So where should a food safety culture begin? For the vast majority of us in this business it’s when we started working in the industry and had the good fortune to work for a company that was really committed to food safety. Unfortunately, we all know that developing a food safety culture isn’t easy, especially when employees have limited food safety knowledge or a legacy of poor food safety practices. The fact is that employers prefer to hire people who already have good food safety experience, and try to hire people from other companies that have good food safety cultures.
But what if the basics of a food safety culture could start in grade school so that the value of food safety is internalized as a priority? Wouldn’t this reduce our training costs? Could it reduce recalls? Could this have other societal benefits?
I can tell you from my more than 25 years as a youth leader, that most 11- to 12-year-old boys and girls demonstrate woefully little knowledge of personal hygiene, sanitation, cross contamination, cooking and cooling, foodborne illnesses and other risky food safety behaviours.
During youth group activities involving food, my professional food safety bias is often in conflict with society’s view that “kids will be kids.” That was until I read a research paper on the subject in a January/February issue of Food Protection Trends, coauthored by Jennifer Richards and Amy Beavers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. After reading the article, I had to agree with the authors that teaching food safety to youth would have huge benefits to youth and society in general but also, I thought, to the food industry.
First some background about the study. Students in 18 schools with Grades 6 to 8 in six states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina and Tennessee) submitted 1,125 “useable questionnaires” to provide the data for this study. Forty-three per cent of respondents were male, while 57 per cent were female.
The questionnaire asked students about their knowledge about food safety and its importance, with such topics as:
1. How to wash hands as an important part of personal hygiene.
2. The difference between cleaning and sanitation.
3. Prevention of cross contamination.
4. How to measure temperatures when cooking and cooling foods and how to store foods.
5. Why food safety is important to prevent foodborne illness.
6. How to avoid food high-risk behaviours that could lead to food poisoning.
The highest score reported was for personal hygiene, which the authors contend reflects a “strong and consistent message students receive beginning in early childhood…about the need for and importance of frequent hand washing.” All of the other food safety skills scored well below personal hygiene, with cross contamination and high-risk behaviour scoring the lowest.
I believe that the results would be no different in Canada if such a study was done here.
Our problem or our opportunity
The potential benefits of educating our youth about food safety don’t stop at lowering our training cost and reducing food-related incidents. Studies have shown that people who adopt and follow good lifestyles, which include good food safety habits, lead healthier and more productive lives, and that, in turn, reduces costs to our health care system.
Industry needs to convince both federal and provincial governments that the benefits of food safety culture curricula to youth, the agri-food industry and society in general are worth the investment. Then the challenge facing educators will be to develop curricula that interest and inspire students to want to learn and apply good food safety skills. To accomplish that, industry leaders must be willing to share their knowledge and expertise with educators and to participate in curriculum development. This is something that national and provincial agri-food associations should do on behalf of their members. Who is up to the challenge?
Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd., based in Delta, B.C. Contact him at email@example.com