When Yaohua Feng, an assistant professor at Purdue Food Science, observes home cooks, 64 percent of them don’t wash their hands before making a meal — and that’s when they know they’re being watched.

And unfortunately, employees at processing facilities aren’t always much better.

Feng has a background in microbiology, but her work in food safety isn’t quite what most people assume it would be. She studies how human behavior can be illogical and unpredictable and how that in turn can impact food safety. And she recently spoke during the Food Sure conference on how food and beverage companies can better approach these issues.

For example, even if employees receive good food safety training, and then pass a quiz showing they retained the information, they still may not follow the procedures.

“We try to investigate the discrepancy between knowledge and behavior. And what can we do to bring the gap closer,” Feng says. “We saw a lot of retention problems with even effective training. They will change their behavior, and then after a month people drop out, and after three months you get a significant drop.”

An it’s no secret that food safety issues are a huge economic burden to companies who deal with them. Just one spinach E.coli outbreak in 2006 caused $12 million in direct losses to the spinach industry partly because even after the outbreak cleared up, consumers continued to be in what Feng calls “scared mode.”

“They refuse to buy spinach, not only the spinach that is on the shelf, but also canned,” she explains. “Anything with spinach, they’re scared of.”

Unfortunately, many outbreaks are associated with infected workers, but it can be hard to get an entire staff at a processing facility to do all the things they should.

“Even if we [the managers] know the regulation, even if we recite all the words in the FSMA regulation, it doesn’t mean it will be us [practicing it]. It will be our food worker on the front line who will do that. We need to make sure we bring everyone on board and engage them.”

Feng suggests that companies put as much thought into their food safety training plans as they would anything else. For example, they should be validated the same way a sanitation plan would be.

She also says training needs to be repeated on a regular basis, as opposed to being a one-time thing. And, of course, the entire company culture has to be focused on food safety, from the CEO to the factory floor.

Feng also encourages companies to partner with her program at Perdue, which can help them spot problem areas and then address them.

“There is a lot of specialized microbiology in the food safety area, but when it comes to the training efficacy, there is very limited information on that topic, so that is one of the reasons that I really encourage the industry to try to partner with the university,” she says, adding that since they are not inspectors they wouldn’t be penalizing companies that do have issues.

Feng is clearly passionate about her work, with good reason.

“Our ultimate goal to make sure the product is safe,” she says. “I’m very passionate about food safety because it’s not just about our business, or my research, it’s about everyone and it’s about you and me.”