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How effective is online food hygiene training / e-learning?

by | Jun 28, 2013

There has been an enormous increase in the amount of food businesses, big and small, who are turning to online food safety training as a cost effective method of training their team. Is it effective? I have a few examples for you….

   For those that don`t know, I have worked in catering since I was at school, 10 years of that was with a very professional national brand. In 2005, I set up Ford Training ( a food safety training business), but I still work on a part time / occasional basis, in kitchens. Some of this work has been with local businesses, some with some national chains. A couple of national brands that I have worked for (one with 100`s of sites nationwide, one with approx 50) now use an e-learning package which gives each employee an id number to log on to a website whenever they wish to complete their “mandatory training”. This, on the face of it seems to be a very flexible learning solution, with several benefits; people can complete the training at their own pace / they can go back to it when they like / some versions can be translated etc etc. 

     But is it effective; do people take any of it on board or is it a tick-box exercise? I must admit that we do offer online training on our website – I personally think that in certain circumstances it can be a good option to use – night staff / people who cannot normally make it in for a training session etc. 

But using it as the only means of training food handlers? The training in two businesses consisted of; (bearing in mind that they may have not felt the need to give me a full induction seeing as I run a food safety training business and all!) 

–  an induction e-learning programme, that you have to complete before your first day, then 
–  the equivalent of a “Level 2 Food Safety” level course (once again, online, which you complete whenever is convenient – one big benefit of e-learning to businesses may be that they don`t feel that they need to pay their employees for the time they are doing their training, as it is not “in the workplace / on paid time”?!), 
– and finally there is an online refresher that you have to do every year, and the houses are checked against this to ensure that everyone has completed their refresher training on time – or no bonus!

    My personal view, based  on a few examples I`ll outline below (genuine examples, not embellished in any way!), is that online training can be useful in certain circumstances or as part of a mixed training programme, but on its own does not give people an understanding of food hygiene, is used mainly as an economical way of ticking the “legal” box, a record keeping exercise. 

A few reasons why;

In the kitchen of a large brand, on a sunday lunchtime, watching desserts being prepared:

Chef; “can you pass an apple crumble out of the fridge, please?”
Me; “yeah sure, oh, hang on, this one was out of date yesterday, it must have been missed during last nights closedown. Where is your wastage book and I`ll record it and thrown it away?”
Chef; “its alright – pass it here, they just forgot to change it! We go through the fridges in the afternoon and check that everything has the right date on it – anything with a sunday on we`ll change to a monday!”
Me; “so how come you have to put labels on the food then?”
Chef; “to tell us how fresh the food is”
Me”ummm, but they wont will they as you always peel them off?”
Chef; “dunno, it`s one of them things i got told when I started. one of them health and safety things we have to do!”

In the kitchen on a saturday night;

Me: “Where`s your wastage book for this left-over food?”
Sous Chef: “Why are you thowing it away – that was only made today! Chuck it in the walk in fridge and we`ll use it up tomorrow!”
Me: “Is that ok to do that – i think it`s all been in the bain marie since at least 6 pm, if not before”
Sous Chef: “fine mate, we`ll zap it in the microwave tomorrow anyway – that will kill everything!”

    A couple of genuine experiences I have had in places big, and small! Having worked for a large brand for a long time, and also worked for smaller private businesses, I know that each restaurant`s standards is a lot more reliant on having the right manager and a head chef who leads by example and checks his team’s understanding whilst they are working, rather than having to have done a whole day in the classroom to get a certificate for the sake of it – particularly if there are other more cost effective methods available. 

          But face to face training does mean that your employees can ask questions (questions that you wouldn’t ask a computer screen, but it would help your level of understanding greatly if you could relate the theory to different examples). And, more importantly, the tutor can be checking the level of understanding throughout the course, and engage the candidates in discussion about recent food poisoning cases / media cases to make the subject seem real and relevant. 

  Several flaws / shortcuts that you may have heard of when using e-learning style systems;

 – as soon as a few people have done it, they tell their colleagues the tricky parts / where to click on the screen, and it very quickly becomes an in house competition to see how quickly you can complete it! (Just out of interest I completed my “equivalent of a level 2” online food safety course for one food business i worked for – it took me 26 minutes!!)

 – in some businesses, apparently, a “supervisor” becomes a food safety expert (by expert I mean expert at completing the online course – the supervisors are given the log in codes of all new employees and they “quickly whizz through it so we`ve got a record in case the “eho” comes around”)

   Every training method has its drawbacks, I was in a fish and chip shop recently who had a “Level 2 Award in Food Safety in Catering” certificate on the wall – it was completed in 2006! 

But i do think there is too much reliance on cheaper methods of “achieving legal compliance” (covering backs) without looking at whether the training has actually been understood and put in to practice. 

David Axtell
Ford Training

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