INDIANAPOLIS (FNS) -- As value-added products proliferate in perishables departments, there is greater chance of food contamination, several panelists told members of the Indiana Grocery and Convenience Store Association at the group's annual convention.
Food contamination, coupled with media sensationalism, could spell disaster for retailers, panelists told the convention here last month.
"As we move into deli and home meal replacement, food safety is No. 1 for us on a scale of one to 10," said Karla Neukam, advertising and media director for Buehler Foods Inc., a 28-store chain based in Jasper, Ind. "It's a very big topic for us -- and we must make sure that the consumer knows that we care.
"Because of widespread media coverage, if your stores are perceived as part of an issue, it could mean the end of your business," she warned.
As products come into the food chain from around the world, greater attention must be paid to food safety, said Scott Alkinburgh, corporate food safety and sanitation manager for Marsh Supermarkets, also based here. Alkinburgh and Neukam agreed that employee training and consumer education are necessary to cope with local media on a "slow news day," a time rife for a sensational story.
The two retailers were part of a panel entitled, "Meat Safety and Quality -- From Your Store to the Consumer's Table."
"Put a positive public relations twist on things when an issue arises," continued Neukam. "This shows the consumer you are concerned and have policies in place. For example, we put signs in our stores that emphasize our standards of handling only 100% pure beef and pork. We include food safety information in our ads."
She added that information on such things as proper cooking temperatures and handling techniques are reproduced from trade association literature. Signs from such sources are placed near display cases.
Buehler Foods also emphasizes internal public relations -- letting employees know why the company adopts certain sanitation safety policies in supermarket fresh meals and deli departments. "We ask them how they would feel if sickness from contamination occurred in their own families," Neukam noted.
Alkinburgh emphasized the importance of employee sanitation training at a time when some of the retailer's newer stores contain a ready-to-eat ratio of 30% to 35%. "There is less risk in handling raw meat -- because it will get cooked later. But more stringent measures must be taken with deli products because they are ready to eat," he said.
Marsh started a formal sanitation program about two years ago, according to Alkinburgh. Participants have ranged from corporate-level officers down to department heads of stores. About 600 people so far have enrolled in the two-day program, which is held at company headquarters.
Marsh is testing CD-ROM technology to bring the training to each store. Such classes would be less disruptive, and would not require the expense of travel. With CD-ROMs, the employee would receive 10 to 15 minutes of training once a week. The program would take about eight hours to complete.
Richard Linton, associate professor of food safety at Purdue University, said major changes are needed in training supermarket fresh-food handlers.
"More than one-half of foods in a supermarket will be ready-to-eat by the year 2000," he said. Linton praised Alkinburgh for "starting at the top" in training corporate officers. "You need that for support of the program, and to be effective."
Asked by an audience member how Marsh copes with high deli turnover, Alkinburgh replied that there were "two major skilled employees in each deli -- the department manager and the chef."
Assisted by three or four assistant store managers, they can train people when necessary. But because labor pools are dwindling and product preparation is becoming more time-consuming, Marsh is beginning to outsource "a lot of these products," he said.
Panelist Russell Yearwood, director of quality assurance, research and development for Indiana Packers Corp., said, "Previously if meat smelled good or looked good, it was okay. But now we must look at the microbiology aspect." He warned that a small company like his own -- with a single facility -- might not be able to weather the storm of controversy created by a contamination incident. "Sanitation is our highest priority," he said.
Increasing quality and safety in meats is a profit opportunity, said Bill Kuecker, national retail account coordinator for Cryovac. "If we cut for quality, our profits will follow," he said. Kuecker suggested retailers apply manufacturer discipline to their back rooms -- and that they do more outsourcing to assure quality and consistency.
Consumers should get subliminal messages on food safety such as seeing meat thermometers in the area of product demonstrations, said Margaret Hardin, director of pork safety for National Pork Producers Council. "Don't have meat thermometers near diapers, but instead, put them near meats," she said.