New York, Oct 6 (IANS) A smartphone app can replace traditional methods to improve the quality of data collection related to food safety observations in restaurants and supermarkets without any fuss, scientists report.

Food safety practices used by food handlers are often monitored for research, inspection and regulatory purposes.

However, if surveillance is not concealed, it can result in unintended behavioural changes.

These changes — known as the Hawthorne Effect — can render such observations meaningless.

“Direct concealed observations have been used to minimise the Hawthorne Effect during observational data collection in various settings, but some limitations can include the need to memorise observations or take notes out of sight of those being observed,” explained Catherine Cutter, professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University.

In new research, researchers describe a newly developed smartphone and tablet application for use as a data collection tool for direct concealed observations.

The app helps create of checklists to record aspects such as hand hygiene, the adequacy of hand-washing facilities, the temperature in coolers holding ready-to-eat foods and the presence of potentially hazardous foods.

It allows observers to easily add photos, audio, videos and open-ended notes to their reports.

“The app can be used as a non-threatening tool to make direct, concealed behavioural observations and no one will ever realise you are doing it,” Cutter added.

An observer can just pretend to be texting or fiddling with the phone, while monitoring the interactions between customers and workers in retail establishments such as supermarkets.

“The results should cater to researchers, regulatory personnel and food industry professionals who are seeking ways to evaluate the food safety behaviours of food handlers,” the authors noted in a paper published in the journal Food Protection Trends.