Despite decades of research, implementation of the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code, and millions of dollars invested in food safety training programs, there has not been a significant reduction of foodborne illness outbreaks or food product recalls. Each year, 1 in 6 U.S. citizens gets sick from foodborne illness with 128,000 hospitalizations and approximately 3000 deaths (Scallan, 2011). Many of these outbreaks are caused by post-process contamination and/or poor personal hygiene.  Post-process contamination can occur as the result of ineffective or inadequate cleaning and disinfection (Reij and Den Aantrekker, 2004). Poor personal hygiene can unintentionally spread disease to other workers and customers, as well as food products and food contact surfaces.       

Quality assurance and food safety managers rely on Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) to help produce safe foods. These systems are essential to insuring safe food manufacturing and enables managers to correct errors that may occur during production (Neal et al, 2014; Reij and Den Aantrekker, 2004). The next key step in providing safe food is training all hourly employees. Unfortunately, this may have many challenges, particularly for the protein industry, such as low initial work skills, language barriers, cultural differences, the volume of employees and high turnover.

The food industry as a whole continues to be a gateway for many to enter into the workforce. As a result, employees may have low job-maturity and have limited initial skills when they begin work. Fortunately, many of these skills can be learned quickly on the job. Immigration continues to diversify the profile of the U.S. workforce and the Hispanic population is the fastest growing minority group. Many of these immigrants find work in the various food industries including processing, manufacturing and food service. Language barriers may create workplace tension, misunderstandings about work, safety risks and inefficiencies and inability to communicate effectively.

Employee attitudes have been identified as a predictor of employee behaviors however, little research has been conducted to determine if attitudes towards food safety differs between different cultures. While many food safety classes are offered in multiple languages, they do not address behaviors strengthened by cultural upbringing. Simply translating training materials into different languages does not take into account the level of education of the employee because they may not read in their native language. Also, simply translating the information, the assumption is made that all employees (not just non-English speakers) are visual learners and that all have a similar reading level.

Lastly, due to the notoriously high turnover rates of the food industry, decision makers may not want to invest a lot of time, money or effort into developing food safety training programs for individual employees because within months of receiving the training, the employee may leave (Niode, 2010). Supervisors should identify where cultural barriers to food safety exist, be culturally aware of differences and misconceptions concerning food safety, develop effective methods for communicating proper food safety practices to all employees including non-English speakers and use delivery methods that are rapid and effective.

The Closed Loop Method is a novel approach to food safety that combines determining desired behaviors, proper training and observation to provide feedback to provide continual improvement.  This model considers the learning styles of employees by utilizing auditory, kinesthetic and visual learning techniques.

The model consists of the following six steps:

  • Breaking down a specific process into a sequence of small process steps
  • Determining the desired employee action/behavior at each step and identifying potential deficiencies
  • Observing, measuring and documenting baseline level of employee behavior compliance following training
  • Training front-line employees on what constitutes acceptable behaviors
  • Empowering supervisors to make corrective observations of individual employees. Corrective actions should be non-judgmental and non-punitive in order to focus on continual improvements
  • Repeating the process on a sustained basis to validate employee improvements

The pedagogy is based on significant visual metaphors to help retain employees’ attention, learning modules under 20 minutes, interactive involvement, group activities and workplace training that is directly related to specific workplace activities. One platform that incorporates this methodology is Alchemy Systems, whose Coach technology was incorporated into a recent Behavior Change Study. In the study, plant workers were observed using the Closed Loop training method. The study covered four unique processing facilities, which included one meat-processing facility for foodservice and retail clients, and another meat-production plant that operates as a global supplier of protein goods.

The first plant elected to observe employees during a hopper-filling procedure for meat nuggets; after the hopper-filling process was mapped out a detailed corrective observation checklist was constructed to help align employee behavior with the desired safety standard. The pre-training baseline for employee compliance was only 65 percent, after training that number rose to 74 percent, after a series of corrective observations that number rose to over 90 percent compliance.

In the second meat-production facility, the team observed worker behavior and the impact on workplace safety, specifically looking at the meat tub/grinding process and the potential for worker injury. Again, desired behaviors were charted and observation checklists were created to monitor employee compliance. Pre-training compliance in this facility was 64 percent, post-training it was 85 percent, and after three corrective observations, the second plant achieved 100 percent compliance.

Due to the compelling data gathered during the study, Alchemy has since incorporated Coach, a tablet application, into its available training platform.  During beta-testing, Rudolph Foods’ Ohio facility has clocked more than 298,000 man-hours with only two recordable incidents in the past year, and the plant can boast improved employee compliance overall.

Consumer awareness, social media and increased regulations through the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act all contribute to the increased demands placed on the food industry. Implementing the Closed Loop Model for food safety training is an effective response to these demands by providing a means for continual improvement.  

Dr. Phillip Crandall, professor of Food Safety at the University of Arkansas, also worked on the research study cited in this article.