WASHINGTON -- The evolution of food-safety policies designed specifically for retail stores is approaching a critical juncture, as supermarkets begin to test prototype programs developed by federal and state regulatory agencies, industry trade associations like the Food Marketing Institute or by other operators.
To that end, retailers and others interviewed by SN all agree that food safety is at the top of everyone's list; they want an effective method of maintaining product integrity in the store environment. However, one of the primary obstacles to implementation has been the sheer amount of research needed to map out protocols, as well as the number of statute-setting government bodies that have a say in how operators should handle food, how they should train store-level associates and how extensive their safety programs should be.
Nevertheless, practical applications are almost ready for store tests. On the national level, the Food and Drug Administration's recently released Model Food Code, distributed to states as a guideline, has been adopted in some form as a regulation by several states, and many more are expected to follow soon.
Meanwhile, the Washington-based FMI is working on two programs -- one based on the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system (including sanitation and best retail practices), and another a training and certification program used by the restaurant industry that meets Food Code standards.
On regional and local levels, many chains and even some independents have devised and implemented their own HACCP-based systems.
"We've had a lot of high-profile food-borne illness outbreaks," said Joe Ferrara, deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Albany, N.Y. "There are pathogens now we didn't have to deal with 15 years ago."
New York already has retail store regulations similar to those found in the Food Code, and state officials are reviewing the latest version of the code to determine if some new features should be adopted.
"Before too long, I think we'll be promulgating regulations based on the FDA Model Food Code," said Ferrara.
"We are constantly trying to adapt the way we do things to the current bacteria-causing problems," he continued. "For instance, apple cider used to be OK because it was an acid environment. Now the new strain of E. coli is acid-tolerant. You can't get comfortable any more."
Fred Reimers, manager of food safety for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, said the privately owned chain of 275 stores has established its own in-house HACCP-based program.
"It follows the food from the [receiving] door to the customer," said Reimers. "We have generic critical control points within critical limits patterns, all listed in a 'continuous improvement record.' It acts as a self-regulating guideline."
Additionally, Texas has an accredited food-safety manager program, under which managers receive credit from certified instructors, like Reimers, who are licensed to teach food safety.
"We certify 1,300 people per year," he said, adding that those certified are expected, in turn, to train other store people at the next level. "In retail, it's a constantly changing work environment, so our HACCP-based system is reality-based for retail."
Reimers hopes to avoid a mandated HACCP program, since such a format might not prove as retail-friendly as one that is created in-house.
"We're way ahead of the mandates now and we'd like to keep it that way. We don't want it shoved down our throats," he said.
Industry-generated safety programs are the goal of a 30-member FMI committee, of which Reimers is an active member. The panel is working to develop a retailer-specific blueprint using HACCP, best practices and sanitation guidelines.
"We're a team of industry food-safety pros who put our heads together with Ph. D.s from academia and developed some models," he said.
Food-safety's rising importance in the retail environment was highlighted last October, when retailers were invited to a special preview of the FMI program at the first-ever International Food Safety Conference in Albuquerque, N.M.
The program will cover six areas of critical importance in retail food safety, according to FMI: raw, sold ready-to-cook (ground beef); raw, sold ready-to-eat (cut produce); cooked, hot hold, sold ready-to-eat (fried chicken); cooked, cooled, sold ready-to-eat (rotisserie chicken); cooked, cooled, mixed with raw, ready-to-eat (chicken salad); and ready-to-eat, sliced, sold as ready-to-eat (sliced deli meats).
"The program is now on paper," explained Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food-safety programs for the FMI. "The next phase is putting it in stores to test it, and having a third party evaluate how well it works in a retail setting. When the evaluation is done, we'll make it available to all members."
Retailers want the test completed before their holiday season gears up in mid-October, said Reimers.
"There are a lot of small retailers who don't have quality-control people or people working just on food safety," said Reimers. "If those people use these models, it will change the way things are done."
The effect could be enormous: the FDA estimates the United States is home to 785,000 food stores, 128,000 convenience and grocery stores and 1.25 million food vendors.
