Why do restaurant workers -- who handle an estimated 70 billion meals and snacks in the U.S. every year -- sometimes not follow common food safety practices such as washing their hands properly or keeping 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.
K-State 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, an instructor of dietetics, registered dietitian and the study's 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, K-State 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 K-State's department of hospitality management and dietetics involved with the study included Betsy B. Barrett, associate professor and a registered dietitian; Kevin R. Roberts, assistant professor; and Carol W. Shanklin, professor, interim dean of the Graduate School and a registered dietitian. Also involved were Valerie K. York, an evaluator in K-State's office of educational innovation and evaluation, and Laura A. Brannon, associate professor of psychology.
For the study, two series of focus groups were conducted. Focus groups were to identify obvious barriers to following safe food preparation practices. The 34 participants in Group A, all restaurant employees involved in food preparation, received no special food safety training. The 125 participants in the second series of focus groups, Group B, were divided into 20 focus groups and received four hours of formal 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 having dry skin limiting hand-washing; 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. The study was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Shanklin. The $482,763 grant also is funding other food safety research.