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Food Safety and Language

Posted in Food Safety on September 27, 2018

Travel is an incredibly enjoyable experience filled with new adventures, new growth opportunities, and new foods. No matter what country you travel to, there will be something different to experience that is wildly different from your hometown, and while this can be incredibly thrilling and enjoyable, it also presents its own list of certain risks. However, when you travel to new countries you often end up submersed in new languages that can make it incredibly difficult to properly navigate certain safeties – especially food safety. Different cultures have different food safety “rules” that they follow, and the language barrier can make it especially difficult to determine what is and is not safe. How can one overcome this language barrier in order to ensure their own food safety? Food Safety and Language can be a big deal.

The Language Barrier

According to Gina Nicholson, contributor for Food Quality and Safety: Farm to Fork Safety,

No matter where I travel in the United States, from large metropolitan cities to small rural towns, I experience the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of different ethnic cultures. I enjoy the fact that our country is so richly populated with people from many different cultures. I may not be fluent in languages other than English, but I believe that food is a universal language. It is the one thing that binds all of us together. The proper practice of safe food preparation, however, is not universal … yet. But I believe we are getting closer to accomplishing this goal through the work of global food safety initiatives.

Food safety procedures are remarkably different in different countries and you cannot be 100% certain that food made by another country or culture is held to the same standards that you are used to in America. According to Nicholson, “It is important to bridge the culture and language gap as we work to communicate proper food safety practices.” There is a huge opportunity to connect both regulatory and industry professionals across the globe in order to ensure an overall safety in food practices, but in order to do this, one must understand what varying barriers exist, including the simple fact that English is not everyone’s first language.

Credibility

Nicholson explains her good fortune to having had the experience of working on both sides of the food safety profession, and also having had a good deal of experience in developing food safety programs designed to educate food preparation professionals about cultural and language differences in the world. Nicholson has also had the experience of developing several programs designed to educate food safety professionals about cultural and language differences. Additionally, she has helped create programs designed specifically for ethnic food preparers who might not speak English whatsoever. Nicholson is of the opinion that “The responsibility of learning acceptable behavior regarding food safety is not the food employee’s alone. We must share in that responsibility too.”

Simply put, it is not only the responsibility of food preparers to prepare food in a safe, contamination-free way, but also the responsibility of others who have correct information to share and educate in order to ensure proper food safety procedures overall.

Reasons for the Gap

Restaurants actually present one of the main challenges for food safety, especially with such high turnover rates with staff. Language barriers are common, food safety training gaps, and the misunderstanding of consequences as to what happens with mishandled food. Adding to this confusion, there are differing versions as well as continual misinterpretations of the food code that many operations are meant to follow, something that gets especially worse and more complicated the more language changes exist in the procedure. This is also one of the most common sources of frustration and food safety mistakes for companies, especially those with multiple units in different countries, or even different parts of the same country.

For instance, something that is deemed critically important or a vital violation by one inspector might be inherently inconsequential to another, especially for those in different jurisdictions. Even with crowds of extremely diligent inspectors, there can be multiple misinterpretations of the food code that prohibits the proper process. It only takes a few imprecise inspectors to swiftly ruin the credibility of all inspectors, as well as damage the entire food safety process.

Beyond this, even more challenges arise for the food safety comes with distributors and deliveries. Food is often left outside buildings by the back door in the middle of summer, crates that include milk cartons, meats, eggs, and other perishable food items that become contaminated in the hot sunlight. According to Food Quality and Safety: Farm to Fork Safety, “Differing versions and occasional misinterpretations of the food code are common sources of frustration for companies with units in different parts of the country. What is judged as a critical violation by one inspector can be interpreted differently by another.”

How to Bridge that Gap

According to Nicholson, while some people firmly believe that in order to bridge this gap, one must properly translate all training materials into the proper language in order to ensure successful food safety training, Nicholson believes this isn’t the proper attempt that should be made. “Understanding the culture is much more important,” Nicholson says. “Teaching management about different cultures, including their practices and languages, as well as how to successfully use ‘cross-cultural communication’ can assist in bridging the gap between cultures.”

Nicholson suggests that understanding other cultures as well as their language differences is far more important to ensuring food safety than simply translating your own food safety rules into their language. Nicholson says, “Understanding how people behave, their motivations, and their belief systems is important when developing effective food safety programs.”

Conclusion

When traveling, it’s important to recognize that not all restaurants and grocers follow the same food safety rules that you’re used to back home. If you ever experience any food poisoning symptoms while or recently after traveling, be sure to see your healthcare provider in order to diagnose your illness as quickly as possible. Be sure to always practice your own food safety techniques, especially hand washing while traveling, in order to prevent as much contamination as possible.

By: Abigail Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)