The human element of food safety
July 13, 2016
by Bob Sims
Frank Yiannas, author and vice-president of food safety for Wal-Mart, said organizations may use psychology and social/behavioral sciences to their advantage as they work to improve employee compliance with food safety protocols.
BENTONVILLE, ARK. — Recently, everything from Listeria to E. coli to Campylobacter has given American consumers good reason to worry about the safety of their food. The industry has responded and is making every effort to improve the safety of food by utilizing science-based testing and sampling practices, detection technologies, food safety training and education, and multiple interventions. However, other scientific fields could take food safety to a new level. Frank Yiannas, author and vice-president of food safety for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said he believes the “soft sciences” outlined in his newest book, “Food Safety = Behavior: 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance,” hold the answer to changing the face of food safety for the better.
Mr. Yiannas’ first book, “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System,” was published in 2009 and described food safety as a frame of mind that everyone in an organization buys into rather than a list of rules outlined in a training manual. The new book explores ways organizations may use psychology and social/behavioral sciences to their advantage as they work to improve employee compliance with food safety protocols.
Human behavior and food safety
Mr. Yiannas said he pondered the realization that no matter how much training food safety employees receive, sometimes they still don’t do the things an employer wants them to do.
“I knew that there was something missing,” he said.
The idea to connect food safety to the behavioral sciences occurred to him before he worked in the food safety field.
“The real crystallization occurred years ago when I was leading occupational safety and health at the Disney Co.,” Mr. Yiannas said. “We could design the safest facilities, we could give people the safest work tools and personal protective equipment, we could train and educate them about safety, yet there were still some employees that would get hurt. They just weren’t following procedures.”
Mr. Yiannas believes his book, “Food Safety = Behavior: 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance," may hold the answer to changing the face of food safety for the better.
Mr. Yiannas said the occupational safety and health field had already begun to explore the role that the human element, attitudes, decisions and choices play regarding occupational injury. It was combining its hard sciences, such as facility design, with the behavioral sciences.
“I just thought those same principles would apply in food safety, and over the years I’ve experienced that they certainly have,” he said.
Without much research in the behavioral sciences that directly relates to food safety, Mr. Yiannas began to review general behavioral science studies and find those that could have food safety applications.
Connecting the dots
After publishing the first book as an introduction to why food safety professionals should consider the role of human behavior in advancing food safety, Mr. Yiannas continued his research in the fields of psychology, social science and behavioral science by reading as many studies as he could find.
“I’ve literally read hundreds of them over the years,” he says.
Mr. Yiannas found that many of the principles he discovered in his readings on behavioral sciences were proven accurate over and over again.
“I decided to pare down the hundreds of articles and papers that I’ve read into what I perceive to be 30 of the most important or applicable concepts to food safety,” he said.
Each chapter of Mr. Yiannas’ book represents one of these 30 food safety concepts. While the scientific studies do not directly cover food safety, each chapter ends with a summary addressing the question: “What does this mean to food safety?” This is where Mr. Yiannas guides the reader in directing the technique covered toward how it might help a given individual or organization’s food safety program.
Leading by example
Dealing with a workforce of 2.2 million associates worldwide at Wal-Mart, Mr. Yiannas said he understands the challenges and difficulties of implementing solid and successful food safety practices into a large organization.
“If you think about trying to advance food safety in an organization of this size, you have to go beyond mere food science,” Mr. Yiannas said. “You have to try to understand why people do what they do and present information and design things in such a way that it’s easier for people to do.”
In Chapter 2, “Getting Your Foot in the Door for Food Safety,” Mr. Yiannas refers to two different studies focused on the principle of commitment. They conclude that follow-through drastically increases when people actually make a commitment to carry out actions in response to a request. By requiring a written (or electronic) commitment stating adherence to a principle, employees are more likely to behave in the desired fashion.