Even some large retailers are looking to the FMI's cooperatively-developed food-safety program, hoping it will impress regulators enough -- with its streamlined approach to HACCP -- that it will ward off mandated programs, or at least, will be used by the regulators as a model.
"We are [already] required to have an HACCP program by the state of Maryland," said David Richman, vice president of quality assurance for the 175-store Giant Food chain, based in Landover, Md., and owned by the Netherlands-based Ahold group.
"FMI's system will have a lot of practicality built in. It's user-friendly for retail," Richman added. "Essentially, the approach is to use current risk-assessment science and apply it to the need for critical control points," thereby minimizing their number and keeping the system manageable.
He also serves on the FMI committee, and notes that record-keeping at the store level has been one of the major challenges retailers face using HACCP.
"Retail has difficulty with record-keeping," he said, adding that Maryland's food code is close to the FDA's. "So far, the state has allowed us to carry on without being overburdened by HACCP record-keeping."
Richman and Giant work closely with federal and state agencies, and have a relationship that is succeeding due to a high level of cooperation, he noted.
"We have a great working relationship with, and the greatest respect for, the regulatory people, who for the most part are amenable to the discussions we have with them," Richman said. "I find them open-minded and fair."
The FMI is also working to revise for retail use a program offered by the National Restaurant Association, for food-service associates, called the ServSafe Food Safety Training Program. ServSafe is consistent with the Model Food Code and recognized and accepted by more state and local regulatory agencies than any other food-safety program.
"We a plan a January 2000 release date," said Tim Wiegner, the FMI's director of food-safety programs. The FMI worked closely with the NRA's Educational Foundation in Chicago to produce the kit, which will include videos and exercises. ServSafe identifies areas where food is handled, such as seafood counters, bakeries and delis. Materials will be available in English and Spanish. The FMI has also formed a strategic partnership with the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists as another resource for operators.
Most recently, the association released a 29-minute video-based training program called The Invisible Challenge. The associate-focused program covers four topics: personal health and hygiene; proper temperature and time control; cross contamination; and sanitizing procedures.
The effect that employee knowledge has on food safety cannot be underestimated, according to Ernest M. Julian, chief of the division of food programs for the Rhode Island Department of Health. He's long believed that store-level programs must be simplified for retail and devised to cover processes, as does FMI's program, rather than individual products.
"We focus on cooking and cooling -- especially hot-holding, and an illness policy for employees," said Julian, whose agency works closely with chains operating in Rhode Island to develop safety programs. His attitude is "HACCP with a KISS [Keep It Simple]."
Julian said that "90% of the battle would be won" in the retail war on food-borne illness if stores could avoid contamination of ready-made foods through employee illness. After that, he said, the greatest hazard in the store is hot-holding.
"Employees have the urge to crank down the temperature so hot-held foods won't dry out," said Julian, who cautioned that this practice allows pathogens to proliferate at the lower temperatures. "The answer is: 'don't hold.' "
A new problem he identifies is the high-tech equipment sold to stores without adequately training employees to use it properly.
"Vacuum packing in high-tech stores can be a problem," said Julian. "Salesmen tell stores they can extend the shelf-life of a product, but don't tell them about the risks. Some films are oxygen-permeable -- some are not. Botulism is anaerobic and grows at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. This is especially a problem for seafood."
Rhode Island has a version of the Food Code in place. "A majority of the states will soon" with a move "in an HACCP direction," predicted Julian.
More than 7,500 food handlers in Rhode Island are currently certified in food safety, a majority of them through the NRA's ServSafe program, he added.
"The Food Code doesn't tell you how to prepare food," Reimers said. "It just tells you what not to do."
"The Model Food Code is a big document," said Karla Ruzicka, chief of the National Training Branch for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Inspection Division within the National Marine Fisheries Service. The USDC has offered training in its seafood HACCP program for more than 10 years.
"HACCP plus sanitation becomes a systems-management tool people can use to be consistent with the Food Code.
"I like it as a common denominator: The food code becomes the standard for retail and HACCP becomes the tool to help people comply," she added.