From farm to fork, the food we grow, cook, and eat is at risk of contamination by potentially harmful bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year in the United States, foodborne illness strikes 48 million people, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Globally, according to the World Health Organization, approximately one in 10 people fall ill with foodborne diseases every year, and one-third of fatalities occur in children under the age of 5. Because of the potentially devastating consequences of contaminated food, teaching people who handle food how to reduce this risk is critical.
But food processing and preparation training often takes the same form as in many other fields—lectures, slide shows, and handouts. Traditional training methods remain in place even as US regulations for food safety spread around the world because of the new provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Farmers and manufacturers in dozens of countries now are required to raise their standards, which creates a need for improved training.
A more engaging, effective approach would help protect consumers and businesses by teaching workers the latest and best methods of protecting the food supply. RTI has extensive international experience in food safety and a long history of creating training programs for a variety of settings. Building on this experience, we have developed an online platform that uses 360-degree video, a form of virtual reality technology, to present realistic, interactive food safety lessons using a desktop computer or mobile device.
Exploring the Advantages of Immersive Technology for Training
When trainees use the platform, they are immersed in the process of food preparation. We can present them with scenarios designed to teach important lessons, such as the correct temperatures to which different types of meat should be cooked, and how to avoid cross-contamination through safe handling techniques.
By making their own decisions, trainees learn the key practices of food safety, progressing through the scenarios until they are ready for testing. For managers, the system includes data visualization tools so they can track scores by individual, class, and topic. They can plan for future training by identifying areas that may have been challenging for their employees.
Although the overall goal of meeting FSMA standards applies to many potential users, each enterprise faces its own real-life scenarios. We can expand our collection of scenarios as needed, and are developing the capability for users to customize their training programs by combining any modules they find relevant. For example, preventing food contamination on a farm involves different hazards than those found in a meat processing plant or a restaurant. We can use video from these and other settings to adapt training programs to the needs of each situation.
Food safety training represents one way we are using virtual reality and other immersive technologies for training and education. 360-degree video is well suited to food safety training because it engages trainees with a realistic experience, while also conserving resources. When employees use real food during training, it often has to be discarded. Video training prevents this waste and loss of profit for the producer. And because our platform is online, enterprises in distant locations can use it on their own schedule, bringing together classes of people in different locations. Teams can also use the platform to get a realistic sense of a different facility or setting.
Helping U.S. and International Food Producers Protect Public Health
The market for food safety training is large and expanding. And it is just one facet of an increasingly complex, global web of connections between food producers and consumers. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, 97,646 domestic facilities, 109,190 non-US facilities, and thousands of farms around the world are now subject to FSMA.
The public health stakes could not be any higher. Although many people think of foodborne illness as a temporary nuisance, it can be severe, and imposes both human and economic costs. We are helping set and uphold standards that will help reduce these risks. Food producers, manufacturers, and handlers who adopt our training platform will become partners in our effort to create a safer food supply for people worldwide.