Two years of major foodborne illness outbreaks and massive product recalls have taken consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply to a low ebb. As unfortunate as these events are, they offer retailers an important opportunity to engage their shoppers in a dialogue about safety, and to educate them about how they can make food preparation at home as safe as possible.
During foodborne illness outbreaks, it's important not to contradict any public guidance or advice disseminated by the FDA. However, these outbreaks understandably raise consumer concerns about food safety in general and, as a result, make shoppers more receptive to educational messages.
“I do think that retailers can look at [outbreaks] as an opportunity to continue to remind consumers that proper food handling at home is also an important step to keeping food safe,” said Paulette Thompson, a registered dietitian who is food and nutrition coordinator for Giant Food and Stop & Shop. Those education campaigns can be combined with other proactive efforts during outbreaks, she added, noting that Ahold USA's companies reassure customers with information about where their products are sourced, and they regularly update company websites with information on product recalls.
For better or worse, the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to spinach, and this summer's salmonella outbreak, linked first to tomatoes and now to jalapeno peppers, have led to growing public awareness of the food safety risks that can be associated with fresh produce.
Be Food Safe, a consumer education campaign developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began working with supermarket retailers last September and has since grown its roster of participating companies to more than 40. Recent estimates from the Food Marketing Institute, a founding member of the PFSE, indicate that these participants operate more than 6,000 supermarkets serving 81 million consumers.
Partly in response to heightened concerns about produce, Be Food Safe has expanded its outreach efforts on safe produce handling and the importance of rinsing all fresh fruits and vegetables before consumption. It has also developed a new icon — emphasizing the importance of washing produce — that is now being distributed to member stores.
“Through the support of the Produce Marketing Association, a long-standing member of this partnership, we're also encouraging produce companies to begin to look at how they can include consumer handling messages, either on their packaging or in other ways, to encourage them to work with retailers on consumer outreach,” said Shelley Feist, executive director of the PFSE.
In the past, consumer awareness of produce safe-handling practices has been lower than awareness of other food safety issues, Feist said.
“It's fair to say that safe produce handling and consistent rinsing of fruits and vegetables is a consumer practice that has not penetrated as much as other food safety messages, such as the importance of washing hands or cooking meats to the proper temperature.”
Since the retail campaign's rollout last September, consumer feedback has been positive, Feist said. And, even shoppers that claim to be familiar with the “Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill” handling practices emphasized by the program say that it's good to be reminded of them where they shop.
“In our work with consumers, they acknowledge that they have a role to play [in food safety], and they appreciate when industry plays a role in helping to remind them what they can do to reduce their risk,” she explained. “I think that engaging the consumer in an honest dialogue about food safety, it seems by all indications that consumers welcome that. They say, ‘It tells me that the retailer and the food companies care about my family and my health.’”
Of course, safe handling by shoppers at home cannot always guarantee that food is safe to eat — particularly during an outbreak. But, it is important that consumers recognize that they play a major role in preventing cross-contamination when preparing food, as well as cooking food to the proper temperature and storing it properly afterward.
“Everyone along the chain needs to do their part,” Feist said. “All we focus on is consumer education, and making sure that consumers have the information they need to reduce their risk.”
Regardless of the outreach measures supermarkets have employed during this summer's ongoing salmonella outbreak, there is ample opportunity to highlight consumer food safety education at other points in the year.
Grilling season in the summer and the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season are two key times of the year, Feist said. During the summer, people host cookouts and picnics, often leaving food improperly stored and not cooled for extended periods. During the holidays, a lot of inexperienced cooks are preparing large, elaborate meals.
“You see a lot more people in the kitchen, including some people who only really prepare a meal from scratch once per year,” Feist said. “Those are important times — when consumers are really invested in having events that are healthy, successful and safe.”
Ideally, though, supermarkets should integrate consumer food safety into their existing health and wellness programs, ensuring that it's a topic that is consistently covered throughout the year, Feist said.
“It's very impressive, some of the tools that retailers have now to talk to their customers about health and wellness. We've already seen Be Food Safe and food safety included in some retailer publications and magazines. One participating retailer has a column that goes out to 1 million households through their publication. Others have put the information on their websites. And, we've had retailers talk about using Be Food Safe in in-store demonstrations and cooking schools.”
Ahold USA is one Be Food Safe participant that takes this consistent, comprehensive approach, Thompson said.
“For the past six to eight weeks, we had links to Be Food Safe up on the home page of our Stop & Shop and Giant Food sites,” said Thompson. “It's not so much seasonal. It's one of our core consumer education campaigns and messages.”
Thompson said that the company's website had been one of its primary outlets for the campaign.
“We aren't using as many in-store materials now as we were in the past,” she said. “Consumers these days aren't taking the time to pick up a brochure, take it home and read it. The Internet is used more and more as a first source of information. By prominently displaying the Be Food Safe link on our home page as consistently as we can, I think we reach more consumers.”
Basic food safety messages are highlighted in other ways as well, she added. For example, a recent store circular column on grilling tips for the Fourth of July included information on proper internal temperatures for different types of meat. Recipes published in circulars and on the company's website also feature similar information. And, Thompson regularly fields calls and answers questions on food safety from the company's shoppers.
“It's a matter of repeating these messages over and over again,” Thompson said.