Showcase NC: A model food safety education program for North Carolina food service operators

Alice L. Pettitt and Suzzette Goldmon


National figures report that one outbreak of food-borne illness can cost a food service operation approximately $75,000 in legal fees, medical claims, employees’ lost wages, discarded foods, bad publicity, and lost revenues. The Orange and Durham County centers of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service collaborated with their county health departments to offer food safety classes to food service managers and food service employees. These classes are designed to reduce the risk of food-borne illness and to improve the safety of the public’s food supply. Since 1997, seven 18-hour classes for food service managers have been offered, with 294 managers successfully completing the training, and 267 receiving certification. Five employee training programs have been conducted, reaching 172 participants.

In recent years, Americans have become increasingly concerned about the safety of the food supply. This is partly due to the media’s coverage of food safety issues such as recalls, biotechnology, and food-borne outbreaks. At the local level, the media primarily focuses on food safety in restaurants. For example, one of the largest TV stations in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina regularly features a news segment and a corresponding Web page on local restaurant sanitation grades. This Web page receives an average of 22,000 hits each week, indicating that consumers are concerned about food safety in restaurants.

Orange and Durham Counties, two of the most populous North Carolina counties, are experiencing tremendous growth. New restaurants are constantly being opened, with 100 permits issued in the two counties in the last year. Hiring qualified employees is a problem for many restaurants in this area where the unemployment rate is low. This and other factors, such as high labor turnover, minimal or no training in food safety, and a chronic labor shortage show a need for a food safety education program. Before 1997, comprehensive food safety education programs were not being offered in either county. Furthermore, most restaurants did not have the time or expertise to independently train their employees.

In 1997, the Family and Consumer Educators in Orange and Durham counties undertook the challenge of providing a food safety education program for food service operators. Because the Environmental Health Division of the local health department regulates food service operations, its staff was invited to collaborate in the development of the program. The objectives of the program were

  • to provide a coordinated approach to food safety education training among food service establishments, Cooperative Extension Service, and the regulatory agencies;
  • to provide regularly scheduled food safety training for food service managers and employees;
  • to foster a long-term relationship between county government agencies, encouraging future joint programs; and
  • to create an opportunity for the food service industry to interact with county government in a non-regulatory experience.

A planning committee composed of Extension agents, Environmental Health specialists, and food service managers from both large and small establishments was formed to begin planning the food safety program. The committee focused on planning an 18-hour food safety training for managers. Based on recommendations from managers on the planning committee, the classes were scheduled three hours in the afternoon three days per week for two consecutive weeks. This schedule allowed managers to finish the lunch rush, attend class, and return to their restaurant before the dinner rush. The topics to be covered were planned, and brochures publicizing the program were mailed to restaurants. Environmental health specialists also hand-delivered program brochures during their inspections. Information was posted to the NCCES Web site and the health department Web site. News releases were mailed to local media.

The ServSafe© curriculum developed by the Educational Foundation of the National Restaurant Association was used as the basis of the training course. The planning committee added topics, such as seafood safety, an expanded section on integrated pest management, and a section on training employees. A variety of creative teaching and delivery techniques were used throughout the six classes, including multi-media presentations, videos, printed handouts, activities, exercises, and guest lectures. Hands-on activities and exercises included preparing sanitizing solutions, demonstrating hand washing techniques using Glo-Germ©, calibrating food thermometers, measuring food temperatures, modeling proper attire, and a seafood selection show-and-tell by a specialist from the NC State University Seafood Laboratory. A few of the sessions were taught by Extension specialists from the Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences and the Department of Food Science at NC State University. Participants rated these sessions highly, and they appreciated the opportunity to ask technical questions. For the course review, nine case studies developed by the planning committee, practice exam questions, and a food safety “Jeopardy-type” game were used. At the end of the class, participants took a certification exam. Those receiving a score of 75 percent or higher were certified by the National Restaurant Association.

The first food service manager’s course was very successful. Evaluations of the course, however, indicated a need for employee training. Therefore, the planning committee began planning a six-hour training session for food service employees. This class was also held for three hours in the afternoon on two consecutive days. Sessions were taught by Extension agents, Environmental Health specialists, and food service managers who served on the planning committee and who had completed the certification course. After each training, committee meetings were held to review the evaluations received from the training, and to plan for future programs.

Results and success of the program

Since 1997, seven 18-hour training courses for food service managers have been offered, with 294 managers completing the training, and 267 receiving certification. The passing rate on the certification exam has been 90.8 percent, with the average passing score of 88.67. Five employee training programs have been conducted for 172 participants. Written pre-tests and post-tests administered to employees have shown improvements in knowledge of food safety topics.

The effect of most food safety training on decreasing the incidence of food-borne illness has not been measured. The literature suggests that tracking cases or outbreaks of food-borne illness is very difficult as evidenced by the gross differences between reported and estimated cases. Therefore, the committee tried to determine if safe food handling practices had been adopted by the managers after the training and if they had conducted any training for their employees. On follow-up evaluations, food service managers reported the following behavior changes as a result of the program.

  • increased hand washing,
  • increased accuracy and frequency of temperature checks,
  • stored food off the floor,
  • posted signs to help employees take temperatures and wash hands,
  • changed procedures for storing leftovers,
  • marked spray bottles carefully regarding contents,
  • checked the sanitizer mixture for proper strength, and
  • increased cleaning procedures throughout the establishment.

In addition, managers reported these changes:

  • formation of operation food safety teams,
  • more open communication with employees about what was expected of them,
  • development of a HACCP program, and
  • reports of employee training sessions resulting from the managers’ training.

Another benefit of the training is that it gives the food service managers and employees the opportunity to ask health inspectors questions in a setting other than an inspection visit. One participant wrote, “I like that this training helps take the health inspector from an adversary to the ally relationship.”

Having food service managers on the planning committee proved to be beneficial. Not only did they provide valuable insight needed for a successful program, they offered their facilities free of charge for the training sessions. Participating restaurants also provided the refreshments for the training. Each day a different restaurant provided refreshments free of charge to show commitment and support for the program. Competition among the restaurants to see who could serve the best food sometimes resulted in refreshments consisting of prime rib, salad, vegetables, pasta, and baked Alaska.

To maintain communication with the restaurants represented at the food safety classes, a food safety newsletter, Clean Cuisine, is mailed to participating food service establishments. The newsletter is produced quarterly and consists of subject matter articles focusing on current food safety issues and a list of upcoming food safety workshops. Articles are written by Extension agents and Environmental Health specialists. Participants who receive certification are recognized in the newsletter.

Because Orange and Durham counties were the first two North Carolina counties to offer ServSafe© training, their program has served as a model for other counties. Forty-five North Carolina counties now have a similar food safety program in place.

Efforts are being made to help participants who have limited English language skills by providing the course materials in Spanish and Chinese. However, with the increased number of Spanish speaking workers in the food service industry, training must be developed specifically for this population. The planning committee is preparing to conduct an employee training session for Spanish speaking workers in fall 2000.

The program is a model of collaboration and has fostered a better relationship between and within county agencies. The ultimate beneficiaries from these classes are the customers who dine in the participating food establishments.


Alice L. Pettitt, Extension Agent, Family & Consumer Education, NC Cooperative Extension Service, Orange County Center,
Suzzette Goldmon, Extension Agent, Family & Consumer Education, NC Cooperative Extension Service, Durham County Center,



Cite this article:

Pettitt, Alice; S. Goldmon. A model food safety education program for North Carolina food service operators. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues 5.2 (2000): 14 pars. July 2000.


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