Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Bridging the Gap in Food Safety Training at the Frontlines

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Invest in continuous training of your frontline employees on the rudiments of food safety, to empower them, to safeguard the huge cost of corporate food safety management system, to protect your brand, and to protect the public health.

Whenever food safety professionals gather together in any conference, there is always emphasis on how to close the training gap that exists between industry best standards and the actual food safety practices on the frontlines of consumer interface. In retail foodservice, this enormous training gap can be better visualized in the publicly available records of local health inspections or in the privately held third party food safety audit reports. As a food safety enthusiast, I do check on these health department scores on restaurants before taking my family out for our favorite meals. Such consumer pre-check vetting is becoming routine for several social media savvy individuals as this information becomes easily accessible to the public on hand-held electronic devices.

HDScores is a good example of an app that shows health inspection scores for restaurants and other food establishments. As part of public service, local news media also publish these health inspection violations to guide consumers in making better and safe choices. These violations have direct negative impact on the bottom line, especially for repeat and gross violations like pest management issues which can lead to closure of the facility until adequate corrective actions are implemented and the facility is certified compliant before it opens for business again, in the interest of public safety.

According to health inspection records, there are three most common food safety violations, which include failure to wash hands, improper temperature control, and cross-contamination challenges. Below are examples of actual violation citations from health inspectors:

  • Single-use gloves used for multiple tasks that present risk of cross-contamination.
  • Food prep employees wearing gloves to prepare food and then used to open cooler doors and get items from the back kitchen; employees then return to the front prep line and continue food prep without discarding gloves, washing hands, and putting new gloves.
  • Cutting boards in disrepair with significant cuts and mold build-up.
  • Ice-machine and area around soda dispenser nozzles were unclean with significant mold build-up.
  • Dish machine observed cleaning dishes without dispensing any sanitizer.
  • Food observed in walk-in cooler and racks in prep area that had been cooling for 2+ hours without reaching 70 ̊ F.
  • Potentially hazardous food made onsite were observed without labels, and not properly cooled.
  • In use wet wiping cloths stored in chlorine sanitizer that was below 50 ppm.
  • Employee observed discarding trash outside, and then re-entered facility and started working on cookie dough without washing hands.

While food safety employees at the corporate offices are adequately trained and participate in refresher courses through conferences and workshops, the frontline foodservice employees are not as lucky, and yet they are the ones that actually implement the fancy and sometimes complicated SOPs conceptualized and developed by the corporate food safety staff.

Let’s face it folks; our food safety management system is as good as the efficiency and effectiveness of its implementation by employees with direct access to food and food products at the frontlines. We must endeavor to give these very important stakeholders the right tools and adequate training to get the job done.

A conscientious head of Food Safety in one of the large retail foodservice chains who wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of their approved SOPs, volunteered to exchange his corporate suit with an apron, and worked the entire day at the restaurant, performing assigned chores exactly as written and approved by corporate. To his chagrin, he discovered that the simplest of tasks was not only time consuming and labor intensive but absolutely impossible to implement according to the books. The SOPs were simply not operationally feasible!

The take home message was that SOPs must be operationalized within the context of the prevailing conditions in the retail foodservice units, in a simple language that could easily be understood and replicated by foodservice employees who are mostly young adults in career transition status.

Other factors that may account for this training gap include the high turn-over rate for these young hourly and seasonal employees who receive little or no food safety training before getting involved in the next peak sales rush hour. The use of e-learning modules on hand-held devices may be the preferred option to reach employees in real time, but it has its short comings in being impersonal with non-interactive mode of instruction and over generalization, even when different operational situations exist in the retail units. In foodservice operations, the back of the house is not for the fainthearted, especially during the high peak periods of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Without proper training, food safety can be compromised during such rush hours in trying to keep up with high volume sales within a small window period.

In a recent Global Food Safety Survey of 649 food establishments worldwide, improved product quality and higher employee morale were identified as the greatest benefits of effective food safety training, while finding the time for training was recognized as the greatest challenge. Thus, to bridge this training gap among frontline retail and foodservice workers, some of the corporate policies that should be emphasized are as follows:

  • Set aside time for on-the-job training; the generally preferred training method in food industry.
  • A certified training director should be on site at all times, to train hourly and seasonal employees, and training the trainer should be a corporate responsibility.
  • Corporate staff must ditch their suits and ties, and pick up the aprons to serve in the frontlines at least once a month, not only to ensure that their SOPs are operationally feasible but to understudy the thorny operational issues that can be fixed to improve efficiency.
  • Improved hourly wages and paid sick leave will attract a more committed workforce and lower the turn-over rate to ensure continuity in food safety management at the store unit level.
  • The use of incentives to encourage healthy competition among retail units and employees will improve adherence to food safety standards.
  • Encourage active managerial control using evaluation tools like wireless temperature monitors, hand washing monitors or cleanliness testing swabs that measure cleanliness to ensure that corrective actions are implemented in a timely manner.
  • Empower the retail units to conduct self-in-house food safety auditing on a daily and weekly basis to determine performance, and assist in compliance and preparations for third party audits and local health inspections.

In conclusion, it is absolutely necessary to explain the “why” of every food safety procedure to retail and foodservice workers, so that they are fully aware of the food safety implications of their actions. It definitely makes a lot of business sense to invest in continuous training of these frontline employees on the rudiments of food safety, to empower them, to safeguard the huge cost of corporate food safety management system, to protect your brand, and to protect the public health.

About The Author

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

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