ISU team leads USDA study on motivators for safer retail food handling practices

AMES, Iowa -- In January, the Kansas Department of Health and Development was notified that a group of professional consultants had eaten meals served at a Shawnee, Kan. restaurant, and several had subsequently become ill. The department's report concluded that the outbreak was likely caused by norovirus, which may be transmitted via the fecal-oral route through food that has been contaminated by the hands of an ill food handler.

The World Health Organization reports that more than two billion people are affected by foodborne illnesses annually, many caused by foods served in retail foodservice operations -- including restaurants, hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

A team of Iowa State University researchers would like to change that. They're conducting a three-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), on what motivates retail foodservice employees to follow safe food handling practices. The project will eventually produce training modules for supervisors on how they can get their employees to more readily practice and sustain safe food handling behavior.

"We know traditional food safety training alone is not enough to make behavior in the retail operation consistently happen," said Susan W. Arendt, an assistant professor in apparel, educational studies and hospitality management (AESHM) at Iowa State, and the lead investigator on the study.

"That's not to say that training and knowledge about safe food handling practices aren't important. But our focus is on looking at what motivational factors need to be in place to either make that food safety behavior happen initially, or sustain the behavior related to safe food handling."

Arendt is joined by Iowa State researchers Catherine Strohbehn, a hotel, restaurant and institution management ISU Extension program specialist and adjunct associate professor in AESHM; Janell Meyer, project coordinator; and Paola Paez, a doctoral student in ISU's foodservice management and lodging program, on the study. Jason Ellis, an assistant professor in agriculture communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Kevin Roberts, an assistant professor at Kansas State University, are also collaborating on the research, which began in September 2007.

First paper studies role of supervisors

As a result of preliminary research gathered from a questionnaire administered to 169 hospitality management students at Iowa State, the team authored the paper "Employee Motivators for Following Food Safety Practices: Pivotal Role of Supervision," which was published in the October 2008 edition of Food Protection Trends. The study identifies factors that would motivate college-aged foodservice employees to follow safe food handling practices, detailing the pivotal role supervisors play in food safety with young employees.

"Younger folks appear more externally motivated [by managers or supervisors], so it's important for a supervisor to realize that and work with that information," Arendt said. "That contrasts what we've found so far from the older group [taken from phase two of the project, conducting focus groups with 30 foodservice workers throughout Iowa] where there's still this threat that external motivation is somewhat important, but they're more internally motivated -- saying 'I do this because I believe it's the right things to do.'

"It appears, based on preliminary findings, that there are possible generational differences, but further work on the project will allow for conclusions," she said.

And because the age groups seem to be motivated differently, the researchers theorize that different methods may be needed to get them to practice greater food safety. While they haven't completed their analysis, Arendt says they concur with other educational research findings that the use of new technology appears to be more attractive to younger employees than the older ones. So instead of using a traditional classroom setting or having an employee simply read the food safety manual, customized training in an electronic format -- such as an interactive video game -- might be more motivational for some foodservice employees.

One size doesn't fit all

But regardless of the teaching method, customization may be important in improving upon outcomes.

"I think sometimes as managers and supervisors, we have this notion that one size fits all, and so the training is the same for everyone," Arendt said. "We treat everyone in the operation as if we all have the same motivations, and that's simply not as effective."

And the researchers have great motivation to make food safety training more efficient in retail operations -- for good reason.

"Most of the outbreaks do occur in retail foodservice operations, and therefore our focus is on that area," Arendt said. "We're not just talking about restaurants, which are at that commercial end of things, but we also talk about non-commercial foodservice. So in non-commercial, we talk about our schools serving young children and elderly care facilities. These are high-risk populations and if they should acquire a foodborne illness, it has the potential of being serious, even deadly, to someone in these vulnerable populations."

The research conducted through the current USDA grant will be completed by August 2010, although Arendt says they are writing another grant proposal to apply for the next cycle of funding.