Retailers spend a lot of time developing and implementing their own food safety standards, but what happens after shoppers take the food home?
Sometimes a good old conversation is the best way to help consumers prepare food safely, retailers told SN.
At Foodtown operator Food Circus Supermarkets , Middletown, N.J., employees are encouraged to talk to consumers to personalize the shopping experience.
Michelle Cantalupo, supervisor of fresh foods, said that food safety doesn’t always come up in a customer-initiated conversation, but food safety information is part of helping a customer.
“It’s more you are making a friend out of the customer. If you’re just answering a question, anyone can answer a question quickly, but at Foodtown we really try to take a minute and service the customer fully. So that [food safety] will come up because we’re trying to extend the conversation, not because it’s asked about,” said Cantalupo.
When talking about food safety, Cantalupo found it’s important to not frighten the customer with consequences of poor food safety.
“You just have to do like a ‘Hey, remember to refrigerate that when you’re done, don’t leave it out overnight.’ You never say things like ‘contamination’ or ‘It will make you sick.’ You try to stay away from those terms and instead just really push the point to refrigerate and wash your hands, things of that nature.”
Festival Foods , Onalaska, Wis., prepares department managers, store directors, assistant directors and many leads and assistant managers for food safety conversations by requiring they be certified food managers.
“Those teach the basic fundamentals, the basic principles, and that helps us educate our guests in proper food safe handling,” said Jake Parr, food safety supervisor at Festival.
Managers also attend regular meetings about food safety topics. These employees also know where to point shoppers for additional resources online like the Department of Agriculture’s Ask Karen website.
Festival talks to shoppers about food safety through blog posts on topics like expiration dates and grilling meat to safe temperatures.
“People can tend to relate a little more when it’s on their level,” said Parr.
PCC Natural Markets , a Seattle-based natural food cooperative, also communicates with shoppers through printed materials, its website and staff.
“We do get questions from customers in our stores on food safety, but they are not as common as ‘How do I cook this?’ or ‘Why should I incorporate this food into my diet?’” said Nick Rose, nutrition educator at PCC.
“Food safety questions are most often around food storage and expiration dates. Often shoppers discover something like a bag of almonds that has been in their cupboard for a few months and they want to know if it is still safe to eat,” said Rose.
Festival Foods also gets a lot of storage and expiration questions, as well as “a lot of cross-contamination questions, like what’s the proper procedure when cutting vegetables and raw proteins and stuff like that,” said Parr.
How to safely thaw and cook meat to the right temperature are big questions for Foodtown shoppers.
“[A customer might ask] ‘How do I thaw this turkey if I want to cook it tonight?’ And the answer is there is no good way to thaw a turkey you want to cook tonight,” said Cantalupo. Customers are advised to thaw meat in the refrigerator.
In the case of a product recall, retailers reach out to customers through email, phone and notices on their website.
Overall, research indicates that the safety of the food supply isn’t a huge concern for consumers.
“For the most part, Americans feel the food supply is safe,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, based in Port Washington, New York.
“And it really hasn’t changed a heck of a whole lot over the 10 years that we’ve been tracking it. But there’s always a concern that arises and the No. 1 concern they have is about E. coli and salmonella.”
Since 2001, NPD has surveyed 500 consumers every other week about food safety concerns. Balzer said 63%-64% of consumers feel that supermarket food is completely safe, with the remaining 36% showing weaker amounts of confidence.
“It’s down a bit from when we started, which was like 65%-66%, but for the most part it hasn’t really moved. There’s no real statistical significance between the two numbers.”
Consumers are more wary of restaurant food. Balzer said the restaurant food safety confidence number hovers around 48% to 49%, likely because consumers can see the wait staff touching their food.
Media coverage around recalls and outbreaks can put a dent in consumer confidence, but only with the specific product or category impacted, said Balzer.
“You can see pretty sharp movements in behavior as a result of those things, but they [the consumers] generally come back,” Balzer said, noting that it’s important for retailers and suppliers to quickly remedy the food safety problem to minimize impact.
Despite high consumer confidence levels, retailers say customers are relaying more food safety concerns than in the past.
“The increase over the past few years in the number and scope of food product recalls have certainly made consumers generally more aware of the potential for bacterial contamination in our food supply,” said Diana Chapman, PCC’s director of sustainability.
“Offsetting a lot of that concern is the focus PCC and other grocery retailers are putting on local sourcing. The closer the producer, the easier it is to ensure traceability.”
While Food Circus doesn’t get into the details of its food safety efforts with customers, it uses its focus on fresh to show investment in properly prepared food.
“Our kitchens are completely fresh food kitchens. There’s not a frozen meatloaf. There’s not a premade chicken salad. Everything we cook is fresh and we make sure to say it’s made fresh daily,” said Cantalupo.
“So do they know that we are cooking that chicken to 170 before we cut it up to put in their salad? No, but they do know that we’re taking the steps to make it for them.”
Sidebar: Cultivating Culture
NEW ORLEANS — Retailers and suppliers need to do more than just talk the food safety talk, according to a panel at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit show  here.
“I would say in food safety sometimes we just check boxes. You know we go down through and we do what somebody told us we had to do. So we do rely on the things that are more tactical — the things we can reach out and control,” PMA’s chief science and technology officer, Bob Whitaker, said at the Moving to a Food Safety Culture workshop.
Instead, food safety should be part of the fabric of a company and go beyond just passing audits, testing products, inspections, training and sanitation, according to Whitaker.
“At the end of the day if we don’t operate those tools, if we don’t know that they are ground in our business, that they are right there part of what we do, then they are simply tools,” Whitaker said.
Wegmans Food Markets  integrates food safety into its business by refusing to partner with any supplier who hasn’t met its food safety standards.
Read more: SN's Food Safety landing page 
“We feel there’s no size, there’s no location, there’s no difference in terms of where bad pathogens can live. So we feel it doesn’t matter the size or the scope of a grower or a processor; you need to prove that you’re providing basic food safety standards,” said David Corsi, Wegmans vice president of produce and floral operations.
Wegmans helps smaller growers with the cost of these standards, reimbursing them with $400 after they’ve passed an audit.
The retailer also has the food safety positions report to the consumer affairs department, so that the focus of food safety is the consumer. Corsi noted that food safety responsibility goes beyond the employees with “food safety” in their title.
In the end, Corsi said, food safety is just about serving your customers.
“You can spend years building your reputation and making the customer think you are the only choice in the market, for any particular item and provide great service at the same time. But all of that means nothing when someone is sick or if someone unfortunately dies.”
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