RX PREVENTION PRESCRIPTIONS

Consumers may be more aware of food-borne illness today, but they still don't know how to protect food in their homes. The nature of this conflict has created new pressure on retailers to fill the gap in the emerging role of educator.However, as onerous as the burden is, there are tangible benefits for operators who conduct high-profile food-safety education campaigns.That's the consensus of food-safety

Consumers may be more aware of food-borne illness today, but they still don't know how to protect food in their homes. The nature of this conflict has created new pressure on retailers to fill the gap in the emerging role of educator.

However, as onerous as the burden is, there are tangible benefits for operators who conduct high-profile food-safety education campaigns.

That's the consensus of food-safety experts -- consultants, government officials and retailers themselves -- who worry that the health dangers lying in wait for uninformed consumers could lead to lawsuits for supermarkets. The fear is based on an estimated 6 million cases of food-borne illness that occur annually in the United States, leading to as many as 9,000 deaths.

"It's not enough to do signs and booklets," said Mona Doyle, president of The Consumer Network, a nationwide consumer trends firm in Philadelphia. "This is an educational challenge for retailers."

In this sense, then, supermarkets have become a key interception point in the larger food-safety campaign involving the federal government, state regulatory agencies, public health advocates and supply-channel participants themselves.

Doyle praised retailers like Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., for going high-profile on selling thermometers and describing why the right temperature is vital to cooking meat.

Recently, prompted by several national news accounts of E. coli outbreaks, many chains launched programs that focus on cooking ground beef to the correct temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., even attached T-sticks -- inexpensive single-use thermometers -- to individual packages of ground beef as part of its informational campaign [see "Meat Thermometer Giveaway at Publix," SN, Nov. 15, 1999].

Many retailers are going beyond ground beef to educate consumers about the importance of time and temperature for all perishables, and the dangers of cross-contamination between raw and cooked products. Cas Tryba, food-safety manager for Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., reported the family-owned chain has been hammering consumers with safety information for the past two years.

"We start with the informal, the verbal communication that's really important in our stores. If someone picks up a meal solution or a raw product, we tell them the best way to handle it," said Tryba, who also serves as volunteer head of the food-safety committee for the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute.

"Then there's the formal approach. We sell single-use and the more expensive, longer-lasting digital thermometers at the meat counter. We display posters, hand out [industry-approved] brochures and our own brochures," added Tryba. "We also add random bag stuffers, information in our fliers and information printed right on our bags about temperature control and cross-contamination.

"Consumers are better-informed now," Tryba said. "They are looking for this type of information."

It's true that consumers might be more aware, but are still unlikely to practice what they learn, said Brady Daniels, vice president of operations at Audits International, Highland Park, Ill., a food-safety and quality consulting firm.

"We found there was a big difference between what consumers say and what they do," said Daniels.

Audits International has conducted two consumer safety surveys in which auditors actually observed consumer volunteers preparing food in their kitchens in 120 households in more than 80 cities nationwide.

The 1997 survey showed 96% of the participants failed to meet the food-safety standard to which supermarkets and restaurants are held. That figure dropped to 74% of surveyed households at the "unacceptable" level in 1999, with 69% of participants committing at least one "critical" violation -- considered a risk for food-borne illness.

Participants in the 1999 survey were not the same households as those in 1997. And they are not chosen randomly, Daniels pointed out.

"These people are acquaintances of our auditors. Their educational level is high, they invited our auditors in and they knew what was happening," he said. "So our conclusion is the panel we studied is a best-case scenario."

On the other hand, when participants were questioned about food safety, more were likely to know the correct answer than to put it into practice.

"This means it makes sense for retailers to assume consumer ignorance," said Daniels. "When they have an opportunity to educate consumers, they should."

The startling results of the two home-based surveys have led Audits to a decision to conduct the survey annually.

"It's helpful to us, it's useful to companies who have called to say they have incorporated the information into training programs, and it's good for the media," said Daniels. "It's actual numbers and actual experiences."

Auditors were surprised by another feature of the survey, specifically, the number of sources from which respondents received food-safety information (they were allowed to choose more than one).

According to the data, 73% of respondents said they received information from television; 63% from print; 21% from friends and family; and 3% to 5% from government, schools, doctors and others.

