Observing is better than asking

Ten years ago, as a bunch of University of Guelph students were barfing in their residence bathrooms with noro, Brae Surgeoner, Doug and I hatched plot to observe hand hygiene practices in situ. We wanted test whether students in the midst of an outbreak would report they were really good at washing their hands or using sanitizer. We guessed that what they said, and what we would see, would be drastically different.

It wasn’t our first foray into observational research. A couple years before we did a bunch of secret shopping at Ontario grocery stores and interacted with associates to see what they share about food safety with patrons (us). We heard a whole bunch of nonsense. Ellen Thomas advanced this style of research by training a cadre of secret shoppers throughout the U.S. to order undercooked burgers at restaurants.

As Doug wrote a while back, ‘I view the grocery store and the restaurant as my laboratory. I watch and ask questions of people, especially front-line staff. The head of food safety back at corporate HQ may know the correct food safety answer, but are they providing support to front-line staff, the people customers are most likely to interact with?’

That lab also includes the home (or simulated home) kitchen.

Asking people what they know or do is a start. But it’s never enough. People lie, forget or don’t care. Employing other methods to confirm what they say they do is necessary to confirm actions.

So we’re working with RTI International and USDA FSIS to conduct observation research on consumer food handling behavior. FSIS announced the plans in the Federal Register for comment.

To test new consumer messaging and tailor existing messaging, FSIS can help ensure that it is effectively communicating with the public
and working to improve consumer food safety practices. This behavioral
research will provide insight into the effect FSIS consumer outreach
campaigns have on consumers’ food safety behaviors. The results of this
research will be used to enhance messaging and accompanying materials
to improve their food safety behavior. Additionally, this research will
provide useful information for tracking progress toward the goals
outlined in the FSIS Fiscal Years 2017-2021 Strategic Plan.
To inform the development of food safety communication products and
to evaluate public health education and communication activities, FSIS
is requesting approval for a new information collection to conduct
observational studies using an experimental design. Previous research
suggests that self-reported data (e.g., surveys) on consumers’ food
safety practices are unreliable, thus observational studies are a
preferred approach for collecting information on consumers’ actual food
safety practices. These observational studies will help FSIS assess
adherence to the four recommended food safety behaviors of clean,
separate, cook, and chill, and to determine whether food safety
messaging focused on those behaviors affects consumer food safety
handling behaviors and whether consumers introduce cross-contamination
during food preparation. For this 3-year study, FSIS plans to conduct
an observational study each year and to focus on a different behavior,
food and food preparation task, and food safety communication product
each year. The initial study will examine participants’ use of a food
thermometer to determine if meat and poultry products are cooked to the
proper temperatures. FSIS may decide to continue to conduct these
studies annually, and if so, will request a renewal to extend the
expiration date for the information collection request.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.