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Assessing food safety training needs of environmental health specialists in the U.S.: focus group summary.


The Retail-Foodservice Food Safety Consortium (RFSC) is a multidisciplinary catalyst trying to bring food safety research and outreach professionals together with the retail food service industry and regulators to promote the development and application of sciencebased food safety advances and educational programming. The consortium was formally created in December 2004. The consortium includes five land-grant universities (University of Arkansas, Clemson University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, and Utah State University) and three science-based associations that involve retail food safety stakeholders (Association of Food and Drug Officials [AFDO], NEHA, and the International Association for Food Protection [IAFP]).

The retail food industry in the U.S. is composed of close to one million establish ments, from owner-operated concessions to large multiunit national chains. Regardless of the size or complexity of an operation, the on-site management of each food establishment shares a common responsibility for the prevention of foodborne illness. Unprecedented demands are being placed on the retail and food service industry with the realities of shrinking budgets, international trade, new technologies, emerging pathogens, and changing consumer demographics. It is obvious that operators need help. Environmental health specialists and their departments may be the primary source, or in some cases only source, of help in the form of food safety education and training. Therefore, the objective of our study was to determine environmental health specialist opinions, resources, and needs with respect to food safety training and education.


As part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) National Integrated Food Safety Initiative grant, six focus group sessions were held June 24, 2008, at NEHAs Annual Educational Conference & Exhibition in Tucson, Arizona. A total of 30 participants attended one of the six 50-minute sessions. Participants were NEHA conference attendees and nearly all stated they had a food safety training and education role in their job. A series of questions related to food safety at retail and food service levels was asked. Individual focus group sessions were asked the same questions; however, some groups focused on different questions or topics more than others.


Is Food Safety Lacking at the Retail Food Service Level and Why?

The consensus of the focus groups was that food safety at the retail and food service level has tremendous room for improvement. Many operators fail to use critical food-safe behaviors, despite training. Individual comments on this topic included the following: it takes longer to be safe or it is inconvenient; operators do not understand why food safety practices are required (i.e., they lack basic knowledge) or simply don't care; operators practice unsafe food practices at home and bring that experience with them to work; and operator management does not provide the correct incentives (training, motivation, supervision, and reward) to get food-safe behaviors.

Are Training and Education Needed and Do They Work?

The consensus answer was that training and education are critical to food safety at the retail and food service level, but that even restaurants closed due to critical violations had received food safety training. There were many mixed responses as to whether training worked. Some felt that the quality of training directly impacted success. Quality factors included the following: training and education should be adapted to the audience's language and culture, students need to be motivated, management needs to buy in, training should be ongoing or have follow-ups, and training results should be assessed (i.e., is it working?). Some participants focused on the quality of the trainers themselves: "Training is only as good as the trainer." Characteristics of the trainers were viewed as critical to the quality of the training: their experience, subject knowledge, fresh materials, motivational ability, rapport with groups, and ability to "teach" and not "lecture" (lecturing was defined as information dissemination and teaching was defined as achieving learning by the students). The last comment prompted discussion on the practice of training strictly to pass an exam. Participants felt that that was poor-quality training. Another topic that prompted much discussion was, "Is my training working and how do I know?" All participants who were asked felt they were comfortable with their training and program. They were uncomfortable, however, with many of the details of their students and their training programs. Most participants thought that their training and educational program could be improved. The consensus of the focus groups was that often they just "hope" their training works and would like very much to have methods to assess their trainings.

What Are Some Barriers to Learning and Practicing Food Safety by Operators?

Focus group participants listed a variety of responses including the following: diverse students, languages, time, money (cost of training), literacy, socioeconomic standards, lack of interest, cultural differences, skilllevel requirements (career level vs. not), motivation of employees, operator's lack of time, and lack of feedback on safe food behaviors. A common theme that participants expressed about this topic was that many people know better, but don't practice safe food behaviors anyway. They felt management did not emphasize food safety as a priority and they were burdened with more pressing tasks.

What Are Your Needs in Food Safety Training and Education?

The overwhelming response from participants was that materials and resources for teaching were needed. These included posters, photos, illustrations, signs, fact sheets, case studies, stories ("facts tell, stories sell"), and audio or video materials (especially for low literacy). Foreign language materials were frequently mentioned as a critical need. Participants felt that materials were available but that they spend considerable time and effort to search for them. A big concern was copyright. Many resources are not clear as to the copyright holder or whether the material is public domain. When resources are found, participants expressed concern about quality and accuracy (i.e., is it science-based?). One participant expressed concern that his state required approval of all materials that often could take many months to a year. Most participants wanted materials they could modify for their audience and customize to their affiliation. Others wanted a place to send operators to get materials for their own training and use.

Another answer to this question centered on trainers. Funding for training was poor, some (regulatory and operator) trainers are very poor communicators and even poorer teachers, some lack an understanding of ethnic foods or newer processing techniques, and some fail to offer any follow-up or assessment of their training. The consensus of the focus groups was to provide resources to address these issues.

Where Do You Find the Materials Discussed Above and Where Would You Like to Find Materials?

Participants stated that there were thousands of resources spread out all over the Internet. They had searched the Web sites of NEHA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), Marler Clark (law firm), FoodSafe, state NEHA affiliates, state health departments, active local health departments, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Google. Most expressed concern that the Web sites were too extensive and complex. Participants would like a common source or collection of copyright-free material and resources. They would encourage the RFSC to work with its partners (NEHA, AFDO, and IAFP) to have an online library of resources. They would prefer peer-reviewed materials, but not an extensive collection. Let users make modifications rather than have many variations of one resource. Participants also expressed a desire for a LISTSERV or bulletin board to rate resources and communicate with other educators on the materials collection. Participants were asked if they had materials to share or upload to a collection. Nearly all had materials to contribute and would do so.


A quote from a participant sums up the focus group, "Our problems are common--we need to share knowledge and experiences." Where do we go from here? This summary focus group data will be used to create a survey instrument to gain opinions of a larger number of participants. Food safety educators will be surveyed via NEHA to quantify their agreement or disagreement with focus group observations. The data will provide a baseline needs assessment to guide the second and third year of grant activities. Purdue University and Utah State University are currently creating the RFSC Web site ( to house materials and resources suggested by participants. RFSC partners will need to explore methods to locate and contribute the requested materials and to review them for scientific accuracy.

Corresponding Author: Brian A. Nummer, Assistant Professor, Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences Department, Utah State University, 8700 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT 84322. E-mail:

Brian Nummer, PhD

Angela Fraser, PhD

John Marcy, PhD

Ron Klein
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Author:Nummer, Brian; Fraser, Angela; Marcy, John; Klein, Ron
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Conference news
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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