FoodGrads Book Club – Chapter 8 – SWITCH

SWITCH Book Club – a virtual reading experience with Food Grads followers and graduate students from Northeastern University in a synchronized reading of “SWITCH – How to Change Things when Change is Hard” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath.

Chapter 8: Build Habits

Let’s “Switch” this chapter’s look at Building Habits to the idea of behavior.  In terms of food concerns (safety, defense, security, authenticity) – we find that, in a sea of good behaviors, bad behaviors exist.  Such unwanted actions include failures in following food industry best practices or health codes, economically-motivated adulteration, and unethical practices impacting the environment and/or workers.

With increased processing and global sourcing, the vulnerability of our food has risen dramatically over the last 25 years.

These concerns over our food being vulnerably are more than theoretical and are nothing new.

Nearly 200 years ago, German chemist Friedrich Accum published his 1820 “Treatise on Adulteration of Food”, exposed and criticized ‘normal’ practices – especially the use of chemical additives – within the food processing industry. This ground-breaking work marked the beginning of an awareness of need for food safety oversight.  In the early 1850s, The Lancet medical journal published a series of devastating reports on food adulteration, relying on commissioned analyses of food samples.

Within the next 25 years, changes in British laws came from the 1860 Adulterated Food Act, the 1872 Adulteration Act, the 1875 Sale of Food and Drugs Act, and the 1879 Sale of Food and Drugs Amendment Act.  The more modern impetus for change in food authenticity came after the 2013 horse meat scandal in Europe.

Similarly, in the United States, over 100 years ago, after the publishing of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, a review of the book in The London Times Literary Supplement discussed the shock from the revelations of conditions inside meat packing houses.  Further, the 1906 reviewer turns The Jungle into a warning and accurately predicts the concerns we would still face 100 years later: “The things described by Mr. Sinclair happened yesterday, are happening today, and will happen tomorrow and the next day, until some Hercules comes to cleanse the filthy stable.”

The more modern impetus for change in food safety in the U.S. came after the 1993 “Jack-in-the-Box” E.coli outbreak. that sickened over 750, hospitalized 171, and killed four young children.  Within one year of that outbreak, the USDA declared E. coli O157:H7, “an illegal adulterant.”  Over the next 25 years, changes in American food safety laws came from USDA pathogen reduction plan and, eventually, the 2010 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed into law by President Obama in 2011, with initial implementation that started in 2016.

Clearly, these new laws aimed to end habits that consumers, policymakers, and even some in industry opposed.  So why do we still have failures if these laws are in place?

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s 1934 “A Defense of Ethical Relativism” (from “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” Journal of General Psychology) offered the idea that people do not formulate their own beliefs regarding what is morally correct, but rather adhere to the norms deemed acceptable by their cultures.

In this view, moral truths (i.e. food safety, defense, authenticity, etc.) exist relative to culture and experience, thus: one culture considers a behavior wrong, or immoral, whereas the same behavior is completely acceptable in a different culture.  The habits within a culture are what can differentiate a culture from one company to another, or even within the same company – but at two different times

In the Western hemisphere our culture includes the idea that we don’t eat dog meat, yet in China, eating dog meat is a long respected tradition.  But has American’s view of eating dog meat always been that way?  History, in the form of the Lewis and Clark expedition journals, holds that the team ate numerous dogs along their journey to the Pacific Ocean – even skipping a meal of smoked salmon offered by some tribes as a gesture of peace.

The authors talk about two different ways to look at habits and change:

  1. The habit needs to advance the mission
  2. The habit needs to be relatively easy to embrace.

This way of looking at habits is a far cry from simply outlawing bad ones.

After I spoke at a conference in Chicago a few weeks ago, a fellow speaker told me of scenario she observed where a fast food restaurant’s assistant manager refused to follow basic food safety protocols stating that he did not have to because he was higher up on the chain of command.  What message did this communicate to others who worked there?  Also, what did this ‘habit’ say about morals and culture?  Companies can address habits in their mission statements and require that employees embrace specified habits.  Unfortunately, simply identifying what is right and what is wrong does not guarantee that people will always do what is right.

A failure is a failure.  A pattern of failures can become not just a habit, but a culture of failure.  Such a culture starts off on the wrong side of change while forming the morals and ethics of new generations of employees.

Author: Dr. Darin Detwiler, LP.D., M.A.Ed., is the Assistant Dean at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. He is a professor of food regulatory policy, specializing in food safety, global economics of food and agriculture, Blockchain, and food authenticity.  Detwiler recently received the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) Distinguished Service Award (Sponsored by Food Safety Magazine.)

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Twitter: @DarinDetwiler


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