One aspect of food safety that rarely takes center stage but is critical to effective education is cultural differences.
If food safety instruction isn’t specific to individual cultures, the messages oftentimes do nothing to move the ball forward.
Our friend, Dr. Abby Gold, is on a mission to help make sure that doesn’t happen. When we conducted this interview, Abby was Vice Chair/Associate Professor in the Community Health Sciences Department at North Dakota State University (NDSU) and, in that role, at the forefront of culturally-sensitive food safety education.
In our Q & A below, Abby shares why this work matters and how you can help.
Q: How did you begin your career in food safety, Abby?
A: My professional path to becoming an academic dietitian started back in high school when I became very interested in how food is related to health. I was also interested in how humans interacted with food at all levels of the socioecological model.
So, along with understanding the nutrition science aspect of my discipline, I’m even more intrigued with the social science and public health aspects. Studying human behavior is a big passion of mine.
Q: Why do you consider culturally-sensitive food safety to be a critical issue?
A: Food preparation is culture-centric and very personal. It’s important that we, as food safety educators and advocates, know about cultural differences related to food.
For instance, if we only focus food safety education on people who consume typical American foods such as meat roasts, green salads, hamburgers, and lunch meats, we miss opportunities to connect with and learn from other cultures that use different methods to procure, prepare, and consume foods. Some types of education aren’t appropriate or effective with certain cultures.
Here’s a great example:
People in many African cultures cook meat for a long time to increase tenderness and prevent bacteria growth. Also, they don’t cook whole roasts—they cut their meat into small chunks. So, when food safety educators promote the use of thermometers to check meat temperature in a whole roast, this message doesn’t help people who generally cut their meat into small bite-sized pieces and then stew the meat for many hours.
Learning from different cultures helps us all improve safety.
Q: In a nutshell, tell us about your research work and how you spend your days.
A: My research is focused on how people live, work, and play in their communities.
As a public health researcher, I focus on how to build communities around health. My research is primarily qualitative, which involves gathering data to gain an understanding of reasons, opinions, and motivations that drive behavior.
When I was at North Dakota State University, a team of us explored different ways we could reach New Americans with food safety concepts, we first used focus groups and interviews to learn about the audience. From that research, we discovered something vital to our material development: Many New American cultures in our area are primarily oral cultures, meaning they learn through conversation.
So, to better reach New Americans, we developed an educational tool called a “food safety map.” It’s similar to the diabetes conversation map.
Q: Sometimes you see unsafe food behaviors that have been passed down from one generation to another. How do you teach new behaviors without being offensive?
A: It’s important to start with people’s values. I look for ways to connect their values with a safer way of preparing and making food.
For example, many of our participants in the New American and Food Safety study would leave cooked food at room temperature for long periods of time. This was probably the biggest unsafe behavior we observed in terms of potentially hazardous practices in that population. So, to turn that practice around, we helped connect the New Americans’ deeply-held value of keeping their children and elders safe.
Q: What can STOP’s readers do to become more culturally-sensitive to food behaviors and promote food safety to different cultures?
A: I recommend your readers be more curious about different cultures—and sharing meals is a perfect way to do that! Organize an international potluck or attend local events that host people of varying cultures. Food is a great connector.
Abby Gold, Ph.D., MPH, RD is Program Leader, Health & Nutrition for the University of Minnesota Extension, and a former Vice Chair/Associate Professor in the Community Health Sciences Department at North Dakota State University (NDSU). Her work focuses on culturally-sensitive food safety, nutrition and food.