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Motivators of Retail Foodservice Employees to Follow Safe Food Handling Practices

A grant to investigate what motivates retail foodservice employees to follow safe food handling practices was awarded to a team of Iowa State University researchers by the United States Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension (Project Number 2007-51110-03806). The project period is September 2007-August 2010.

Project team members are:

  • Susan Arendt, PhD, RD, LD
    Assistant Professor, Apparel, Educational Studies, and Hospitality Management
    Principal Investigator
  • Catherine Strohbehn, PhD, RD, CFSP
    Adjunct Associate Professor/HRIM Extension Specialist
    Co-Principle Investigator
  • Janell Meyer, MBA
    Project Coordinator
  • Paola Paez, MS
    Doctoral Student Foodservice Management and Lodging Program

Other research team members include:

  • Jason Ellis, PhD
    Assistant Professor, Agriculture Communications
    University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Kevin Roberts, MS
    Assistant Professor
    Kansas State University





The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that about half of every food dollar is spent for food prepared away from home (USDA, 2001). The average household expenditure for food away from home in 2005 was $2,634 with an average per person of $1,054 (NRA, 2006). Restaurant industry sales are forecast to increase 5% in 2007 to over $500 billion dollars, and serving more than 70 billion meals and snacks (NRA, 2006).

As lifestyles change and there is less time and knowledge for food preparation at home, ready-to-eat foods and foods prepared in restaurants and other retail foodservice operations will represent a greater portion of consumers' diets and may present greater risks to consumers. Foods can become contaminated at any link of the food chain, from production to service. The majority of foodborne illnesses have been linked to foods prepared in retail foodservice operations and caused by human error at some point in the food chain.

Knowledge, education, and training do not ensure safe food handling practices. Researchers have noted improvement after taking a food safety course. Effectiveness of food safety education methods and settings has been studied, but more work is needed.

While training appears to be an important component in developing employees' knowledge and skills in following food safety practices, training alone does not assure follow through by employees and, subsequently, safe food. Understanding factors that motivate employees to follow food safety practices is important, yet there is a paucity of research addressing employee motivation. Addressing these motivating factors is essential to assure the safety of food service in retail foodservice.


Project Goal and Objectives

The goal of this project is to determine factors that motivate foodservice employees to implement safe food handling practices in commercial (clubs and restaurants) and noncommercial (assisted-living facilities, child care centers, schools, and university foodservice) retail food stores and foodservice facilities and develop strategies to improve employee motivation. Specific objectives are to:

  1. Develop and test a theoretical model to explain foodservice employees' motivation for following safe food handling practices.
  2. Determine employee perceptions of how managers/supervisors impact their performance related to food safety practices.
  3. Develop a set of training modules on supervision and leadership development for foodservice managers to improve their skills and abilities to motivate foodservice employees to follow good food handling practices in their operations, with content based on results of the theoretical model developed.
  4. Implement and evaluate the training modules developed: a) with retail foodservice managers/supervisors employed in various retail foodservice settings and b) with students enrolled in university-level dietetic and hospitality management programs.
  5. Disseminate training modules through the Iowa State University food safety Web site.


Project Design

This project will have three phases. The first phase will involve developing and testing a theoretical model to explain employee motivation to follow food safety practices. This phase will involve the development of scales to measure motivation, including establishing the psychometrics (validity and reliability) of the scales. The second phase of the project will involve developing training modules for supervisors/managers and dietetics/hospitality management students. The third phase will involve testing all training modules for efficacy in improving food safety practices.


New Model Development

Arendt and Sneed (2006) utilized the expectancy model and the theoretical underpinning to examine motivators to following safe food handling practices. Questionnaires were distributed to 169 students in three hospitality management courses. Data were examined by four individuals with food safety expertise to identify themes. Themes emerged across four areas: having supervision and the supervisor acting as a role model, providing consequences and punishment, holding employees accountable and implementing disciplinary procedures, providing reinforcement and reminders to employees, providing needed equipment, supplies, and uniforms to employees, having a personal experience with a foodborne illness, and inspecting and having regular follow-up. Five themes were consistent among all four areas: 1) providing incentives; 2) implementing discipline, punishment, and penalties; 3) providing resources (facilities, equipment, and uniforms); 4) monitoring employee behavior and holding them accountable, and 5) educating and training employees. A preliminary model placing the supervisor role within the organization context was developed from the themes that emerged.


Institutional Review

The project proposal has been reviewed by the Iowa State University Office of Research Assurance. All data collection instruments will be approved prior to data collection.