Surveys Identify Potential Barriers to Food Safety Behavior Change in Cambodia’s Vegetable Value Chain
Strengthening food safety is ultimately about behavior change, which can be bolstered by motivation and stymied by obstacles. To develop effective outreach programs in Cambodia informed by behavior change theory, researchers funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety (FSIL) conducted a survey that revealed relatively higher motivation to implement a food safety behavior — but lower perceived opportunity — among produce farmers, distributors and vendors.
“In Cambodia, the produce sold in informal vegetable markets comes from farms via distributors, and preventing contamination with foodborne pathogens is important at every step,” said lead author Sabrina Mosimann, who participated in the research as part of her master’s degree in Animal Sciences at Purdue University. “If you want to encourage someone to adopt a food safety practice, whether or not they know how to do it is one thing. Our goal was to figure out whether or not people thought they could do it, whether they felt they had the opportunity to do it and whether they felt like, ‘Oh, this would motivate me to do it’.”
The researchers used a behavior change theory known as the Capability, Opportunity, Motivation-Behavior (COM-B) model to develop a survey tool for identifying potential barriers to behavior change. Within the COM-B model, capability captures an individual’s psychological and physical capacity, including knowledge and skills; opportunity encompasses outside factors that make the action possible, such as access to resources; and motivation covers the mental processes that spark action, including identity, beliefs and emotions. Taken together, COM-B data can both zero in on the major obstacles to behavior change and identify low barrier areas where intervention could have a greater immediate payoff on health outcomes.
The questions in the survey captured participants’ perceptions about implementing a specific food safety practice: the daily washing with soap and water of surfaces that come into contact with vegetables. The intervention is key to preventing vegetables from becoming contaminated with foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli, significant contributors to the diarrheal diseases that impact the global burden of foodborne illness.
Researchers from Cambodia’s Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) and Center of Excellence on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Nutrition (CE SAIN) surveyed 181 vegetable producers, vendors and distributors in Battambang and Siem Reap provinces. The results indicated that among vendors and distributors, perceived motivation and capability were significantly higher than their perceived opportunity. In contrast, farmers’ levels of perceived motivation were higher than both their perceived opportunity and capability.
“This suggests that the main barrier to implementing washing of food contact surfaces across all groups is not motivation, which was relatively high across the board,” said Mosimann. “However, universally, their perceived opportunity was lower relative to their motivation. Opportunity can be rooted in access to sufficient resources, such as time to perform the washing step or money to buy soap.”
The researchers also noted a significant difference in the responses from vendors in Battambang and Seim Reap provinces. Vendors in Battambang reported significantly higher levels of opportunity, motivation and capability than their peers in Siem Reap.
“It does raise the question of why one group of vendors has fewer perceived barriers than the other,” said Mosimann. “In the future, it could be valuable to look into what’s going on in Battambang that has given vendors higher levels across all three factors, indicating a lower barrier to strengthening food safety practices.”
The results of the survey point to several options for designing more effective approaches to food safety outreach. One option would be to prioritize outreach to farmers because they seemed to face greater barriers, with capability and opportunity both being perceived as relatively low. However, outreach to vendors would likely face a lower barrier to behavior change because their capability and motivation were already relatively high. Interventions would primarily need to focus on increasing vegetable farmers’, vendors’ and distributors’ perceived opportunity for behavior change; among other things, such interventions might focus on improving access to water and soap in the markets. In the end, the design of the project’s outreach programs will be informed by the survey in combination with new data on pathogen contamination levels on farms, in distribution centers and in markets.
“The results that we have found are valuable for understanding food safety perspectives and current levels of food safety practices,” said Keorimy Ouk, coauthor and graduate student at CE SAIN and RUA. “It’s the first step to designing an intervention program to encourage food producers and distributors in Cambodia to engage in food safety practices and behavior change. By raising awareness about reducing food contamination, Cambodia can produce high-quality food that will enable everyone to have better nutrition and overall well-being.”
Mosimann noted that although their survey focused on daily washing of vegetable contact surfaces, it could readily be adapted by others to explore other food safety- or nutrition-related behavior changes. Translated, it could be used in a range of countries and contexts, including farms, markets, processing facilities, restaurants and households.
The survey was conducted as part of a four-year project funded by FSIL to reduce foodborne pathogen transmission during vegetable production, distribution and sale in informal markets in Cambodia. Co-led by principal investigators Jessie Vipham, associate professor of Animal Sciences and Industry at Kansas State University, and Paul Ebner, professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, the project combines social science research, gender studies and microbial assessments to chart a path to strengthening food safety across Cambodia’s vegetable value chain.
The paper, “Describing Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation for Food Safety Practices among Actors in the Cambodian Informal Vegetable Market,” was published March 2, 2023, in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. In addition to Mosimann and Ouk, coauthors included Nora M. Bello (The Ohio State University), Malyheng Chhoeun (CE SAIN/RUA), Jessie Vipham (Kansas State University), Lyda Hok (CE SAIN/RUA) and corresponding author Paul Ebner (Purdue University).
Amanda Garris is a communications specialist with the FSIL. The Innovation Lab is one of a network of 20 such labs led by U.S. universities under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative led by USAID.