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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, April/May 2010

Overcome the Language Barrier

Bridging the culture and language gap is key

by Gina Nicholson, RS

Gina Nicholson, RS

No matter where I travel in the United States, from large metropolitan cities to small rural towns, I experience the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of different ethnic cultures. I enjoy the fact that our country is so richly populated with people from many different cultures. I may not be fluent in languages other than English, but I believe that food is a universal language. It is the one thing that binds all of us together. The proper practice of safe food preparation, however, is not universal … yet. But I believe we are getting closer to accomplishing this goal through the work of global food safety initiatives.

Our ethnically diverse population is apparent in the many food industry employees whose second language is English. It is important to bridge the culture and language gap as we work to communicate proper food safety practices. This opportunity exists for both regulatory and industry professionals.

I have had the good fortune to work on both sides of the food safety profession. I have also had the experience of developing many food safety education programs designed to teach the food safety professional about cultural and language differences, as well as creating food safety education programs for ethnic food employees who may not speak English at all.

The responsibility of learning acceptable behavior regarding food safety is not the food employee’s alone. We must share in that responsibility too.

Bridging the Gap

Some people believe that translating training materials into the proper language or providing an interpreter ensures successful food safety training. Not true. Understanding the culture is much more important. Teaching management about different cultures, including their practices and languages, as well as how to successfully use “cross-cultural communication,” can assist in bridging the gap between cultures.

Work with specific food safety cultural competency consultants when developing a dynamic training program. These highly trained educators know how to communicate in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate. This understanding will help to address language needs as well as provide an understanding of the specific nuances of cultural differences that exist in the workplace. Understanding how people behave, their motivations, and their belief systems is important when developing effective food safety programs.

One of the best ways to learn about different cultures is to attend meetings held by different professional cultural organizations. I have attended many of the Asian American Commerce Group Ohio Chapter meetings over the years and have learned so much about the different Asian cultures. Over the years, a great respect has been established, resulting in improved food safety practices within this community—and a greater understanding of why these food safety behaviors are so important. The best result has been the development of many cherished friendships.

Work with specific food safety cultural competency consultants when developing a dynamic training program. These highly trained educators know how to communicate in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Education for Multiethnic Populations

Food safety education for employees is the best way to reduce the potential for problems related to foodborne illness. The retail food industry has a large employee population with high rates of turnover. Language and literacy barriers, along with non-uniform systems for training and certifying workers, can pose additional challenges. Trying to develop and teach food safety to multiethnic food employees in every language represented can be very costly.

Use simple language principles when developing food safety education materials. First, write at a sixth grade reading level. Remember to use everyday language, as well as large fonts and lots of white space. To make a visual impact, make your presentation colorful, communicate messages without words, feature a clean and simple design, and include pictures of ethnically diverse individuals.

Many food employees who speak English as a second language may have a high literacy level in their native language. Using the simple language approach does not imply a low literacy or education level but, rather, creates a bridge to cross the language gap that may exist.

To be effective in our jobs, we must learn how to deal effectively with cultures and customs that may be foreign to ours. I have had the opportunity to educate and train many people over the years and have come to realize that they learn from me while I learn from them. I tell myself: “Think about your behavior, not just theirs. They are going to respond to your behavior.” Understanding the issues of culture and language will have a major impact on the way in which food safety is understood and practiced. The responsibility of learning acceptable behavior regarding food safety is not the food employee’s alone. We must share in that responsibility too. ■

Nicholson is food safety manager for the Kroger Company, Columbus, Ohio, division. Reach her at or (614) 898-3413.

Working with Asian Employees, Operators

Patience, respect key to communication

By Josephine Alexander, RS

Working with Asian Employees, Operators When working with Asian facilities, the first thing I do is try to find out the background of the particular employee or operator. Within the various Asian ethnicities, there are many different cultures, languages, and customs. You would never want to assume your operator’s background without asking. Due to different country histories, economic situations, political policies, and religious conflicts, you could offend some of your operators by mistaking their nationalities. Starting off on the wrong foot with an operator or food employee can be detrimental to establishing a long-term cooperative relationship.