"None say they get the information from supermarkets or restaurants," said Daniels.

The survey results "are pretty startling evidence that consumers don't have it down," said Karla Ruzicka, head of the National Training Branch for the U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington. The NTB has offered training in safe seafood handling for retailers since 1992, including the USDC's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system for safety and quality.

"Retailers can do a great service in providing information to consumers," said Ruzicka. "They're in the best position. They have a great opportunity to educate."

At Giant Food, Landover, Md., customers are told "Don't put it on a bun until it's done!", a new safety brochure that is placed in the meat department, next to disposable and professional food thermometers.

"We provide a lot of food-safety information to consumers," said Eileen Katz, Giant's consumer affairs representative. "We've been doing it for nearly 30 years."

Another of Giant's brochures, "What to do when the power goes out," funded by a local utility, tells consumers how long frozen food can be safely kept, what can be saved or refrozen and what must be thrown out.

"It's so useful, the Red Cross distributed our brochure during a big storm," said Katz.

Giant also provides FMI brochures, publishes food-safety columns in store circulars, displays extensive food-safety information on the retailer's Web site, and uses seasonal radio spots to provide special food-handling tips for holiday foods.

"We provide a lot of seasonal consumer information," said Katz. "For instance, we talk about picnic and bag-lunch safety, egg safety at Easter and turkey at Thanksgiving."

"Stores are getting into more seasonal food preparation, such as cooking turkeys for consumers. The more they get into food service, the more they know they need to provide safety information for customers," said Brian Turner, manager of technical services for the National Restaurant Association, Washington.

The NRA has "inevitably" become more involved with the retail industry since supermarkets have crossed over into food service, said Turner, a licensed sanitarian, who was formerly employed in the retail food segment of the industry.

Although many states require training certification for managers, Turner said, the NRA is working with the FMI to ensure food-safety information reaches the associates who do most of the food handling, and who have the most contact with customers.

The NRA's Educational Foundation founded the International Food Safety Council, which promotes September as National Food Safety Education month and makes safety materials available. But not just during September.

"Our 'Cook It Safely' brochure for consumers is always available," said Julie Goldberg, the NRA's communications manager. Anyone who wants to order it can call the council at (800) 456-0111.

Richard W. Daniels, president of Audits International, has said food safety is an "evolving responsibility of retailers. They used to just sell food, now they're charged with protecting it."

Recognizing this fact and taking the added responsibility "may require supermarkets to admit the risks involved with all fresh food," he said.

That's the consensus of food-safety experts -- consultants, government officials and retailers themselves -- who worry that the health dangers lying in wait for uninformed consumers could lead to lawsuits for supermarkets. The fear is based on an estimated 6 million cases of food-borne illness that occur annually in the United States, leading to as many as 9,000 deaths.

"It's not enough to do signs and booklets," said Mona Doyle, president of The Consumer Network, a nationwide consumer trends firm in Philadelphia. "This is an educational challenge for retailers."

In this sense, then, supermarkets have become a key interception point in the larger food-safety campaign involving the federal government, state regulatory agencies, public health advocates and supply-channel participants themselves.

Doyle praised retailers like Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., for going high-profile on selling thermometers and describing why the right temperature is vital to cooking meat.

Recently, prompted by several national news accounts of E. coli outbreaks, many chains launched programs that focus on cooking ground beef to the correct temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., even attached T-sticks -- inexpensive single-use thermometers -- to individual packages of ground beef as part of its informational campaign [see "Meat Thermometer Giveaway at Publix," SN, Nov. 15, 1999].

Many retailers are going beyond ground beef to educate consumers about the importance of time and temperature for all perishables, and the dangers of cross-contamination between raw and cooked products. Cas Tryba, food-safety manager for Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., reported the family-owned chain has been hammering consumers with safety information for the past two years.

"We start with the informal, the verbal communication that's really important in our stores. If someone picks up a meal solution or a raw product, we tell them the best way to handle it," said Tryba, who also serves as volunteer head of the food-safety committee for the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute.

"Then there's the formal approach. We sell single-use and the more expensive, longer-lasting digital thermometers at the meat counter. We display posters, hand out [industry-approved] brochures and our own brochures," added Tryba. "We also add random bag stuffers, information in our fliers and information printed right on our bags about temperature control and cross-contamination.

