Fresh sells. But it also introduces a specific set of sanitation challenges, especially for retailers who are making a stronger commitment to fresh foods merchandising than in the past.
In deli/food service, meat and seafood departments especially, and to some extent produce, the need for retailers to have strong safety standards and the checks and balances to maintain them has perhaps never been greater.
That need was fueled by the fatal outbreak of food poisoning in the Pacific Northwest 18 months ago, which thrust the issue of food safety into the national media spotlight. The incident was traced to lethal E. coli bacteria contained in undercooked hamburgers purchased at units of a fast-food restaurant.
Several other, less widespread incidents of contamination followed in other areas of the country, and the media were quick to seize on poor sanitation practices at local supermarkets.
Then in January, the Food and Drug Administration issued its revised national guidelines for safe food handling, which had been in the works for years.
These factors, as well as the increased popularity of fresh foods, have created new challenges for retailers.
SN interviewed several supermarket executives in different marketing areas to find out what changes they are making in their food safety and sanitation programs in light of these challenges.
Some are working to improve the perception created by their stores by outfitting their workers in gloves and hair nets. Others are investing in new equipment, such as thermometers and color-coded cutting boards, to make
sure food is free from contamination. One retailer invested in a blast chiller to bring down the temperature of the company's fresh-prepared deli items as quickly as possible.
Many said they are reaching out to consumers with education programs and food safety hot lines.
Here is what retailers had to say about how they are addressing this issue:
public affairs director
H-E-B Grocery Co. San Antonio
We have tried to reinvent and redesign all of our training procedures to redouble our efforts to make sure our staff in the prepared foods area is completely current on the proper procedures to keep food safe. In the case of food safety and handling, that information would be presented by our quality assurance department and staff members from the prepared foods area.
We provide a self-inspection checklist in each deli that the staff is trained to use on a daily basis. By having the employees proceed down the checklist each day, we make sure proper procedures are being followed.
We are also installing additional hand-washing sinks. There is a new requirement -- it may be a state regulation -- that there has to be a hand-washing sink within 25 feet of any cutting surface. That means we have had to add sinks in areas such as produce, deli and bakery. We already had sinks in some of those areas. We are in the process of implementing the sinks across our system and should have it completed in fairly short order.
We also are providing commercial-grade, handheld thermometers for the deli area that employees can use to double-check the temperature against the thermometer installed inside the cases where refrigerated food is stored.
assistant director, deli operations
Andronico's Park and Shop Albany, Calif.
We have a company policy that chefs wear hair nets. Over the last year, counter people have been wearing gloves.
We have printed up some new pamphlets on food safety, food handling and storage tips for our customers. This is to help our customers in handling the prepared food once they take it out of the store. We did this in response to phone calls. Consumers would call us with questions such as, "Is this salad still good after a four-hour drive in the car?" We are trying to educate customers.
We are using a new sanitizing cloth system. Traditionally employees would wipe off counters with a terry towel. Now they can disinfect and sanitize the counter with a food-safe product. There is one for wiping down equipment and one for wiping down counters. The new towels are used for one day, then disposed. We started using these within the last year. In the past we would bleach the board and have to wait 10 minutes before it could be used again. The new treated towels cut down on the dangers of using bleach and the waiting time. Last March our San Francisco store was remodeled and we put in a whole new cleaning system with color-coded cleaners. Now even if someone is not literate in the English language, he or she can find the color to use on a particular surface. For example, the pink soap may be for floors or the green soap for the dishwasher. Right now we have this system in only one store, but we are considering further expansion.
Dick's Supermarkets Platteville, Wis.
Food safety has been a high priority for us on an ongoing basis, but in the last two years we have brought in a blast chiller for our central kitchen. That definitely affects food safety. It increases the integrity of that area by leaps and bounds.
Also, in the last year and a half we have begun an HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) program in the central kitchen. It is not yet fully instituted. Currently we are monitoring the time and temperature of food as it goes through the production stages.
We are working with the state of Wisconsin in terms of their requirements to see what needs to be done to continue to enhance and improve food safety and quality.
VP, corporate affairs
Big Y Foods Springfield, Mass.
For over a year now we have had a food safety specialist who has a background and experience as a sanitarian in a local town. In addition to inspection of our stores, he also works on training, handling complaints and any kind of inspection issues that the local board of health requires.
We have safe food-handling labels on all ground meats. We are outsourcing with a new laboratory for lab testing of product.
We are using gloves more than ever. We have been experimenting with different types of gloves from different vendors. We were working with giant flat gloves that fit everybody, but then we had problems with the gloves getting caught in the deli slicers.
bakery-deli operations manager
Roundy's Pick 'n Save Milwaukee
We now have hourly charts on the hot cases. The temperature is taken hourly to make sure the proper temperature is maintained.
This spring we introduced a new hair net program in our eight corporate Pick 'n Save stores. The hair net is made of a heavy white material, almost like cotton. All of the store people in the perishables departments have to wear them. We have had some positive comments from customers in those stores. We feel these hair nets make a statement because they are highly visible to customers.
We have ongoing training programs and checklists. Deli employees wear gloves.
director, deli operations
Ingles Markets Black Mountain, N.C.
We use gloves in the prepared foods area. This company has done a good job with that. We also have hair nets. We are looking at going to a specific hat, not only for sanitation but for customer image. The hat will be easier for customers to see. Hair nets are not always visible.
A couple of our deli-bakeries have a test in place we will probably expand into all our deli-bakeries in the next 60 to 90 days. It includes instructional plastic cards and easy charts for employees to read. When the system is installed, the employee can just turn a knob and the correct amount of each solution goes into each compartment of the sink. There is also a system for the floor. My first concern when I assumed this position three months ago was to reaffirm what we want to do and put emphasis on food safety and sanitation. I put (on display) some industry standards and sent a sanitation schedule to all the stores.