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Communicating Food Safety: The Fundamentals

It’s Fall! Here in the Midwest we know it is a new season with cooler temperatures and changing colors of leaves. Our webinar topic for September was about Communication and ways to effectively message about food safety. Dr. Susan Arendt (our former colleague at Iowa State University) did a wonderful job of explaining the importance of effective communications to achieve food safety. If you missed the live presentation, check out the archived webinar. 

She reinforced the essential elements of good communication. Just for fun, we googled “communication” and my goodness, there were lots of resources. These included definitions, types, channels, and barriers. Academic studies abound along with workshops on developing skills and tips for improvement. Basically, it boils down to effective messaging – meaning the receiver understands the intention. But like so many things, the devil is in the details.  

So first, what is communication? Wikipedia says “Communication is the act of conveying meanings from one entity to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and rules”.  In essence, communication is the transfer of a message. We like thinking about messaging from the journalistic framework of:

  • Who (who is the audience)
  • What and Why (what is the message and why should it matter)
  • When and Where (time and place of the communication)
  • How (method to be used in message transfer)

Crafting the message effectively means using words and language appropriate for the audience. It is important to identify the intended receiver. While a particular group may understand common terms and language, avoiding technical jargon will appeal to a broader audience. Cathy remembers having a hard time following her children’s teachers’ comments at conferences because they used their everyday jargon of education terms that sounded like a foreign language! You might think of your audiences as those “internal” to the operation, such as staff, suppliers, or others who understand the day-to-day operations, and those “external” to the workplace who may not have experienced the wonderful world of foodservice from the operational end, such as customers. Communicating to these two audiences requires different approaches. Inclusion of why the message is important, or perhaps why it matters to the audience, will aid in them receiving the information.

While words are important, use of graphics, photos or icons can be effective across diverse audiences – those internal and external to the operation – but also those with different language and literacy skills. In the world of food processing and foodservice, research has found a picture is indeed “worth a 1,000 words”.  The key is selecting the best approach for the message receiver.

The challenge of course is lack of control over how the receiver “gets it”. And that is often tied to the delivery, or the When, Where, and How.  A raised voice conveys an emotional response, typically anger or excitement, whereas communicating with a smile will lead to a more positive response. You all know that we communicate with words (verbally and in written form) but other parts of sending the message include body language (aka nonverbal communications). Teen-agers eye rolls are a great example. Time and place of transmitting the message are also important considerations. We all learned in Supervision 101 that it is best to be discreet when coaching staff and giving corrective action. No one likes to be called on the carpet in front of others, especially their peers.

You might recall the popular book from the 1990’s called “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” in which author John Gray posits that each gender has its own customs and styles of communicating. The key take away from the conversations resulting from this publication is that there is not a “one size fits all” approach to communication. Managers in foodservice need to use a variety of techniques and styles to get their messages across to different audiences. It is not easy!

In the next blog, we will give some examples of effective communication about fundamental practices that protect the safety of food in operations. In the meantime, managers might check out this checklist yes, another checklist!) to reflect their own communication style. It is part of a module developed at Iowa State University with a USDA grant (led by Dr. Arendt) as a result of a national sample of foodservice workers telling us why they don’t always practice safe food handling practices. Some of the reasons, you guessed it, were ineffective and inconsistent communications by managers!

We have a blueprint to aid in crafting effective messages for audiences both internal and external to the foodservice. Effective communication is a key to developing and maintaining a culture of food safety in your operation.  Effective communication can prevent a lot of potential problems from becoming a reality. Use your words thoughtfully and consider how your message will come across to the intended audience – Risk Nothing!