idioms, for instance—it might not translate.” The phrase

“No use crying over spilt milk” comes to mind: Does it convey the same meaning in Mandarin?

Avoid the Appearance of Bias

When addressing specific behaviors, the message can easily be misinterpreted to have racial or ethnic overtones. “This is a real challenge,” said Dr. Lewis. “But what we can

do is put the message in the context of consequences in a worker’s particular setting.” This goes to the foundation of StateFoodSafety.com training—getting the trainee to understand the terrible, sometimes fatal, consequences of lapses in food safety procedures. “It’s not just you that might lose a job, or the company goes under. Somebody you care about could die.”

As to those specific behaviors, “no matter what ethnic group it is, personal hygiene is the biggest issue,” Dr. Lewis said, so training is quite specific: Wash your hands, certainly, but, more specifically, don’t pick your nose, don’t touch your face/hair, don’t work with an open sore, and so on.

When it comes to illness, “There are cultural variations in terms of who just powers through and goes to work,”

Dr. Lewis said, “but in the foodservice industry, when the consequences can be so serious, you have to emphasize that these are the times when you really cannot be around food.”

The key to addressing cultural issues while avoiding the appearance of bias is standardized training, according to Dr. Lewis. “With our online program, because everybody has heard exactly the same information, they tend to accept it and be more accountable to it.” In the past, training was handled by individual health inspectors, each with a different teaching style and differing emphasis on the issues. “But if everyone within the organization or within a region is taking the very same course, it really encourages standardized behavior and the perception of fair enforcement of the rules,” Dr. Lewis said.

Management Is the Difference

For labor policies to be fair, the rules have to apply to everyone. “We see this quite often, where employees feel that they have been treated unfairly because of their race or background,” said Roy Costa,president of Environ Health Associates, a food safety consultancy in DeLand, Fla. “But the problem stems from organizational dysfunction on the HR side.”

To organize, you need to document; there should be clearly written performance objectives for any job. “Those things become hyper important when you’re dealing with a different culture. If you don’t have job descriptions and you don’t have performance appraisals, you are opening yourself up for problems.”

On the flip side, the problematic behavior of an individual must be dealt with from the standpoint of respect for, and understanding of, a given culture, while at the same time not treating the person as a part of a group.

Consider the habit of gum chewing: “We find that some cultures chew gum while they work, and it’s hard to break that habit.” Yet, the problem must first be addressed globally—no gum chewing—then individually, should the behavior persist.

Understanding certain behaviors is also necessary. “In some cultures, women wear jewelry as a sign of social status,” explained Costa. While this is an obvious sanitation issue in food handling, the discussion must begin at the social level. “If you talk to

people and acknowledge their concerns, then explain to them what your concerns are, you’re on much better footing than just saying, ‘Look, no jewelry allowed.’”

Finally, cultural sensitivity must be encouraged among cultures. “With a multicultural workforce you will see cliques forming,” warned Costa, “and this can result in turf wars within a plant.”

The solution is to break down the cultural barriers. “When you recognize those types of things happening, one strategy is to bring them together into some kind of working group—a sanitation committee or HACCP group, for example.” Such a measure must be multidimensional, cutting across operational areas—maintenance, shipping, sanitation, and so on—for maximum inclusion. Giving diverse groups a common goal, with a globally understood and enforced set of behavioral standards, is the best way to ensure food safety and workplace harmony.


Neil Canavan is a science/medical writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Reach him at ncanavan@hotmail.com.

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