Research probes food safety at independent ethnic eateries

by Bryan Salvage
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MANHATTAN, KANSAS –Kansas State University researchers found a significantly higher number of food-safety violations in ethnic restaurants than in non-ethnic restaurants in a study of independently owned restaurants in 14 Kansas counties. Understanding the reasons for these differences and working alongside restaurant operators to remedy the problems will be the next research step.

Junehee Kwon, associate professor, and Kevin Roberts, assistant professor, both of the department of hospitality management and dietetics, led the study. The researchers found independently owned ethnic restaurants had significantly more violations for several food-safety categories, including time and temperature control, hand washing and proper use of utensils. The independent ethnic restaurants in the study also had more inspections than their non-ethnic counterparts. Ms. Kwon said many of those repeat visits were driven by customer complaints.

This research will appear in an upcoming issue of Food Protection Trends. Co-authors are Carol Shanklin, dean of the K-State Graduate School, and Pei Liu and Wen S.F. Yen, doctoral students in human ecology.

Because independent operations don't have the support of a corporate office that sets policies and organizes food-safety training programs, the researchers would like to see their studies help independently-owned ethnic restaurants improve their food handling and, eventually, food-safety records.

Ms. Kwon said U.S. census data indicate restaurants are one of the most common businesses for immigrants to start. "There are some challenges to ethnic restaurants," Ms. Kwon said. "We can't tell what they are yet. We don't know what operators know and think about opening a restaurant in the United States and following the regulations. It's likely they have different perceptions of the risk of inadequate food safety, as well as the language barrier."

The researchers are pursuing funding to study the barriers that keep employees from understanding and practicing food-safety techniques. Mr. Roberts’ co-principal investigators are Ms. Kwon and Kevin Sauer, assistant professor in the department of hospitality management and dietetics.

"What we want to do with the new project, should it be funded, is to look at whether it is a cultural thing and learn what we can do in food training programs," Mr. Roberts said. "Now, programs only deal with knowledge, but it doesn't persuade people to change their behaviors."

Ms. Kwon said she looks forward to working with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Dallas and hopes to collaborate with Hispanic Chambers of Commerce in Kansas locations to reach more restaurant owners and employees. Collaborating with owners on research can be difficult because of skepticism that some immigrants have about government involvement in their businesses, she added.

Mr. Roberts and a graduate student are pursuing research that will ask international students at K-State about their countries' cultural norms and food safety attitudes, to better understand different food safety perceptions among foreign nationalities.

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