"Consumers are better-informed now," Tryba said. "They are looking for this type of information."

It's true that consumers might be more aware, but are still unlikely to practice what they learn, said Brady Daniels, vice president of operations at Audits International, Highland Park, Ill., a food-safety and quality consulting firm.

"We found there was a big difference between what consumers say and what they do," said Daniels.

Audits International has conducted two consumer safety surveys in which auditors actually observed consumer volunteers preparing food in their kitchens in 120 households in more than 80 cities nationwide.

The 1997 survey showed 96% of the participants failed to meet the food-safety standard to which supermarkets and restaurants are held. That figure dropped to 74% of surveyed households at the "unacceptable" level in 1999, with 69% of participants committing at least one "critical" violation -- considered a risk for food-borne illness.

Participants in the 1999 survey were not the same households as those in 1997. And they are not chosen randomly, Daniels pointed out.

"These people are acquaintances of our auditors. Their educational level is high, they invited our auditors in and they knew what was happening," he said. "So our conclusion is the panel we studied is a best-case scenario."

On the other hand, when participants were questioned about food safety, more were likely to know the correct answer than to put it into practice.

"This means it makes sense for retailers to assume consumer ignorance," said Daniels. "When they have an opportunity to educate consumers, they should."

The startling results of the two home-based surveys have led Audits to a decision to conduct the survey annually.

"It's helpful to us, it's useful to companies who have called to say they have incorporated the information into training programs, and it's good for the media," said Daniels. "It's actual numbers and actual experiences."

Auditors were surprised by another feature of the survey, specifically, the number of sources from which respondents received food-safety information (they were allowed to choose more than one).

According to the data, 73% of respondents said they received information from television; 63% from print; 21% from friends and family; and 3% to 5% from government, schools, doctors and others.

"None say they get the information from supermarkets or restaurants," said Daniels.

The survey results "are pretty startling evidence that consumers don't have it down," said Karla Ruzicka, head of the National Training Branch for the U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington. The NTB has offered training in safe seafood handling for retailers since 1992, including the USDC's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system for safety and quality.

"Retailers can do a great service in providing information to consumers," said Ruzicka. "They're in the best position. They have a great opportunity to educate."

At Giant Food, Landover, Md., customers are told "Don't put it on a bun until it's done!", a new safety brochure that is placed in the meat department, next to disposable and professional food thermometers.

"We provide a lot of food-safety information to consumers," said Eileen Katz, Giant's consumer affairs representative. "We've been doing it for nearly 30 years."

Another of Giant's brochures, "What to do when the power goes out," funded by a local utility, tells consumers how long frozen food can be safely kept, what can be saved or refrozen and what must be thrown out.

"It's so useful, the Red Cross distributed our brochure during a big storm," said Katz.

Giant also provides FMI brochures, publishes food-safety columns in store circulars, displays extensive food-safety information on the retailer's Web site, and uses seasonal radio spots to provide special food-handling tips for holiday foods.

"We provide a lot of seasonal consumer information," said Katz. "For instance, we talk about picnic and bag-lunch safety, egg safety at Easter and turkey at Thanksgiving."

"Stores are getting into more seasonal food preparation, such as cooking turkeys for consumers. The more they get into food service, the more they know they need to provide safety information for customers," said Brian Turner, manager of technical services for the National Restaurant Association, Washington.

The NRA has "inevitably" become more involved with the retail industry since supermarkets have crossed over into food service, said Turner, a licensed sanitarian, who was formerly employed in the retail food segment of the industry.

Although many states require training certification for managers, Turner said, the NRA is working with the FMI to ensure food-safety information reaches the associates who do most of the food handling, and who have the most contact with customers.

The NRA's Educational Foundation founded the International Food Safety Council, which promotes September as National Food Safety Education month and makes safety materials available. But not just during September.

"Our 'Cook It Safely' brochure for consumers is always available," said Julie Goldberg, the NRA's communications manager. Anyone who wants to order it can call the council at (800) 456-0111.

Richard W. Daniels, president of Audits International, has said food safety is an "evolving responsibility of retailers. They used to just sell food, now they're charged with protecting it."

Recognizing this fact and taking the added responsibility "may require supermarkets to admit the risks involved with all fresh food," he said.