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College of Human Ecology

Research asks 'Why don't all restaurant workers follow food safety rules?'

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why don't restaurant workers - who handle an estimated 70 billion meals and snacks in the U. S. every year - follow common food safety practices? Why don't they always wash their hands properly? Or keep work surfaces sanitary?

According to a recent Kansas State University study, restaurant workers blame time constraints, inconvenience, inadequate training and inadequate resources for failure to follow food safety practices.

Researchers conducted focus groups with restaurant employees to identify perceived barriers to handwashing, cleaning work surfaces and using food thermometers. Foodborne illnesses are most commonly caused by poor personal hygiene, cross contamination and improper time/temperature controls.

Barriers, they found, were not only a lack of food safety knowledge but also often a lack of understanding why employees should comply with food safety guidelines. Previous research indicated that training increases knowledge regarding food safety issues, but that knowledge does not always translate into improved behaviors.

"We have used the results of this study to develop and implement an intervention program to address the barriers that training appears," said Amber D. Howells, MS, RD and first author.

The restaurant industry employs 13.1 million people, and 59 percent of reported foodborne illness outbreaks were associated with restaurants in 2005. Howells said outbreaks usually are directly related to food-handler error.

Because of the study, researchers recommend that restaurant managers:

  • Provide regular food safety training to their foodservice employees;
  • Educate employees about the consequences of improper food handling to improve attitudes toward food safety;
  • Place signs about consequences of improper food handling in food production areas;
  • Encourage food safety compliance with verbal reminders and praise;
  • Be good role models;
  • Incorporate food safety practices into employees' daily routines to eliminate the perceptions that they do not have time to perform them.

Other researchers with the Department of Hospitality Management and Dietetics were Kevin R. Roberts, PhD and assistant professor; Betsy B. Barrett, PhD, RD and associate professor; and Carol W. Shanklin, PhD, RD and professor as well as interim dean of the Graduate School. Others were Valerie K. York, PhD and an evaluator in the Office of Educational Innovation and Evaluation, and Laura A. Brannon, PhD and associate professor of psychology.

Two series of focus groups were conducted. Focus groups were to identify obvious barriers to following safe food preparation practices. Participants in Group A received no special food safety training. Participants in the second series of focus groups, Group B, received formal ServSafe® training.

Group A consisted of 34 restaurant employees involved in food preparation. The group received no special food safety training. In Group B, 125 employees divided into 20 focus groups received four hours of training from certified ServSafe® instructors.

The research found that employees did not comply with food safety guidelines because of a variety of perceived barriers.

In Group A, additional barriers identified lack of space and other tasks competing with cleaning work surfaces; inconvenient location of sinks and dry skin from handwashing; and lack of working thermometers and thermometers in inconvenient locations.

Group B agreed with Group A, but added other barriers: lack of incentive to clean work surfaces and manager not monitoring the work and manager not monitoring the use of thermometers.

Research results were published in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

This article was posted on Wednesday, December 10, 2008, and is filed under College News, Hospitality Management.