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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2008

Supervisors Critical in Retail Food Safety

Research finds training alone is not enough

by Colleen Owens

Following safe food handling practices could prevent many food-borne illnesses associated with the retail food service setting. Although food service employees are educated about these safe practices, training does not always lead to compliance. If training does not motivate employees to follow these practices, what does? Unfortunately, there is little current data available on this topic, but researchers are working to change that.

Susan Arendt, PhD, RD, LD, and a team of researchers are studying what prompts food service employees to follow safe food handling practices. Once they understand employees’ motivations, they’ll develop tools that will allow supervisors to tap into them.

This study, which began last September, was borne of the researchers’ previous work in this area. Dr. Arendt and her colleagues realized that training, which is often the primary tool used to motivate employees, has limited effect.

“We found that education, or training, certainly translated into knowledge acquisition regarding food safety, but that didn’t necessarily translate into the practice of safe food behaviors,” says Dr. Arendt, assistant professor in apparel, educational studies, and hospitality management at Iowa State University in Ames. “The bottom line was that just because we trained employees, that didn’t mean that they followed up and implemented their training in food service operations.”

Three-Phase Project

In the first part of the three-phase project, Arendt and colleagues have been testing a theoretical model of employee motivation developed in their earlier research.

To test this model, the researchers administered questionnaires to employees attending trade shows nationwide. More than 200 people participated in the pilot test. The researchers hope to test the validated questionnaire on more than 300 participants.

The second phase will start in the fall, when the team will develop educational modules for supervisors and managers. During the third phase, researchers will test the effectiveness of those training modules.

The team will publish their findings after each phase is completed, Dr. Arendt says. “We plan to develop a piece over the next year that will talk about our results in regards to developing and testing the theoretical model.”

Supervisors Critical

Although their research is still in an early stage, the work completed by Dr. Arendt and her colleagues has already underscored the important role played by supervisors in motivating employees. “Our work really revolves around the pivotal role of the supervisor and how important they are in motivating employees to follow safe food handling practices,” Dr. Arendt says.

In fact, their theoretical model highlights six motivational areas for supervisors:

  • establishing policy and standards;
  • expecting accountability;
  • serving as role models;
  • controlling, rewarding, or punishing;
  • providing training; and
  • providing resources (e.g., hand sinks, soap, and towels).

“I think the supervisor—the manager in charge—is a very important individual in making sure things are done properly,” says Richard H. Linton, PhD, professor of food science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Supervisors must constantly observe what is happening, offering a reward to employees who do things right. When employees do things incorrectly, the supervisor should demonstrate the proper technique and explain its importance without demeaning the employee, he says.

Given the changes in American eating habits, this research is critical. “People are eating out more, eating away from home more, and not preparing their own meals,” Dr. Arendt says.

“Contamination by food service employees leading to outbreaks is not uncommon,” she says. “We need to target [those employees] and make sure [they] are following safe food-handling behaviors. Outbreaks are very costly. They’re costly for those affected by the outbreak, they’re costly for the operation, and they’re costly for the employees.”

Until the final results are in from the Iowa State study, what can operations do now to motivate staff? There are several ways to encourage employees to follow safe food handling practices.

Change Corporate Culture

“Changing the corporate culture and changing the culture of employees is the most important thing that can be done to instill these positive behaviors,” Dr. Linton says. “The corporate culture must come out and say ‘making money is important and food quality is important, but food safety is absolutely paramount.’”

The International Association for Food Protection is developing a program on how to change the corporate culture, Dr. Linton says. “The goal is to put the operations that we know are doing a really good job…together to talk about how they’ve done this in their corporate culture.” Ultimately, this would be a jumping off point for other organizations.

Training, especially food manager certification, is still an important part of the corporate culture, Linton notes. The hands-on training done in the establishment may be even more important, he says.

Brian A. Nummer, PhD, extension food safety specialist and assistant professor of nutrition and food science at Utah State University in Logan, agrees that hands-on training is critical. “When I teach my food safety manager class, I teach managers that they must have hands-on training with their employees and that practice makes perfect.”

Other Motivational Tools

Education is not the only way to motivate, Dr. Linton says. Many companies have encouraged their employees to follow safe food handling practices by offering job-related opportunities and financial incentives, as well as team rewards and recognition. “I’ve seen some companies that have been completely transformed by very easy incentives of just providing recognition for a job well done in the focus on food safety,” he says.

Providing pictorial information on safe food handling practices in the establishment is also effective, Dr. Linton says. Posters reinforce the lessons learned in training. For example, training employees on how to use a three-compartment sink may yield limited results. “But if you train [employees] and provide a picture that is right by the three-compartment sink that shows them how to use it properly, they will probably use it correctly.” Providing these posters in multiple languages yields the greatest results, he says. Videos comparing proper versus improper behaviors are another good motivator, says Dr. Nummer, who is also the director of the Retail-Foodservice Safety Consortium.

According to Dr. Linton, companies are looking for new ways to train and motivate employees. Instead of a traditional classroom setting, these companies are opting for customized training in an electronic format. “Almost in the form of a video game,” Dr. Linton says.

Obstacles to Compliance

There are a few obstacles to employee compliance with safe food handling practices. “The biggest challenge for the operators is high turnover,” Dr. Arendt says. “It’s almost like a revolving door in some operations. … Therefore, you have new employees coming in all of the time. There might not be adequate training provided for these new employees.”

Another challenge is changing any core behavioral practices that the employee has when he or she enters the workplace, Dr. Linton says. “People aren’t taught at home and at school about safe food handling practices. And then we have this expectation that when they start their first job at 16 years old, they know what to do and they know why they’re doing it.”

Often, employees know how to follow safe food handling practices, but they do not know why they should. “The ‘why’ is critical, because if you don’t tell people why, then they don’t want to do it,” Dr. Linton says. “You’ve got to tell them how and you’ve got to tell them why.”

An employee’s attitude can be a hurdle, Dr. Nummer says. “Some employees have subjective norms that are counter-productive. For example, ‘I never cook hamburger this way at home. Why should I at work?’ Thus, motivation can be difficult.

“The major difficulty in behavior-based food safety is the reliance on ‘trust only what you can verify,’” Dr. Nummer continues. “Behavior assessments are paramount to a behavior-based food safety system.” Currently, the best way of assessing behavior is observation, which can be difficult for a manager who is short on time. “Research is needed into behavior assessment methods long before we can really determine if any interventions are working,” Dr. Nummer says.

Owens is a freelance writer based in Kennett Square, Pa. Reach her at



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