In the midst of grilling and picnic season, retailers are firing up efforts to tell their customers how to safely prepare food and keep it safe for eating.
Dietitians, company websites, online newsletters, offers of pop-up thermometers, colorful brochures, even Facebook announcements, have all been put to work by retailers intent on educating their customers about their role in food safety.
“We do have to emphasize that food safety extends to their plate, that food needs to be handled and stored safely after it leaves the store,” said Ruth Comer, assistant vice president, media relations, at West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee.
Hy-Vee's dietitians, who often offer nutrition information to customers, also are doing their part to get the safe food handling message out.
In fact, last week, one of Hy-Vee's registered dietitians, Carrie Nielsen, presented a “food safety experience” event at a Hy-Vee store in Omaha, Neb.
Nielsen set up a table at the end of the meat counter, and talked to customers about cooking meat to the right temperature. In addition to “Fight Bac” brochures and other government-generated materials, she gave customers refrigerator magnets that list correct temperatures for cooking meats and poultry.
“I also told them about the different types of thermometers that we sell and demonstrated how to use them,” Nielsen told SN.
“Naturally, I talked, too, about the importance of frequent hand washing and about avoiding cross- contamination.”
She also addressed another possible safety hazard as the weather continues to heat up: keeping foods at picnics or other outdoor events cool enough to ward off harmful bacteria.
Nielsen and Comer both pointed out that Hy-Vee has revved up its food safety education efforts at the corporate level over the last couple of years.
“Five years ago, we didn't have dietitians in our retail stores, and now we have 140 of them,” Comer told SN.
“Whenever they do a food event, they incorporate food safety and safe food-handling tips. We're also looking at new ways right now to get information out to our customers,” she added, noting that Hy-Vee has been exploring ways to emphasize the food safety message to customers electronically.
The company also just recently added another food safety expert, Chuck Seaman, whose title is assistant vice president, food safety.
Seaman is not the first food safety expert on Hy-Vee's team, but he'll be an additional help, Comer said.
“With Chuck on board we have more visibility, and will be launching more programs in food safety education.”
Meanwhile, in an effort to let its customers know they need to cook meat and poultry to a safe-to-eat temperature, LaCrosse, Wis.-based Quillin's had tried putting pop-up thermometers in roasts of all kinds with mixed success. Now the nine-unit independent is refining that effort.
Meat department associates have begun making it a point to talk to customers about proper meat cooking and are offering them a pop-up thermometer for whatever piece of meat they're buying. Hardly anybody turns one down.
“I actually think it slowed sales a year and a half ago when we started putting the pop-ups in all roasts, so we took them out. People were used to seeing them in turkeys, but not in a beef or pork roast,' said Kevin Gilbertson, manager, meat/seafood, for Quillin's flagship store.
“We're doing a lot of training of our associates, getting them to interact with customers, and tell them about cooking meat safely. Now, when a customer buys a roast, we ask if they want a pop-up thermometer put in it, and 99% of them say yes.”
The company has different pop-ups available that help customers safely cook beef roasts to different degrees of doneness. Associates ask customers if they prefer their meat rare, medium, etc. That sparks conversation, which, combined with offering the pop-up thermometers, has boosted total meat sales, Gilbertson said.
“It's a customer service. We're surrounded by Wal-Marts where there's no service, so we try to engage the customer as much as we can.”
This month, Christie Pare, corporate food safety trainer, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, is getting ready for September, National Food Safety Education Month.
“We're getting our POS system at the checkout stand ready. We're getting our information from befoodsafe.org for our logos and store guidelines so that everything will be consistent [throughout the chain],” Pare said.
The idea is to catch customers' attention as they wait in line at checkout. The electronic monitor facing the customer that often offers food prep tips will be focused on food safety in September.
The company can take advantage of technology at checkout to get the message to the customer, Pare pointed out.
“Our electronic registers show items and their price on a monitor as they're rung up,” Pare said. “That screen will be divided in half, and on the right side will be safe food-handling tips that will zero in on three areas: temperature control [for proper cooking and storage], preventing cross-contamination, and cleanliness, with attention to personal hygiene and cleanliness of the work place.”
Pare said she's anxious to get the system rolled out for September and hopes to continue using it to dispense food safety information.
“Certainly, around the holidays, we'll be using it for safe food-handling tips. We do want to keep [the message] timely and fresh.”
Over the past several years, United has made it a priority to educate customers about safe food handling, Pare said.
“At one point, we gave out refrigerator thermometers, so customers could make sure their refrigerators were true to their settings, and told them the temperature should be 40 degrees or below.”
A more recent effort involved a chainwide in-store “Back to School Bash” where associates — overseen by the chain's food safety experts — showed customers how to pack a safe lunch for their child to take to school.
“We gave them such tips as freezing a bottle of water or a juice pack to put in the lunch bag to keep other items cold till lunchtime,” Pare said.
At the event, they also gave out free insulated lunch bags.
Many retailers, including United, have made good use of their websites to underscore food safety issues. In fact, United's website guides users to food safety tips quickly.
When a button called “food events/entertaining” is clicked, a whole list of safe grilling tips comes up.
“We're trying to make our website easy to use,” Pare said.
Hy-Vee's Comer said that Hy-Vee is also revamping its website, and easy access to food safety tips is high on the priority list.
Kowalski's Markets in St. Paul, Minn., took the opportunity to use its Facebook page — which was launched about six months ago — to tell customers what to do with the food in their refrigerators and freezers in the event of a power outage.
“We're relatively new to Facebook and we use it to give our friends meal suggestions and to keep them updated on new items and/or seasonal products hitting the stores,” said Deb Kowalski, executive assistant at the independent chain.
So it occurred to company officials, in the wake of several local storms, to warn their Facebook friends about how long they can expect foods to be kept at a safe temperature once their electricity goes out.
“In this part of the country, summer storms can be severe, so power outages happen with some regularity,” Kowalski told SN.
The first piece of advice was to keep the doors shut on the freezer and refrigerator, and that most refrigerators, kept closed, would maintain their 40-degree temperature for about four hours. A freezer, kept closed can hold its temperatures 48 hours if it's full, and 24 hours for a half-full freezer.
Then, the company suggested checking temperatures inside the appliances as soon as the power goes back on. If the temperature has slipped above the safe level, then certain items, which were listed, need to be tossed, was the warning.
Kowalski's also regularly includes safe food-handling tips on recipe cards and in its online newsletter, edited by its director of culinary promotions, Linda Day Anderson.
Some retailer efforts, like putting safe food-handling messages on Facebook and in electronic newsletters are new, but some chains have been paying attention to getting the message out for quite a while.
Publix Super Markets, for example, has been merchandising meat thermometers in their meat cases for years, and telling customers how and why they should be using them.
“We make that offering as part of a food-safe kitchen and meal experience, especially since our labeling system provides cooking temperatures and times for safe food handling,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix.