Smartphones might be an important tool for food safety inspectors because of their inconspicuousness. Researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have found that phones used in place of clipboards can improve the quality of data collected during observations. According to a phenomenon called the Hawthorne Effect, people sometimes change their behavior because they know someone is watching. For example, if a food handler sees a researcher or inspector with a clipboard, they know they’re being watched and might adhere more strictly to safe handling practices than they regularly would. In this way, the Hawthorne Effect negatively impacts the quality of information collected. But if the food handler hardly even notices the researcher or inspector looking at their phone (because so many people these days are looking at their phones), then the observer can covertly collect the information they need. The Penn State researchers conducted a survey to assess public perceptions of smartphone use in a retail setting. Participants viewed images of individuals using either a smartphone or a clipboard in a retail environment and provided open-ended responses.

Image: Penn State
The results showed that 95 percent of participants associated images of clipboard use in a retail setting with research and inspection, but none said the images of smartphone use in the same setting suggested observation. The findings were published this month in Food Protection Trends. “We are so into our phones today, and everyone has one and carries it around, so it easily can be used as a nonthreatening tool to make direct, concealed behavioral observations, and no one will ever realize you are doing it,” said Robson Machado, a doctoral candidate in food science. “An observer can just pretend to be texting or fiddling with the phone, while monitoring the interactions between customers and workers in retail establishments, such as supermarket delicatessens.” The researchers also worked with a software developer to create an app for documenting direct concealed observations of food handlers, including the creation of checklists to record aspects such as hand hygiene, the adequacy of hand-washing facilities, the temperature in coolers holding ready-to-eat foods and the presence of potentially hazardous foods. The app allows observers to easily add photos, audio, videos and open-ended notes to their reports. “This study should be of interest to researchers, regulatory personnel and food industry professionals who are seeking ways to evaluate the food safety behaviors of food handlers,” Machado said. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)