EDITOR'S BLOG: Influence food safety with behavioral science

by Bob Sims
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Vice President of Food Safety at Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Frank Yiannas, studies human behavior with the same passion he has for food science. I recently talked to Yiannas about his newest book, “Food Safety=Behavior: 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance.” He emphasized the point that human behavior is an integral variable in the food safety equation that needs to be further explored.

After reading the book and speaking with Yiannas about it, it made sense to me that the human element is the most uncontrollable variable in the food-processing arena. All of the food science education and advanced food safety detection technology and testing in the world cannot defend against one single employee who, for example, neglects to wash his hands before engaging in food production. Yiannas told me about his early career in occupational safety and health at the Disney Company and how he drew from that field to pursue his interest in behavioral science as it applied to food safety.

While at Disney, Yiannas thought deeply about employees that had been provided with the safest facilities, tools, protective equipment, training and education, yet some of them would still get hurt due to the fact that they did not utilize the safety resources provided. He also said the occupational safety and health field had started to improve at that time.  

“The profession had already begun to evolve to start getting a better understanding of the human elements of occupational injury and the role that attitudes, decisions and choices make,” he said. “It was really that realization that the occupational safety and health field had advanced and combined some of the hard sciences, in terms of how you design things, 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.”

Before publishing the book, Yiannas had read hundreds of studies on human behavior, but there simply weren’t any done in the food safety arena, so he took those that he thought applied to food safety, pared them down to the 30 most applicable and wrote the book.

For example, the behavioral science principle of social norm dictates that when people see many other people doing things, they take it as a mental shortcut that it’s the right thing to do. In the book, Yiannas cites a “Pointing and Gawking” experiment from 1969 for a General Psychology course which concluded that a single person standing on a corner looking up at nothing will draw about 40 percent of passersby to stop and look up. However when a group of people stood on the same corner and looked up, almost 85 percent of the people stopped to look up. Eventually, there was a mass of people standing on the corner looking up at nothing.

Not only have I heard of this behavioral phenomenon, but I’ve been a party to it. Whenever I’ve seen a group of people that I was approaching all behaving in the same manor, I’ve been drawn to behave in the same way.

Another, even more convincing experiment explored in his book, called the “Solomon Asche Experiment,” involved a single subject without knowledge that he was part of an experiment placed with a group of others and an instructor that all knew what was happening. The entire group was shown a group of three lines on the right side of a board and asked by the instructor which one matched a single line on the left side of the board in length. Sometimes the others in the group intentionally and unanimously chose a line that was clearly incorrect. After repeating the experiment many times with different individuals as the sole test subject, about one third of them went along with the group’s decision on the wrong answer.

The application of these experiments to food safety is clear. Motivating employees to behave the way you want involves making that behavior the social norm. This principle and 29 others outlined in the book are all applicable to food safety. At the end of each chapter, he gives readers guidance and suggestions on what the principle means for food safety. Yiannas suggests reading each chapter of the book and encourages readers to take the time to brainstorm on how these principles could be applied to an organization’s food safety program. The time and effort will be worth it and can take a company’s food safety culture to the next level.

Read more about Yiannas and the new book in the upcoming June issue of MEAT+POULTRY.   
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