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“Big Brother” Aided By Consumer Food Safety “Inspectors” App

Oct 29, 2015

Thousands of customers may be armed as inspectors with new smartphone tool

FSMA, the US Food Safety Modernization Act, has occupied food industry professional thinking for many months, if not years. With the FDA’s final release, regulators have been provided new, updated, and innovative tools to help ensure food safety and stem the seemingly regular negative headlines that result from salmonella, Listeria and E. coli outbreaks.  And just as FSMA reality sets in, food service providers may now feel the added presence of more “inspectors” in the form of future consumers armed with a new smartphone app.

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Science researchersstudied whether phones could be used in place of the traditional clipboards to improve the quality of data collection related to food safety observations.” The study looks at the Hawthorne Effect in food safety inspections, specifically that the knowledge that when inspectors are present, it can cause individuals being observed to modify or improve an aspect of their behavior. For example, an employee that uses the restroom may be more likely to wash their hands and wash them more thoroughly if a customer is in the restroom to observe.

Penn State’s evaluation of smartphones and tablets as potential tools to eliminate the “observer effect” to evaluate food service establishments provides the potential for improved food safety inspection data
Source: Penn State University

The Penn State smartphone and tablet app allows inspectors or observers to more effectively conceal their presence and purpose and inconspicuously collect their observational data via check lists, photos, video or open-ended notes. To determine the potential for the app, a survey was given wherein “participants viewed images of individuals using either a smartphone or a clipboard in a retail environment and provided open-ended responses.”

The results were surprising. Robson Machado, a doctoral candidate in food science at Penn State shared, “ninety-five percent of participant responses indicated that images of clipboard use in a retail setting suggested evaluative activities -- research, inspection, and so forth -- whereas none of the participants indicated that images of smartphone use in the same environment suggested evaluative activities."

In other words, we’ve become so used to seeing folks on their smartphones or tablets that someone using such a device is not likely to affect our behavior. We don’t take their smartphone as a potential tool to evaluate our behavior. The Hawthorne Effect is eliminated.

We can all relate to this. When we were young we were told how to behave when in certain situations, and any aberrant behavior was corrected immediately. Regular correction led to a change in our behavior so we minimized the potential for additional correction. The same is true for food service workers. Those confronted for poor personal hygiene or improper use of sanitary items such as hairnets, gloves, etc. will either modify their behavior or be the subject of disciplinary and corrective action or even dismissed. Improve or be gone.

For restaurants and other food service providers the inspection app can potentially provide data for consumers to evaluate their favorite establishments. Unlike apps based on subjective reviews such as Yelp, TripAdvisor or Foursquare, Penn State’s app could anonymously collect data from a small army of consumers, providing more than impressions about food quality, price or service, but whether or not eating in such an establishment could expose one to potentially harmful microorganisms. And yes, some consumers are already leveraging these review platforms to share food safety-related horror stories, but the instances are few and far between. The near future may bring a new era of continuous food health and safety inspections fueled by the customers who frequent these establishments.

Should food service professionals be worried? Not if they’ve put in place practices described by FSMA, including a robust, actively managed HACCP plan, regular hygiene reviews, and staff buy-in that health and safety are not only good business but good for themselves as well. In this regard, training, regular constructive or positive feedback, and even rewards by management can go a long way to not only achieving food safety goals but increasing business as consumers read positive reports about your establishment.

Whether in NYC, Hawaii, or somewhere in between, restaurant inspections can be a key factor in consumer’s decisions to stop in or pass by
Source: Barf Blog

When was the last time you went to a restaurant that had a “C” or “D” or “F” rating in their window? When was the last time you used your smartphone to look for restaurant recommendations? Wouldn’t a database of continuous food safety information provide an additional level of assurance. Food safety is every food service professional’s business. If, and more likely when, a restaurant food safety app comes to the market it will be used. The question is: should you be afraid of it or welcome it? Those who prepare have nothing to fear from an army of inspectors.

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