If maintaining a clean and safe in-store environment, free from germs and bacteria, can be likened to a military expedition, then Lowe's Food Stores is waging a highly proactive, disciplined campaign — taking the fight to the enemy.
“Many people in the industry are reactive [toward food safety], based on what state and local inspectors find,” said Gary Watson, vice president of business support for Lowe's, Winston-Salem, N.C., who develops and oversees food safety strategy at the 109-store chain. “Our program enables us to get to a more proactive state, ahead of the curve, so when inspectors come in they find fewer deficiencies.”
About 2½ years ago, Lowe's, a division of privately held Alex Lee, Hickory, N.C., began adding a series of enhancements to the food safety program, making it more measurable, redundant and fail-safe. These improvements include a greater emphasis on training, more rigorous inspections by third-party auditors and store employees, an electronic reporting system that requires remedial action within 48 hours, monthly and annual chainwide audits, and consultations with a renowned epidemiologist, among other measures.
Most of the initiatives have been in place now for about a year, helping to continually increase the chain's state health inspection scores to just shy of 100%, Watson said. “We're seeing improvement every quarter.” Lowe's is also observing gains in scores given by independent third-party auditors, who use tougher standards than state inspectors.
Yet employee education — for everyone from part-timers to the company president — rather than just inspection scores remains the highest priority of Lowe's food safety strategy. “Our approach is to ask what our people need to know to create a sound foundation,” said Darrice Monk, a former health inspector and registered sanitarian who is the chain's manager of food safety and sanitation, responsible for the day-to-day oversight of food safety, pest control and floor care.
The inspection scores then become “an outcome of how well we're educating, coaching and mentoring employees,” noted Watson. “If they have a knowledge base, then that translates into the right behavior, which translates into the right scores, rather than focusing on scores and working backwards.”
As part of their training, employees are imbued with the importance the company attaches to food safety, as well as the importance of their own job in helping the company maintain high standards. “Food safety is something folks are proud of and strive to succeed in.” Monk said.
Steve Hall, president of Lowe's, noted that food safety problems can be a “brand killer” for a food retailer. “So you've got to do everything you can to make sure it doesn't happen to you.”
For this dedication to food safety, manifested through its multi-faceted retail program, Lowe's has been selected to receive SN's inaugural Food Safety Innovation Award.
Lowe's employs the ServSafe and, to a lesser degree, the Food Marketing Institute's SafeMark, food safety training and certification programs for perishable department employees, providing online and classroom instruction combined with one-on-one follow-up at the store level. The programs handle 150 to 175 employees annually, and certification is good for three years. “We're transitioning the initial study portion to online to make it easier for employees and reduce their time out of stores,” Monk said.
Training also takes place during employee orientation and third-party store audits, and Monk works with managers and employees to “make sure they keep up to standards,” he said.
The chain's third-party store audit, which emphasizes industry best practices and regulatory compliance for perishable areas, is conducted monthly by Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn., at each of the 109 stores. After the 2½-hour inspection, the auditor leaves the store manager with a report, and electronically submits a report to Monk by 8 a.m. the following day.
Though based on state inspections, Lowe's third-party audit applies a more rigorous standard, said Watson. For example, while North Carolina state regulations allow employees to store some personal items in perishable areas, Lowe's does not. “That's a hygiene issue for us that could affect food storage and handling,” he said. Personal items must be kept in break room refrigerators or lockers. The private audit also looks at ingredient labels and product dates — something handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but not state audits.
Lowe's also requires each store to conduct a monthly food safety self-audit and report the results to headquarters. “We've added to it every year to make it more aligned with the other audits,” Watson said. The combination of state, third-party and self audits “means we have three pairs of eyes on a routine basis examining food safety,” he added. “That creates an awareness where food safety is stepped up in importance within the organization.”
What particularly gives Lowe's third-party audit and state inspections teeth is the follow-up the chain requires of its stores. For any food safety issues noted in the audit/inspection reports, the store manager has 48 hours to “develop a corrective action plan,” said Monk. This would include implementing remedies, which may include calling in an outside maintenance person, as well as devising a prevention-and-monitoring strategy. The manager could also consult with Monk on the best way to proceed.
All of this has to be detailed in an electronic report sent to Monk within the deadline. “I review each one,” he said, “and the information is shared with merchandising and executive staff. It gives us the ability to help a store with its particular needs.” Upon reviewing the report, Monk may advise the manager to take different steps to resolve a food safety issue to prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.
In addition to its store-by-store focus, Lowe's monitors food safety on a chainwide level. Each month, it accumulates data from all reports for upper management and division directors “to identify trends and variances that may need additional attention at retail,” said Watson. “It's our measurement tool to manage by.”
The company also performs an annual audit of all food safety practices, reports and operational requirements in order to find “gaps” in meeting expectations at the store and management level, Watson said. An example might be that paper towels are running out too frequently in dispensers — a violation of the health code — which would lead to a change in the store ordering system.
Even store design has a food safety component. The company brings Monk into the review process for all new and remodeled stores before design plans are sent to the health department for approval. “We're being proactive in catching things early on,” such as a sink located too far away from a production area or potential cross-contamination issues, said Watson.
Lowe's has also set up a comprehensive process for randomly measuring product temperatures, involving multiple parties, from store employees and field personnel to third-party auditors and Monk. For example, the temperature of meat is checked in the supply chain and in cases. “We use redundancy in the system to help defeat human error,” said Monk. For consumers, every meat package has food handling and cooking instructions.
Lowe's operates a central meat processing facility, which is part of its effort to “minimize risks in food safety by not doing meat production in stores,” said Watson. The facility conducts a number of food safety tests daily that “meet or exceed industry standards,” he added. Random quality control checks are done on product temperatures, sanitation and product handling, and an in-house USDA inspector routinely monitors cutting practices.
In addition, the meat processing facility can trace back virtually every piece of meat that is cut, which “most companies can't do,” said Hall. Lowe's also enters available produce lot numbers into its database in order to track produce to the source.
Merchants Distributors Inc. (MDI), Hickory, N.C., Lowe's sister company as well as its wholesaler, uses third-party audits as well as USDA inspections of produce at its warehouse. Lowe's also asks its growers to follow the Growers Agricultural Practices (GAP) process and requests that all suppliers employ a third-party auditor, such as Primus, at processing facilities.
For its own food safety edification, Lowe's consults on a monthly basis via conference call with Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He advises the company on “food safety issues, trends and action steps we should consider as we improve our food safety practices,” said Watson. “He's a great resource.”