Behaviors Matter

by Bob Sims
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Frank Yiannas' newest book explores behavioral sciences as a way to better motivate employees and improve food safety. 

Recently, everything from Listeria to E. coli to Campylobacter has given American food consumers good reason to worry about the safety of their food. The industry has responded and makes every effort by utilizing science-based testing and sampling practices; detection technologies; food safety training and education; and multiple interventions to improve the safety of food. However, other scientific fields could take food safety to a new level. Frank Yiannas, vice president, food safety, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Arkansas, and food safety author, believes the “soft sciences” outlined in his newest book, “Food Safety=Behavior: 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance” hold the answer to changing the face of food safety for the better.

Yiannas’ first book, “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System,” published in 2009, described food safety as a frame of mind that everyone in an organization buys into, rather than a list of rules outlined in a training manual. The new book explores ways organizations can use psychology and social/behavioral sciences to their advantage as they work to improve employee compliance with food safety protocols.

Human behavior and food safety

Yiannas pondered the realization that no matter how much training food safety employees receive; sometimes they still don’t do the things an employer wants them to do. “I knew that there was something missing,” he says. However, the idea to connect food safety to the behavioral sciences occurred to him before he worked in the food safety field.

“The real crystallization occurred years ago when I was leading occupational safety and health at the Disney Company,” Yiannas says. “We could design the safest facilities, we could give people the safest work tools and personal protective equipment, we could train and educate them about safety, yet there were still some employees that would get hurt. They just weren’t following procedures.”

Yiannas says the occupational safety and health field had already begun to explore the role that the human element, attitudes, decisions and choices play regarding occupational injury. It was combining its hard sciences, such as facility design, with the behavioral sciences. “I just thought those same principles would apply in food safety, and over the years I’ve experienced that they certainly have,” he adds.

Without very much research in the behavioral sciences that directly relates to food safety, Yiannas began to review general behavioral science studies and find those that could have food safety applications.

Connecting the dots

After publishing the first book as an introduction to why food safety professionals should consider the role of human behavior in advancing food safety, Yiannas continued his research in the fields of psychology, social science and behavioral science by reading as many studies as he could find. “I’ve literally read hundreds of them over the years,” he says.

Yiannas found that many of the principles he discovered in his readings on behavioral sciences were proven accurate over and over again.

“I decided to pare down the hundreds of articles and papers that I’ve read into what I perceive to be 30 of the most important or applicable concepts to food safety.”

Each chapter represents one of the 30 food safety concepts. While the scientific studies do not directly cover food safety, each chapter ends with a summary addressing the question: “What does this mean to food safety?” This is where Yiannas guides the reader in directing the technique covered toward how it might help a given individual or organization’s food safety program.

Leading by example

Dealing with a workforce of 2.2 million associates worldwide at Walmart, Yiannas understands the challenges and difficulties of implementing solid and successful food safety practices into a large organization. “If you think about trying to advance food safety in an organization of this size, you have to go beyond mere food science,” Yiannas says. “You have to try to understand why people do what they do and present information, and design things in such a way that it’s easier for people to do.”

In Chapter 2, “Getting Your Foot in the Door for Food Safety,” Yiannas refers to two different studies focused on the principle of commitment. They conclude that follow through drastically increases when people actually make a commitment to carry out actions in response to a request. By requiring a written (or electronic) commitment stating adherence to a principle, employees are more likely to behave in the desired fashion.

Usually when an employee attends an educational session, the request is that they acknowledge they’ve received the training. Generally, this is for a recordkeeping purpose. In some cases, this record of receiving training gives management or the overseeing person/department the ability to hold an employee who hasn’t followed the training responsible and proceed with a disciplinary action.

However, the employees at Walmart are asked to take another step after receiving educational training.

“We’ve leveraged the principle of commitment in our training and rather than just asking somebody to sign or click a box saying that they took the training,” Yiannas says, “at the end of our training we ask our associates to commit that they’re going to practice the principles they’ve learned in that training course.”

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