The Science of Training, Goals and Food Safety Culture

Although national surveillance data suggest improvements in many facets of food safety, certain aspects of food production management continue to receive less attention in many North American facilities, particularly with respect to the transmission of biological hazards.  For example, interrelationships between food safety goals, training and culture in a facility continue to present opportunities for improvement.  Internal analyses of FSNS audit data suggested that, during the period of 2016-2018, non-conformities written against facility and equipment sanitation and hygiene were second in number only to those written against the quality of food safety documentation programs.  To correct such deficiencies, employee performance must be improved.  So, it appears that improvements in hygienic controls and food safety culture can still be obtained in most facilities.  The question becomes, how should a company address deficiencies that demand improved employee commitment and performance?

An interesting paper was published in the January 2019 edition of the International Journal of Hospitality Management by authors Clark et al. (2019) entitled Exploring the Influence of Food Safety Climate Indicators on Handwashing Practices of Restaurant Food Handlers.  This paper offers some enlightening findings with respect to improving employee performance when it comes to food hygiene control behaviors—which may likely be extrapolated to all sectors of the food supply chain.  Objectives of the study included determining relationships between food safety climate indicators (as a component of food safety culture and including commitment, rewards, and role overload) and food safety behaviors (Clark et al., 2019).

According to the authors, Goal Setting Theory (GST) is “a comprehensive framework of understanding, predicting, and motivating behavior, and has been empirically validated in over 500 published studies.”  Use of GST was selected by the authors as the framework to test the hypothesis that attitudes associated with commitment, perception of rewards given for particular behaviors, and perception of work intensity would impact employee behavior.  In the Clark et al. (2019) study, the employee behavior of interest was that of handwashing to meet U.S. Food Code requirements.

The authors worked with a county health department to interview trained (in food safety information) employees at restaurants as the sole retail outlet of high-risk or ready-to-eat foods.  Ultimately, 66 restaurants (12% of those identified) agreed to participate.  Those restaurants allowed researcher access to 132 employees (of which 124 were used) for data collection (Clark et al., 2019).

Results fortified previous scientific conclusions that management attitudes and values are likely to be the most important components of a “healthy food safety climate” (Clark et al., 2019).  Six total survey attitude-based variables were tested against likelihood of adequately washing hands, including “employee commitment, habit strength, managerial commitments, goal level, contingent rewards, and role overload.”  Only the factor of managerial commitment to handwashing was significantly correlated and served as a reliable predictor of handwashing frequency of employees.  So, organizational (company) beliefs appear to have the most substantial impact on employee behavior and actions—even beyond things like perceived potential for rewards.  In their study (Clark et al., 2019), employee commitment turned out to be greater than management commitment!  Furthermore, the level of goals that were established were statistically associated with employee commitment.  When employees feel they have sufficient time, resources, and training to wash their hands as often as they should, their handwashing goals are more likely to align with their handwashing behavior.

So, as the food industry continues to improve food safety management, clear management commitment, training, and support for specific employee behaviors and goals are absolutely needed to shift behaviors.  If a company perceives less-than-desirable employee behaviors, it may be necessary to “look within” and ascertain whether or not perceptions of management commitment are adequate or not and if training has adequately addressed expectations.


Clark, J. P. Crandall, and J. Reynolds.  2019.  Exploring the Influence of Food Safety Climate Indicators on Handwashing Practices of Restaurant Food Handlers.  Intl. J. Hospitality Mgmt. 77:187-194.

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