The rotation of frozen foods is not a hot topic.
Retailers may not be surprised to hear this, given the category's longer shelf life. However, supermarkets that don't frequently check expiration dates and remove old and potentially unsafe packages do so at their own peril, retailers and industry experts told SN.
"Consumers can not only get sick, but if they happen to get a product that has been mishandled in the food chain, they could relate the experience to frozen foods as a whole, creating a domino effect in the consumer's mind," said Nevin Montgomery, president, National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa.
Maintaining the integrity of frozen foods requires swift handling upon delivery and constant monitoring once the items are inside freezer cases. Getting the product from truck into freezer cases quickly is the first step, Montgomery said.
Safeguarding frozens starts with the delivery and unloading process.
Strack & Van Til Supermarkets, Schererville, Ill., works with manufacturers and distributors to ensure that the most temperature-sensitive frozen items are within arm's reach on delivery trucks, so they're the first products unloaded and moved into freezers, said Terry Bickers, frozen/dairy/grocery manager.
"When a truck comes in, we move dairy products to the coolers first. Then our frozen foods are counted, loaded onto racks, and put into our cases immediately," said Brian Barrett, frozen/dairy manager at Leeker's Family Foods, Wichita, Kan. "There's very little time between when it comes through the door and when it ends up in the freezer."
For Barrett, the safety of frozens is no casual matter.
"My wife actually had salmonella that came back four times, so I'm extremely diligent about making sure the frozen food in our stores is kept frozen," he said, pointing out that the illness was not necessarily caused by frozen foods. Yet it has made his family more aware of food safety involving all foods, regardless of holding temperature.
The order in which frozens are handled also matters, Bickers said.
"A product like ice cream can thaw or melt very quickly. So once it comes off the truck, it must go into the freezer first," he said. "If there's any kind of melting, it will get freezer burn, which will be evident to the consumer in the form of ice crystals. Bread, fish and even certain vegetables thaw faster than other products, so they should be moved out of the back room and into freezers first."
Because freezer cases are built to maintain frozen foods instead of actually freezing them, any frozen item that has thawed even a little is compromised, Bickers said.
"Once frozen foods melt or are thawed, they should be thrown out and not make it anywhere near the consumer," he said.
Some frozen foods are more vulnerable than others to lowered temperatures. When frozen desserts are subject to temperatures above 10í F, they may suffer adverse changes in body, texture and flavor characteristics. So they should be handled first, according to the International Ice Cream Association, Washington.
Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn., splits its deliveries of dairy and frozens so employees can focus on one shipment at a time. Dairy comes first, allowing enough time for store employees to move the refrigerated products into coolers before frozens arrive, store manager Tim Cummiskey said.
Once frozens are in the store, retailers monitor them through a combination of human and machine power.
Strack & Van Til has an in-store maintenance team that stays on top of every piece of frozen food equipment in its stores. Each freezer case is equipped with its own alarm, but having a human back-up system eliminates any chance of a meltdown, Bickers said.
Leeker's Family Foods packs as many frozen items as possible into its stores' freezer cases, but cuts out the facing of each case to make individual packages easier to reach.
"This makes it much easier for us to rotate items and to check dates on individual packages," Barrett said. "We have a salesperson who comes in every six months or so and checks the dates, since most of them are coded, and not all of our employees are able to read the codes."
Leeker's frozen aisles are replenished an average of four times per week, creating plenty of opportunity for a store associate to quickly check a handful of frozen goods that have been in the store for a while, Barrett said.
On vegetables and other bagged foods, a basic "lump" test is all that's required, he said. Each package is felt for big chunks or lumped-together pieces, a sure sign the product may be compromised.
Highland Park Market's freezer cases are equipped with alarms that monitor temperature, moisture and other pertinent frozen food conditions, Cummiskey said.
The store orders only enough product to meet the local demand, thus reducing the number of frozen foods that sit untouched in its freezers. When new products enter the store, particularly those with new packaging, Cummiskey directs employees to rotate old items to the front of each case and stock new arrivals immediately behind them. All the while, the associates are expected to check freshness codes and remove products that are about to expire.
Ball's Food Stores also has many freezer cases with alarms that alert store employees when the temperature drops below the preset degree or another equipment malfunction occurs. The biggest key to maintaining frozens' integrity is unequivocally low-tech, though.
"The most important thing we do in our stores is to check cases several times a day by walking through the aisles and simply looking at each case," Larry Brown, frozen foods and grocery buyer at the Kansas City, Kan.-based Ball's. "We also train our stockers to rotate food and to look for visible damage as they are stocking the freezer cases."
Educating employees about the importance of quick and accurate handling of frozen foods and how to read expiration coding on packages is a challenge for retailers, said NFRA's Montgomery.
"There is an ongoing educational problem because turnover in supermarkets is so great," he said. "Chains need to constantly educate and train employees to make sure they're conscious of frozen food procedures. Usually, there's someone in each store who is aware of how to read codes and what must be done to preserve the integrity of foods. It's just a matter of filtering that information down to employees."