Retailer expands on employee engagement

Walmart VP: To make gains in food safety, focus on behavior (Part 1)

By Heidi Parsons contact

- Last updated on GMT

Food safety training for Walmart associates fosters positive behavior by linking it to key values such as respect, service and excellence.
Food safety training for Walmart associates fosters positive behavior by linking it to key values such as respect, service and excellence.

Related tags: Food safety

To improve food safety outcomes, educating consumers about food safety must go beyond providing information to evoke behavioral change, according to Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s VP of food safety.

That was the crux of Yiannas’ presentation at a recent conference hosted by the Partnership for Food Safety Education. Yiannas discussed that speech during an interview with FoodProductionDaily.

Frank Yiannas, Walmart's VP of food safety
Frank Yiannas, Walmart's VP of food safety

“I’m a food scientist first and a behavioral scientist second, as suggested by the title of my presentation, ‘Food Safety = Behavior’,”​ he said. “The food industry and regulatory agencies have made great strides in training staff and inspecting and testing product​.

“To keep improving food safety, however, we also need to remember how important the human elements are. We need to influence and change people’s behavior.”

Toward that end, Yiannas offered conference attendees four behavioral science principles. The first was consistency and commitment, the notion that people want to act in a way that is consistent with their values and making a commitment seals the deal.

“An example of how we apply that at Walmart is in our food safety training​,” he said. “When our associates complete our food safety training program, we ask them to make a written commitment to apply what they learned on the job each day.”

The second principle was homophily, “in other words, birds of a feather flock together,”​ Yiannas explained.

For example, research shows people are more likely to stick to an online diet or exercise plan if they feel that others in the group are like them.

“So, when we were developing training videos for our associates, we asked ourselves, ‘Who should we use to deliver our food safety messages?’ Not Frank Yiannas, Walmart vice president, but one of their peers,”​ he said. “So we used Darrell, also known as ‘Mr. Rollback.’ He’s a real Walmart associate, and he’s in some of our consumer-facing ads as well.”

Socially acceptable

“Make food safety the social norm”​ is principle number 3. Establishing a positive behavior as a social norm involves making people aware that a majority of their peers engage in that behavior, Yiannas said.

Walmart's Mr Rollback
Walmart associate Derrell, aka "Mr Rollback."

An example of this is a Michigan State University (MSU) study of men’s handwashing habits. American Society of Microbiology research found that one third of men don’t wash their hands after using the restroom. MSU researchers saw only slightly higher rates (75%) before their intervention.

They then posted signs in restrooms reading, “4 out of 5 men wash their hands after using the restroom.” Subsequent surveillance showed that the number of men who washed their hands after reading the signs jumped by 11%.

“Notice that instead of saying 30% of men don’t wash their hands, the researchers flipped the way the message was delivered,”​ Yiannas said. “It’s important to keep the message positive to promote compliance.”

Principle number 4 is “influence values to change behaviors.”​ Yiannas said the key is to appeal to people’s values and beliefs to prompt them to change their attitudes, which in turn can lead to a change in behavior.

At Walmart, that principle is manifested in associate training that links food safety to three basic beliefs that are integral to Walmart’s corporate culture: respect, service and excellence.

Yiannas said that during food safety training and with signs in areas where food is prepared or displayed, associates receive the following mantra-like messages: 1) We respect the individual so we care about their safety; 2) We serve our customers and do it safely; and 3) We strive for excellence by starting with safety.

(Note: This article is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2 here​.)

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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