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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Culture connection

Historically, food safety has been centered on facility and equipment design, inspection and is based on microbiology and epidemiology, but today’s and the future’s food safety landscape continues to move in the direction of people and their behavior.

“If you were able to quantify how many times ‘food safety culture’ and ‘food safety behavior’ were used in the 1980s, it would be very small,” Yiannas says. In today’s food safety world that sort of terminology has become much more common in the industry. To emphasize the change, Yiannas says he recently received an email from an executive with a prominent food brand whose title is “Manager of Food Safety Culture.”

“I think it’s this growing realization,” Yiannas says. “I’ve been in the profession a while, and at no point in my career has there been this greater realization that despite the fact that we have HACCP plans, micro tests and we do inspections, we’ve got to get better at the human elements of food safety.”

Yiannas used existing behavioral studies as the basis to write the newest book, but they weren’t specifically food safety focused because there aren’t any, but that might start to change. “What I’ve seen and heard since I published the book is universities and institutions interested in trying to design studies,” he says. Until then, companies still try to leverage the principles of the book however they can, using it in creative ways that apply to their food safety programs, and the organizations that do, have seen success.

“We’ve heard from some of the world’s leading brands on how a chapter or more has resonated, and how they’ve taken a tip or principle in the book and applied it to how they’re doing food safety in their company,” Yiannas says. “My recommendation would be to read each chapter, pause and brainstorm, and then challenge yourself on what it means to your company, your personal situation and how you might try to apply or leverage it in your organization or company.”

Positive response

Yiannas has received a great amount of positive feedback on the book. Several readers have told him that they enjoyed this book more than the first book.

The book continues to interest major players in the food world that make food safety a top priority. Since its publishing, large and recognizable companies have purchased the book and given it to their plant managers. In addition, regulatory agencies from around the world have expressed an interest.

“Some of the feedback I’ve gotten is that they’re just real practical tips on how to enhance food safety from a behavioral science standpoint,” he says. “I’ve also gotten feedback that the tips are so practical that they’ve leveraged them, not only in their food safety programs, but those same principles in their occupational safety and health programs,” he adds.

Sara Mortimore, vice president of product safety and quality and regulatory affairs at Land O’ Lakes Inc., Arden Hills, Minnesota, says that all levels and functions within the Land O’ Lakes organization bear the responsibility of food safety. Yiannas’ book has proved to be indispensable to her and Land O’ Lakes Inc.

“‘Food Safety=Behavior’ contains a wealth of useful and practical insights for those in the food business,” Mortimore says. “It is thought provoking, and as I read, I was frequently side tracked by the many ideas that kept coming into my mind and how to develop and implement them in my company. It’s that sort of book – hard to put down and an information source that I’d now not want to be without.”

Regulatory agencies believe in Yiannas’ approach to food safety, as well, and believe that food safety professionals need to take a closer look at the behavioral sciences regarding individuals, and their actions, in the food world. “Individual behaviors and attitudes play an important yet often overlooked role in ensuring food safety,” says Chris Waldrop, senior public health educator, office of analytics and outreach, CFSAN/US Food and Drug Administration. “The examples [in Frank’s book] ‎offer new ways of thinking about how best to engage people in building a culture of food safety.