The influx of more fresh and prepared offerings has made upholding food safety a more complicated task for supermarkets, according to food safety auditor Steritech.
In nearly 3,000 assessments conducted last year, Charlotte, N.C.-based Steritech found common mistakes in food safety practices across grocery store departments. Top issues included food contact surfaces not properly cleaned and sanitized, sanitizer solution not at proper concentration, risks of cross-contamination, inadequate cold-holding temperatures, expired food, and food found in poor condition, said Paula Herald, technical consultant at The Steritech Institute.
“Fresh and prepared food brings more food safety challenges,” Herald explained. “Fewer preservatives mean shorter shelf life, requiring careful control of date-marking inventory rotation. With more and more prep work being done, there are more opportunities for food safety issues. There are more steps in prep, more utensils, more work surfaces and more ingredients to store, creating a higher risk for cross-contamination and foodservice worker errors.”
Among all the fresh departments examined — produce, bakery, meat and poultry, deli and seafood — a shared problem was keeping food contact surfaces clean, Steritech found. Much of this comes from a growing array of offerings, such as pre-cut fruit and vegetables and salad in produce; ready-to-cook-or-heat and prepared items in the meat and deli sections; and more fresh-baked goods. That entails more equipment, utensils and areas for workers to clean.
Of note, Steritech said, nearly a third of store bakeries had difficulties maintaining clean food surfaces. Certain departments also had unique issues, including dirty ice machines in seafood and produce shelving baskets that collect dirt and soil.
Potential contamination — including chemical, physical and biological risks — was found to be one of the top three food safety challenges in all departments except produce. In the bakery, allergen contamination is a pressing concern, according to Steritech, which emphasized that items must be clearly labeled. Improper storage of raw products, which need to be below prepared or cooked items, proved to be an issue in the meat, seafood and deli areas. Associates in those departments who handle raw items must change aprons if they switch to handling cooked products or manning the service counter. At salad bars, each item should have its own utensil, noted Steritech. And in all departments, chemicals shouldn’t be stored near or with food.
Cold holding was one of the leading problems in the produce, seafood, deli and general grocery sections. To prevent rapid growth of harmful pathogens, cold foods must be kept at a temperature of 41°F or below. Steritech found that nearly 20% of stores struggle with this in produce, with the chief culprit being display cases holding pre-cut and prepared foods.
By more than double, cold-holding issues were cited in the deli more than in any other department, mainly due to improper training, such as with measuring food temperature and using time as a control for Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) foods, Steritech said. In seafood, maintenance of cold cases and displays at the proper temperature was a concern, as was filling cold units past the load line. Dairy and frozen cases were trouble spots in general grocery, and associates need to ensure proper temperature. That includes preventing “snow” on frozen products, which can trigger cross-contamination.
“Prepared foods, salad bar, in-house meal kits and restaurant concepts in grocery all have differing food safety procedures. Supermarket workers may not be trained in new areas, and new products may require new skills,” Herald said.
“Salad bars require constant monitoring to ensure customers do not accidentally contaminate the food. Even moving utensils from one container to another can create an allergen risk. There are more opportunities for cross-contamination and foodservice worker errors,” she pointed out. “Self-service for bulk items such as frozen meals that are scooped by customers present opportunities for contamination (biological, chemical and physical) and abuse and need extra monitoring.”
Sanitizing was identified as a challenge in the meat/poultry and bakery departments — specifically, sanitizer being used at the wrong concentration. Steritech flagged products in poor condition or packaging as an issue in the produce area, especially molding or rotting fruit and vegetables still on the shelf for customer purchase.
The “grocerant” trend has placed added food safety demands on supermarkets in terms of process and skills. “Supermarkets traditionally focus on preparing food in large batches, which are then portioned for individual sales. Restaurants typically prepare food one plate at a time,” said Herald.
“Having in-store vendors/kiosks for items like sushi or branded foods makes it important to ensure [grocery stores] are in regulatory compliance for food safety issues, as customer perception of these foods/experiences will also reflect upon the supermarket brand even if they are managed by an outside vendor,” she explained. “In trying to keep up with customer expectations, supermarkets may start trying to prepare more complex foods for which they have no expertise, proper equipment or controls for specialized food processes, such as sous vide, smoking, curing, pickling, etc., for which an HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan is required.”
To ensure just-in-time deliveries to keep stock fresh, retailers may have to seek additional supply-chain providers or work with current distribution cycles, Herald said.
The rise of online grocery presents food safety challenges as well. “Supermarkets offering shopping services and pickup/delivery also need to be aware of cold- and/or hot-holding limitations,” she added. “Packaging and strategic packing may be important considerations.”