Differences and Similarities

Although there are many differences among Asian communities, there are also many similarities. Knowing the similarities and respecting them will help you to gain a more solid footing with your operators. First, please do not take it personally when an elderly Asian operator or food employee is not taking instructions from you well or not making eye contact. In Asian cultures, a person’s authority and creditability is often based on age and gender. I find that being exceptionally nice and polite is very helpful in situations like these.

For example, if I am conducting an inspection with a much older male operator or food employee and I realize he is leaving garlic in an oil mixture out on a spice cart next to a wok, thus creating a potential cause for foodborne illness due to botulism intoxication, I would ask the operator to place the mixture in the nearest cooler. A strategic way to phrase this might be: “I know it is an inconvenience to you and I am truly sorry, but by keeping the mixture in the cooler, you can decrease the chance of foodborne illness in your restaurant, which has a reputation for very delicious food. Thank you so much for doing this.”

This might be hard to do, because we know the operator is in the wrong here, but the goal for those working to promote public health is to make sure operators and employees continue to practice food safety even when we are not there. Stepping back to observe cultural nuances can result in a major leap forward for public health. If you allow your Asian operator to “save face,” he or she will be happy to cooperate and listen.

Be Patient and Smile

Secondly, many Asian facilities are small mom-and-pop operations. They have limited resources and labor. It is very possible that they may have limited proficiency in English. Be patient and check with your company’s records on providing mandatory interpreting services, as laid out in Title VI of Civil Rights Act of 1964, when conducting inspections, explaining regulations, and suggesting improvements. This consideration will increase efficiency and help prevent potential liabilities.

Last but not least, smile! This will help to break all language and cultural barriers. Asian cultures value politeness and the preservation of social respect. Addressing your operator/food employee by last name is a customary way to show proper respect. This may sound formal and rigid to us, but

if you follow these steps, you may find yourself invited to enjoy tea with your operator’s family like a long-lost friend. ■

Alexander is an Asian cultural liaison and a food safety cultural competency consultant. Reach her at

Working with the Hispanic Culture

Learning about their culture will help with communication

By Vincent Fasone, RS

Working with Asian Employees, OperatorsYou may have heard the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” used when referring to individuals who speak the Spanish language. Often used interchangeably, the terms have many different definitions, but are generally understood to mean the following: Latino is defined as “a native or inhabitant of Latin America,” and Hispanic is defined as “a native or inhabitant of a Spanish-speaking country or country that was formerly ruled by Spain.”

When interacting with Hispanic employees, keep in mind that their treatment of one another is usually more formal than is customary here in the U.S. Handshaking is a common practice for greeting and leave taking. Hispanics also tend to be more relaxed and flexible about time and punctuality than Americans, and not being on time is a socially acceptable behavior.

Corruption a Factor

If you are a government official working to ensure proper food safety procedures, keep in mind that in most Latin American countries, corruption among government officials is, unfortunately, the norm. Because of this, the majority of Hispanics are reluctant to trust government officials.

Due to poor economic conditions in their home countries, many Hispanics revert to survival mode, becoming very creative in finding ways to make money to support their families. A large majority opt to sell food from their homes, in front of their houses, at the entrances to subway stations, from the trunks of their cars, and at construction sites. Obviously, this practice poses a huge concern for food safety.

Poor economic conditions cause necessity to become the mother of resourcefulness, and food employees may bring that mindset to the retail food business. Not washing hands thoroughly with soap, drying with paper towels, or washing often enough may have been ways they were taught to save money. These employees may also think that reusing food containers is a way to conserve them. Your employees may need to be reassured that these resources need not be conserved—and told why reusing may pose a food safety hazard.

Interacting With Community

Some key points to keep in mind when interacting with the Hispanic community include:

  • Use Spanish words or phrases that you know, as it indicates respect;
  • Do not discuss immigration status with them;
  • Do not refer to all Hispanics as Mexicans;
  • Be respectful;
  • Do not assume your Hispanic employees have a low level of education; you may be speaking with someone who was a surgeon or lawyer in their home country; and
  • Do not be afraid to shake hands with them upon arrival and departure.

The Hispanic culture is colorful, and the community is strongly oriented around family and religion. They are hard working and respect those they work for. Learning about their cultural behaviors, beliefs, and language will help in communicating the food safety behaviors they need to successfully perform their jobs. ■

Fasone is a Hispanic cultural liaison and consultant. Reach him at



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