Rapid, reliable, repeated and relevant information can improve food safety at food service

In Sept.. 2007, my friend Frank was running food safety things at Disney in Orlando, and asked me to visit and speak with his staff.

“Doug, I want you to talk about food safety messages that have been proven to work, that are supported by peer-reviewed evidence and lead to demonstrated behavior change,” or something like that.

I said it would be a brief talk.

There was nothing – nothing – that could be rigorously demonstrated to have changed food safety behavior in any group, positive or negative. Everything was about as effective as those, ‘Employees must wash hands’ signs.

Sometime around 2001 things started to change in my lab at the University of Guelph. I’d gotten tired of genetically engineered food, had gone about as far as we could with the fresh produce on-farm food safety thing, and I wanted to focus more on the things that made people barf.

Chapman and I were playing hockey a lot – one of the advantages of having an on-campus office right beside two full-sized ice hockey surfaces (not the miniature size available in Manhattan, Kansas) – and there was a bar and restaurant that overlooked the one ice surface where we often engaged in after-hockey food safety meetings with our industry, provincial and federal government colleagues.

We had all this food safety information, and the manager of the bar around 2003 was into food safety, so we thought, if daily sports pages are posted above urinals and on the doors of washroom stall, why not engaging food safety information?

It took us awhile to become engaging, but we listened to criticism and made things better. We experimented with different formats in restaurants and on-line. There’s an entire paper describing all this but it hasn’t been published yet (accepted, but not published).

Meanwhile, Chapman took ownership of these food safety infosheets, they got translated into different languages depending on the capabilities of whatever students were around, and we had lots of e-mails from all over the world from people who like them and use them in the workplace.

But a bunch of e-mails doesn’t count as much in the way of evidence.

So Chapman (left, with Dani, 10 years ago at my place) partnered with a food safety dude at a company in Canada and they made things happen (we are forever grateful, dude, above right, exactly as shown, and you know who you are).

Katie and Tiffany had to watch hours of video, Tanya and me helped with the design, but otherwise it was Chapman, going to these sites at 5 a.m. to make sure the cameras were set up. I went once when visiting from Kansas, but otherwise, stayed out of the way, other than years of nagging to write it up, finish his thesis, and the weekly attempts to correct his horrendous spelling and grammar on the infosheets.

But after all those years and effort, Chapman has finally shown a food safety message that can translated into better food safety practices at food service. After exposure to the food safety infosheets, cross-contamination events went down 20 per cent, and handwashing attempts went up 7 per cent. We controlled for various factors as best we could.

Since September 2006 over 150 food safety infosheets have been produced and are available to anyone at www.foodsafetyinfosheets.com. The website has had a recent redesign, adding a search function, automatic email alerts and RSS feeds. The new database is also sortable by pathogen, location and risk factor.

Now I have something to tell Frank.