We know many food handlers are trained in food safety, but what ensures that they will put their food safety knowledge into practice?  They might know they should wash their hands before preparing your pasta, but if no one is watching, what makes them do it anyway?

Professors Susan Arendt and Catherine Strohnbehn of Iowa State University and their team of researchers are attempting to figure out what motivates food handlers to put safe food handling techniques into practice, and how food managers can provide them with the motivation they need to do this.

 “Food service employees are the last line of defense, or the last line of contamination, depending on how you look at it,” Arendt says.  What Arendt and others are researching is what inspires these employees to join the defensive team.

Researchers have identified four key ingredients in motivating employees to practice food safety:

— Provide resources such as towels, sanitizing solution, and enough time to take safety measures

— Recognize employees who practice good food safety and discipline those who do not

— Inspire internal motivation: Help employees to feel proud about keeping people safe and contributing to a clean work environment

— Communicate: Model appropriate food safety behavior and make food safety rules clear 

The project’s ultimate goal is to provide training tools to managers so that they can implement these practices in their establishments.

This project, a collaboration between Iowa State University’s Extension Service and other ISU departments, is just one way Extension programs are taking the pulse of what will keep people safe when eating food outside their homes.

Another research project looks at how to tailor food safety education to different demographics, because food handlers span four different generations and come from many backgrounds.  A younger or more computer-savvy employee might learn better online, while an older employee might benefit more from a pamphlet.  Someone with low reading skills might learn more successfully using an interactive video.

As the researchers start developing educational materials they may even develop a podcast for younger food industry workers.

Americans now spend almost half their food budget on food consumed outside the home, Arendt explains, so research on educating food handlers is becoming increasingly important.  “While food safety at home is still important,” she says, “If we have an outbreak in retail food service, hospitals can make lots of patients sick or school food services can make lots of children sick.”

ISU Extension programs aren’t just researching food safety, they are actively teaching it as well.  Extension programs deliver the basics of safe food handling to about 7,000 food service workers a year, and provide safe food handling certification to close to 1,000 food service employees through the ServSafe® program.

“We want people to have the information they need day one on the job before they go and handle retail food,” says Strohbehn, a certified food safety professor and HRIM Extension Specialist.

Strohbehn says food servers often learn about the potential dangers of food serving they didn’t know existed by taking these classes. For example, some of them hadn’t realized the dangers of cross-contamination, such as touching a door handle after someone who didn’t wash their hands. 

Strohbehn offers food safety education close to home, too.  She teaches nearly 2,000 students on campus each year how to serve food safely at campus events. 

ISU Extension’s impact on food safety doesn’t stop at education.  As Iowa debates whether or not to legalize the sale of raw milk products, Strohbehn and others from ISU Extension are being called upon to provide the latest scientific data on raw milk safety and recent outbreaks linked to contaminated raw milk.

In all these ways, ISU Extension works at staying up-to-date on technology and current issues surrounding food safety and how to promote that information to the community.

Strohbehn, who says she still marvels at the convenience of participating in an interview from a cell phone outside her office, describes a new cooking temperature iPod app the Extension service is developing: “It’s an easy way for guys sitting around the grill to look up what temperature to cook the meat,” she explains.


To learn more about ISU’s Extension Service, please visit http://www.extension.iastate.edu/.

For its Food Safety website, go to http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsafety/.

To learn more about ISU Extention’s ongoing research in food safety, go to http://www.extension.iastate.edu/HRIM/HACCP.