Food safety training brings Spanish speakers to the table

As a restaurateur, Emilio Estrada knows the importance of food safety. Even small mistakes can expose people to harmful foodborne illnesses.

“Those small details are sometimes critical,” he said. “It’s very important to teach people about the best way to handle food. I want to help people do the best job they can.”

That’s why Estrada agreed to be a part-time instructor of ServSafe, a certification program that teaches comprehensive food safety to food service professionals.

The program is offered by specialists in nutrition and wellness with Iowa State University’s Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. Food safety manager certification is required by law for every food service establishment in Iowa.

Knowledge crucial for food safety

Estrada serves a special need in keeping food safe for Iowa restaurant patrons. He’s helping to train the thousands of Latino food service workers who would have a more difficult time getting trained otherwise.

“We expect an awful lot of Spanish-speaking people are going to need this certification, and we want to have this instruction in place,” said Mary Krisco, a field specialist with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. “The food service industry is big in Iowa, and Spanish-speaking people are really important to that industry.”

About one out of every six Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from foodborne diseases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than half of foodborne illness complaints originate from food service establishments such as restaurants.

Restaurant patrons are at the mercy of whoever prepares the meal. And when it comes to handling food safely, food service professionals are only as good as their training, Krisco said.

ServSafe trains food service professionals in safe cooking temperatures, proper sanitation, and preventing cross-contamination. The course also instructs trainees on safe food storage and ingredient purchasing, as well as safe maintenance of serving areas like buffets.

Providing ServSafe in Spanish

It’s a challenging test, requiring thorough knowledge of a 200-page study guide. Food service professionals must pass the test every five years to renew their ServSafe certificates. The test is difficult enough for English speakers. But for people who aren’t fluent in English, it can be even more challenging to get certified.

“There are almost no ServSafe courses being offered in Spanish in the state of Iowa,” Krisco said. “It’s almost impossible to pass this test if you can’t learn it in your native language.”

Latinos make up about 5.5 percent of Iowa’s population, making them the largest group of ethnic minorities in the state, according to the State of Iowa Data Center. More than 6,700 Latinos in Iowa are employed in the foodservice industry.

Krisco, who speaks Spanish proficiently, is part of an Excellence in Extension grant project organized by Barbara Anderson, a fellow field specialist in nutrition and wellness. Anderson, Krisco, and two other specialists—Holly Van Heel and Barbara Fuller—have been recruiting native Spanish speakers to serve as food safety instructors.

They sought out food safety professionals who did well on the ServSafe exam, whose first language is Spanish, and who are committed to becoming part-time instructors.

Krisco co-teaches workshops with the fledgling instructors until they’re ready to manage the eight-hour workshop on their own. So far, the team has recruited and mentored three Spanish-speaking instructors, including Estrada.

“I chose Emilio to mentor because he showed a great deal of persistence in mastering the ServSafe material,” Krisco said.