Usually when an employee attends an educational session, the request is that they acknowledge they’ve received the training. Generally, this is for a recordkeeping purpose. In some cases, this record of receiving training gives management or the overseeing person/department the ability to hold an employee who hasn’t followed the training responsible and proceed with a disciplinary action.
However, the employees at Wal-Mart are asked to take another step after receiving educational training.
“We’ve leveraged the principle of commitment in our training,” Mr. Yiannas said. “Rather than just asking somebody to sign or click a box saying that they took the training, at the end of our training we ask our associates to commit that they’re going to practice the principles they’ve learned in that training course.”
Historically, food safety has been centered on inspections as well as facility and equipment design and has been based on microbiology and epidemiology. But the food safety landscape of today and the future continues to move in the direction of people and their behavior.
“If you were able to quantify how many times ‘food safety culture’ and ‘food safety behavior’ were used in the 1980s, it would be very small,” Mr. Yiannas said.
In today’s food safety world, that sort of terminology has become much more common in the industry. To emphasize the change, Mr. Yiannas said he recently received an e-mail from an executive with a prominent food brand whose title is “Manager of Food Safety Culture.”
A poll by IFIC titled "What is the most important food safety issue for you and your family today?" garnered these results.
“I think it’s this growing realization,” Mr. Yiannas said. “I’ve been in the profession a while, and at no point in my career has there been this greater realization that, despite the fact that we have HACCP plans, micro tests and we do inspections, we’ve got to get better at the human elements of food safety.”
Mr. Yiannas said he used existing behavioral studies as the basis to write his newest book, but they weren’t specifically food safety focused because there aren’t any such studies out there. But, he said, that might start to change.
“What I’ve seen and heard since I published the book is universities and institutions interested in trying to design studies,” he said.
Until then, companies still try to leverage the principles of the book however they can, using it in creative ways that apply to their food safety programs. The organizations that do so have seen success.
“We’ve heard from some of the world’s leading brands on how a chapter or more has resonated and how they’ve taken a tip or principle in the book and applied it to how they’re doing food safety in their company,” Mr. Yiannas said. “My recommendation would be to read each chapter, pause and brainstorm, and then challenge yourself on what it means to your company, your personal situation and how you might try to apply or leverage it in your organization or company.”
Mr. Yiannas said he has received a great amount of positive feedback on “Food Safety = Behavior: 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance.” Several readers have told him that they enjoyed this book more than the first.
The book continues to interest major players in the food world that make food safety a top priority. Since its publishing, large and recognizable companies have purchased it and given it to their plant managers. In addition, regulatory agencies from around the world have expressed an interest.
“Some of the feedback I’ve gotten is that they’re just real practical tips on how to enhance food safety from a behavioral science standpoint,” Mr. Yiannas said. “I’ve also gotten feedback that the tips are so practical that they’ve leveraged them, not only in their food safety programs, but those same principles in their occupational safety and health programs.”
Sara Mortimore, vice-president of product safety and quality and regulatory affairs at Land O’ Lakes, Inc., said that all levels and functions within the Land O’ Lakes organization bear the responsibility of food safety. Mr. Yiannas’ book has proved to be indispensable to her and her company.
“‘Food Safety = Behavior’ contains a wealth of useful and practical insights for those in the food business,” Ms. Mortimore said. “It is thought provoking, and as I read, I was frequently sidetracked by the many ideas that kept coming into my mind and how to develop and implement them in my company. It’s that sort of book – hard to put down and an information source that I’d now not want to be without.”
Regulatory agencies seem to believe in Mr. Yiannas’ approach to food safety as well. They believe food safety professionals must take a closer look at the behavioral sciences regarding individuals and their actions in the food world.
“Individual behaviors and attitudes play an important yet often overlooked role in ensuring food safety,” said Chris Waldrop, senior public health educator, office of analytics and outreach, CFSAN/U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “The examples (in Mr. Yiannas’ book) offer new ways of thinking about how best to engage people in building a culture of food safety.”