Red, Yellow, Green, Go

Color-coding influences food safety behavior

Cultivating behavior change requires a specific communication strategy. The objectives of this strategy are to ensure that food employees and managers throughout the facility are familiar with food safety standards, their role in maintaining these standards, and the consequences of not maintaining these standards.

Methods of communication come in different formats and styles. The formats typically follow visual (pictures, diagrams, charts), auditory (listening), or kinesthetic (emotional connection, hands-on learning) methods. The visual communication method, which has been used to influence behavior internationally for centuries, is one that the food safety industry has adopted. Color coding, in particular, has been proven to modify behavior drastically.

Stop, Slow Down, Go

A great example of this is the stoplight. The colors of the stoplight evoke specific unconscious behaviors. We see red and know that we need to stop, yellow and we approach with caution, green and we continue forward. The history of the traffic light began before automobiles, in London in 1868. The first traffic light was a revolving lantern, using the colors red for “stop” and green for “caution.” Ironically, this hand-operated, gas-powered safety device exploded less than a year into its operation, injuring the policeman operating it. Due to this system’s safety hazards, more than 50 years passed before the electric traffic light was invented and installed in Detroit. This traffic light, using red, amber, and green, has been implemented at busy street crossings all over the world. The simple use of these three colors has influenced human behavior for almost a century.

Everyone Wants to Be Green

The stoplight color-coded system can now be seen in every aspect of food safety. We use it to measure our food safety metrics, indicating the facilities that are properly performing food safety practices, those that need additional coaching and training, and others that need a total food safety overhaul. It is a great motivational tool for facility managers and food employees. No one wants to be known as the yellow or red store. Everyone wants to be green.

Color coding is used in new tools, utilizing heat-sensitive materials, for temperature monitoring of TCS (temperature control for safety) foods. Temperature strips are applied directly on the food packaging or transportation packaging and indicate, through color coding, if the product has been time/temperature abused. Green always indicates safe food.

It is also used in electronic temperature monitoring and alarm systems for refrigeration and freezer cases. Green indicates that ambient air is below 40°F and equipment is working properly. Yellow indicates that ambient air is 40°F – 41°F and maintenance needs to be called. Red indicates ambient air above 41°F; remove food products from the case until maintenance repairs or replaces the unit.

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