It's hard to believe that pumpkin pie, carrot cake or chocolate icing could be hazardous to your health.
Yet without adequate sanitation and food defense mechanisms in place, delicious desserts can cause human illnesses as a result of contamination. Even with the best security and operating procedures up and running, unfortunate incidents still happen.
Several retailers and food safety experts interviewed by SN recalled how, some years ago, one baker suffering from a noravirus made hundreds of customers sick by dipping his gloved hands and ungloved forearms into a vat of chocolate icing to help break up the chocolate.
An investigation found his bare arms contaminated the icing. The authorities eventually traced the sickness, whose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, back to the baker, but the damage was done for the customers who became ill and for the baker's workers, who were subjected to unwelcome media scrutiny.
But sources said such incidents are isolated, and the few they can recall serve as "wake-up calls, reminding the industry that they can never relax their vigilance," said Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
Having a sanitary bakery operation involves, among other things, carefully screening applicants for jobs in commissaries and in-store bakeries, having scrupulous and regular training programs in place, and knowing and monitoring all current and potential suppliers, supermarket executives and food safety experts said.
"From our perspective, food safety/food defense is an ongoing, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year process," said Kent Tapley, vice president of deli
and bakery operations for Marsh Supermarkets, an Indianapolis-based chain of 68 stores.
"The rules change regularly and as retailers we have to do everything we can to protect our customers," Tapley continued.
"Thankfully, we have a food safety/food defense team headed by Scott Alkinburgh," he said. "As new equipment and new techniques become available, Scott and his team stay up-to-date and put processes and training programs in place that allow us to protect our customers."
At Kowalski's Markets, a nine-store chain based in Woodbury, Minn., Steve Beaird, director of the central bakery, said the company has taken a proactive approach to food safety and for several years has employed an independent firm to conduct monthly inspections of the in-store bakeries and Kowalski's central bakery.
"They'll come in and swab drains and work surfaces, looking for any signs of bacteria or contamination," Beaird said. "They'll swab knives, mixing bowls, inside the dishwasher. It's a pretty thorough check to make sure we are following all the proper procedures."
Last August, Kowalski's expanded the program. Now the inspection company randomly swabs employees' hands in all the fresh food departments.
"It's another way to ensure compliance with our food safety procedures," Beaird said.
Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas', which operates more than 150 stores under three banners, uses FMI's "Invisible Challenge" video and tests to train employees in the fresh food departments on food safety and sanitation.
Managers must complete an in-house food safety training class and pass a national certification test, said Tom Dominick, the retailer's vice president of food safety.
All managers at Publix Super Markets have been certified in food safety by Super Safe Mark, FMI's Retail Best Practices Food Safety and Sanitation program, said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the chain of about 900 stores, based in Lakeland, Fla.
"Upon completion of the course and examination, each manager is expected to bring the best practices back to their stores and to the specific departments and train their associates," Brous said. "Each manager is required to go through recertification every five years."
The training covers a number of areas, including safety hazards, factors that affect foodborne illnesses, cleaning and sanitation procedures, and food safety management.
Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets, which has 143 stores, uses a variety of programs for maintaining safety, including cleaning and sanitizing, avoiding cross-contamination, maintaining proper temperature control and employing effective pest control measures, said Vivian King, the retailer's director of public affairs.
"Keeping food safe for customers is paramount," King said.
Making sure employees receive adequate training - and having a team of sharp-eyed associates - is key to a successful food safety program, Marsh's Alkinburgh said.
"When it comes to the open concept of supermarket," he said, "it's challenging to create and maintain food defense mechanisms, but within what is practical, we are more diligent in our screening of employees. We're doing more thorough background checks, and we've added another 30 minutes of training to our 16-hour food safety certification classes.
"Awareness is the key to creating a food safety defense mechanism," he continued. "It is the alertness of the employees that is a key element."
At Bashas', the food safety department monitors health inspection reports and performs on-site training and inspections. The chemical supplier performs quarterly audits and trains store associates on the proper use of chemicals for cleaning and sanitizing departments, Dominick said.
To minimize the danger of allergen contamination, Kowalski's lists all the major food allergens on bakery product labels and the stores display food allergen guidelines informing consumers that their baked goods were processed in a facility and with equipment that may come in contact with peanuts and tree nuts.
In fact, while Kowalski's has cut down on using nuts in its baked goods, Beaird said the company is considering making its in-store and central bakery facilities completely nut free.
"There are fewer and fewer things that we put nuts into, and I think eventually we will be nut free," he said.
"Ten years ago, in our central bakery I had about 100-120 SKUs with nuts in them," Beaird said. "Today I have 30 out of 350 SKUs.
"So, we are actively looking at becoming nut free," Beaird said.
Roundy's allergen control programs for the bakery departments include "a comprehensive system to label our products, positioning our bakery items and segregating the 'Big 8' allergens," King explained. "We believe these measures help us maintain food safety in our store bakeries."
Marsh's has updated its labeling system to make its allergen control program more comprehensive.
"In our scale system, all the ingredients as well as allergens are listed, and we work with our manufacturers and suppliers to provide us with that list, and if the list changes, we expect them to update us so we can update our information as often as necessary," Alkinburgh said.