Five surprising attributes that can boost results of your food safety campaign


By Kevin Freeborn
July 7, 2014
Five surprising attributes that can boost results of your food safety campaign

It’s difficult to dispute the fact that pop star Miley Cyrus’s appearance last August on the MTV Video Music Awards attracted worldwide attention. People who already knew her as a sweet Disney child star now perceived her in a new way as grownup sex symbol, and people who had never heard of her were taking interest. Her “twerking” performance made headlines all over the world, and was very controversial. It got people paying attention, and now she’s a household name in the pop music industry.

Grabs attention

The entertainment news headlines reminded me of a somewhat controversial statement made by Ben Chapman, assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, during his appearance at the GFSI Consumer Goods Forum when he blurted: “Handwashing signs in restrooms don’t matter.” Can you imagine?

Chapman went on to add that “washing hands matters” and that nobody even notices the handwashing sign after awhile. Chapman referenced research done by Kareem A. Zaghloul and others (2009) that the element of surprise plays a key role in getting people to change their behavior. Still, many health departments require handwashing signs in washrooms – so don’t take them down. But to Chapman’s point, the more attention you can draw to the poster, the more likely it helps to effect behavioural change.

Keeps ‘em on their toes

Chapman has studied this area for some time using what he calls Food Safety InfoSheets and has published a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Food Protection (June 2010) that demonstrates that posting these infosheets has a significantly positive impact on handwashing behaviour and reduction in cross-contamination incidents. Of course, the posting of these “unexpected” infosheets around the workplace also had the element of surprise that Zaghloul and others have cited in their research.

There are five attributes I have gleaned that appear to be important when creating messages that will cause people to take notice and change their behaviour. You can use them to create your own food-safety campaign.

  1. Real world relevance – Whether you call it a case study, infosheet or current event, the posting needs to provide a real and relevant example. This is what, I feel, helps people believe in the message. They realize that this isn’t just some bureaucratic propaganda but an example of the impact of good (or bad) behaviour on real people – people like themselves, their friends and family.
  2. Designed for your audience – This is where you can really introduce the element of surprise into the posting. Getting creative and appealing to your food handler audience will get you noticed. Think about the pop culture that your team responds to and use language and images that appeal to them.
  3. Compel change – Remember when your mom would give you “the look” and your sense of duty (or a bit of guilt) would compel you to change your behaviour? That’s what we are talking about. Food handlers need to feel as sense of professional duty when it comes to safe food handling.
  4. Multiple impressions – That’s what the marketing folks say works. That’s why you see the same commercial three times in a row. The more often the same message is conveyed during your educational campaign the more likely your team will see it and take it in. So, as Chapman suggests, post your messages in several highly visible locations throughout your operation.
  5. Keep it fresh – Just like the handwashing sign that has been posted in your washroom for the past five years, your campaign, no matter how creative, will lose its influence if you leave it without change for too long. Change up the postings as frequently as possible to keep your message fresh.

In the crazy world of entertainment or politics, you never know what shocker lurks around the next corner (and some may prefer to keep it that way), but we can take a lesson from the element of surprise and its impact on improving the behaviour of our food handlers.


About the author

Kevin Freeborn is an award-winning consultant, author and speaker with 30 years’ foodservice experience. Founder of Freeborn & Associates, he has been retained by leading North American organizations to develop food safety programs and training. Freeborn can be reached at 1-888-829-3177. Visit www.NFSTP.ca.

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